STEUBENVILLE — Lee Tempest was a junior at Edison South High School when a car crash left him a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair.
But it also put him on course to meeting his wife, finding a career helping others with spinal cord injuries and being involved in the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a nonprofit organization that provides programs for physically challenged athletes who want to compete in quad rugby, wheelchair basketball and hand cycling.
Come Monday, the journey continues for the 48-year-old Tempest, the son of Ginny (DiLoreto of Mingo Junction) and Jefferson Union High School graduate Gary Deffenbaugh of Palm Coast, Fla., and the late Marshall Lee Tempest, a graduate of Steubenville High School.
He’ll be competing in the 125th Boston Marathon.
NERVOUS BUT READY
Tempest will be one of 60 people competing in the hand cycling division of the iconic race, his goal to finish in the top 10.
Handcycles are similar to bicycles, but as a rider, Tempest pedals with his hands, not his feet.
“It’s a little bit different than a bike but similar,” Tempest said. “You’re cranking with your arms but it doesn’t peddle like a bike. You bench press and row basically. That’s how you move the bike.”
“I’ve been trying to get in the Boston Marathon for six years,” he said. “Last year when I finally got in it was canceled for the first time in 124 years,” he said of what was a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally held in April, the marathon was delayed until fall.
“I’m so glad I got in again this year,” he said.
Tempest is heading for his first Boston Marathon and first visit to Beantown, one he will make with his wife, Rachel, and a Pleasant Hill-area friend Jason Downing and his wife, Michele.
“I graduated from Edison with him — he’s always been supportive like Matt Somerville was,” Tempest said, referring to another classmate.
“I am very excited but also a little nervous. To be with so many elite athletes will be intimidating, and I will be a little star stuck by all the paralympians, but I feel ready, though, and I’m going to give it my all for sure,” he said.
Tempest has been training almost daily, using a trainer in his Pittsburgh home when it’s raining or cold. “I did bigger rides on local trails ranging from 35 to 45 miles a few times a week,” he said of a regime that adds weightlifting after rides to build strength.
A DAY IN APRIL 1991
Tempest was 18, at the end of his junior year, when the one-car accident occurred. He was driving his girlfriend home from a date.
“She still lives in the area — we’re still friends to this day. It was just one of those things. You don’t want to get grounded from using the car. We were out late, and I was trying to get her home so I didn’t get grounded. In hindsight you take the grounding, but things happen. You’re young, and you don’t know how to operate a vehicle too well. You make a mistake going too fast, but she didn’t get hurt at all, bumps and bruises. She actually was pretty good through it all. We continued to date for a couple years, and we were away at college, and we moved on but stayed friends all these years,” Tempest reminisced.
“You go through an experience like that with somebody you have a different bond. She saw all the rehab and was supportive through all of it.”
The wreck happened outside Richmond not far from where the Wal-Mart Distribution Center is now, he said. “The accident caused me to have a T-12 spinal cord injury in which I now use a manual wheelchair as my means of mobility,” he explained.
CHANGE OF PLANS
Before the accident, Tempest intended to go into the military and attend college to major in biology.
“I kind of felt like it was almost a family tradition,” he said of military service, noting his grandfathers were veterans of World War II, and his father and stepfather served during the Vietnam War.
“I always loved science. My idea actually was to be a park ranger, to do biology. I did biology with a conservation minor, learning about parks and taking care of the environment.
“My goal was to do something like that so I stuck with the science, which turned more toward the medical field after my injuries. I wanted to see if I could help others going through a spinal cord injury like myself.
“I got a lot of help when I first got hurt, not in terms of doing things physically, but mentally. There were meetings with men and women who were in my same situation and how they carried themselves, and I learned a lot of that from them, giving me a lot of confidence,” Tempest said. “It helped me a lot going back and forth between the two worlds of a small town like Steubenville that really doesn’t have many individuals like myself who are out in the community doing things and the men and women of Pittsburgh doing a lot of things out in the community, so I could see them do it and carry it back to my own community back here and have the confidence to do that back here. I knew I was doing the right thing, and my family was super supportive,” Tempest said of his recovery.
“My friends were super supportive, too. They would never let me sit at home and just hang out. ‘We’re going to the Edison football game or the Big Red football game and you’re going to come with us’ when I wasn’t driving and then it turned to when I was driving, ‘OK we’re going to the Big Red game’ and I’d drive my friends around and do things and be involved in the community,” he said.
There was school support as well.
“I had one more year to go. I did have the choice. The principal at Edison came to me — Rich Wilinski, I love Rich, fantastic through all of it, supported me all through high school, he is an awesome man — but Rich came to me and said, ‘We’ve worked out a deal, you can go to Big Red, they are more accessible, they have an elevator; at Edison, we don’t have that, but we’ll make accommodations for you if you want to come,’ and I said I wanted to go back to Edison for my senior year and be with my friends and finish out. They made all kinds of accommodations for me. They brought down math class to the library and I would do private classes in the library offices. They were great. They were absolutely great in helping me finish out my senior year,” said a grateful Tempest.
“The physical skills come when you get out and do things, but the mental part has to not be afraid to go out and do it,” Tempest said.
“I’ve learned during 30 years of it that not everyone’s watching, judging — they’re just watching to understand, and you’ve got to get over that.
“They see me get in and out of my car, and they watch me get in and out of my car, and they just want to learn. A lot of people ask to help, and I don’t need it, but I say thank you for asking, I’m glad that you offer and that’s a great thing. Somebody else may need it. The hospitality of the world is still out there. People still want to help each other, and that’s such a great thing,” Tempest said.
“But I’ve learned to do a lot of it myself. There isn’t always someone there to help you, and you’ve got to learn that on your own and not be afraid to go learn on your own a little bit.”
Coming to terms with a life changed wasn’t easy.
“It was hard at 18. You don’t think something like this is permanent. You think you’ll wake up the next day, and I’m going to be walking again, and it’s going to be fine. It took a little time for it to set in that it’s going to be permanent,” Tempest said during a visit to the area Tuesday.
“I was doing rehab that first year. I did have some braces I could walk with, and I did it over and over and over again, and then I realized that that’s not what is going to define me as a person. Walking or not walking doesn’t define you. It’s what you do with your life, so I changed. I could do things faster in the chair, get in and out of the grocery store, still go to school, I could still race, I could still play sports and do concerts with my friends. I didn’t need anybody saying you’re not walking so you didn’t succeed in that part of life. I didn’t need that. That doesn’t define me.”
But Tempest had his ups and downs mentally after the accident.
“It’s difficult to see yourself in a different way at first even when everyone tells you that you’re still you. My friends and family were always willing to be with me. They took me places when I didn’t want to go and always made it a fun time,” he said.
“I remember just rolling down the sidewalk and seeing my shadow — it’s a different perspective. You don’t ever see yourself that way, but you get used to it as you get better at things in daily life. That all melts away. It’s just what you do in your life. You’re no different than anybody else. Everybody has their own things that they do differently. I just get around from point A to B a little bit differently.
“It took some time,” Tempest said of the transition toward accepting that his life would be changed.
“When I got back to school, if I was accepting of it, they were. I think having that positive attitude has helped me in that way. I wasn’t curmudgeony or a grumpy person mad at the world. Any type of frustration or anger I had I put it into making myself stronger to play sports or to get around better, to get in and out of my car better, to push up the sidewalk. I can make myself stronger to do the things that are harder so that type of frustration went into fueling that,” he said.
It was in rehab after the accident that Tempest would meet a man who would completely change his life.
His name is John Sikora.
A GAME CHANGER
Sikora is one of the founding members of the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, established during the 1970s. He came to Allegheny General Hospital several days after Tempest had had surgery.
“He said, ‘Your parents are looking into you coming to the rehab center at Harmarville. I wanted to meet you and tell you about sports. I know you were an athlete in high school. I want to introduce you to some things.’ I said OK and I came there, and he would meet me at the gym,” Tempest said.
They watched wheelchair basketball games.
“I instantly started falling in love with it. They gave me a ball, and it was very hard to shoot sitting down, and I could barely get it to the hoop but just seeing them being happy and doing stuff like that again, for me at 18 that motivation there alone was just amazing,” he said, adding that “I’m thankful that my parents thought of a good place for me to go. They met John and said, ‘We want our son to meet this man.’”
Tempest said Sikora was there in rehab “to teach me the ropes and introduce me to wheelchair basketball which I have been playing now for 25 years, and I still work with John as I help him teach kids ages 10 to 17 how to play wheelchair basketball. I played football in high school and being introduced to sports right away was definitely a motivator to continue to work out and live a healthy lifestyle.”
GIVING HANDCYCLING A GO
Tempest got into handcycling about eight years ago at the encouragement of a friend, Bryan McCormick of Pittsburgh. “He also is in wheelchair. We met at basketball game but when I started working for Pitt, he would come once in a while to UPMC Mercy to be a peer mentor and we started a peer mentor group at UPMC Mercy. We run it together for people with new spinal cord injuries, trying to teach them the ropes and resources out there. Brian is an Office of Vocational Rehabilitation counselor and what they do is help people with injuries get back to school or back to work,” Tempest explained.
McCormick suggested they do some rides aound the city.
“As soon as I started doing stuff like that, I said this is the thing. This is some way different than basketball, something I can do with my friends like him and I can do it with my wife nad her family. We can go out on trails. It turned into something that’s peace of mind. I can even go by myself when I’m not training. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said, noting the bikes have evolved and improved immensely.
“These bikes weren’t around when I first got hurt. They didn’t have this in the early 1990s. They were very crude and heavy and now they’re state of the art. Working in research I am around a lot of other engineers and such who develop bikes and do things with wheelchairs. I appreciate them, that people go to work every day to make my life easier in that way of just getting around, a state-of-the-art chair, the lightweight metals, the equipment that I have is personal to me, it fits me, it’s measured me,” he said.
“Bryan and a lot of men and women in the Pittsburgh area who are into this do the Pittsburgh Marathon every year. There’s a nice group who do it every year, and they said, ‘Why don’t you try the Pittsburgh Marathon,’” he said.
“It’s not just doing the race — that one is even more special because people who use handcycles we all do it together. It’s not about where you finish or who you beat, it’s about doing it together, and when we’re done we go to breakfast and hang out a little bit and talk about how the race was and laugh a little bit about it,” he said, citing the supportive crowds as one of the most amazing things about the local marathon.
Handcycling led to love and marriage.
Tempest’s wife is from Fairmont. She is a physical therapist who he met at UPMC Mercy.
“She was a therapist there and how we actually met she had twisted her ankle a little bit and couldn’t run but she wanted to try to handcycle.
The two went on one bike ride, then more of them later.
“It was through biking that I met my now wife more than six years ago,” he said. “She’s a wonderful, supportive person. She’s inspirational to me, too. Being a physical therapist, she gives back a lot. She is also a researcher and she helped other people with spinal cord injuries before she even knew me.”
The couple share common interests such as a love of the outdoors and activities that include kayacking and riding trails.
WORKING, HELPING OTHERS
After graduating from Kent State University where he majored in biology and psychology, Tempest worked in health care insurance until a friend introduced him to Karen Greenwald at UPMC Mercy. They were looking for someone to fill a position at the University of Pittsburgh in spinal cord research and help with being a peer to those with new injuries, directing them to resources and helping them learn various skills to resume their lives.
At it for 12 years, Tempest describes the work as “the most incredible job I’ve ever had — helping with research and helping others.”
Tempest works as a study coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh, one of 14 centers in the country doing spinal cord research.
The study looks at how they live their lives after a spinal cord injury — do they return to work, do their living arrangements change, do their relationships with families change, do they need more nursing help, etc.
“Every five years we apply for another grant, and we just got it. We are 20 years in so Pittsburgh is going for 25,” he said.
READY TO COMPETE
“Normally for handcycles, the men and women who are pretty good handcyclers will finish even before the elite runners, so I usually finish the Pittsburgh Marathon in about an hour and a half. An elite runner finishes that in 2 to 2 ½ hours, so we’re way ahead,” Tempest said.
“They let us start about 10 minutes before the elite runners and then, depending on your level of experience with marathons and your times in previous marathons you’ll start in a different corral. That’s how they do it just about every marathon — they let us get out ahead of it and they already have planned out road closures for us getting there. There will be some handcyclists who end up with the runners or get out and do this and it might take them 3 ½ to 4 hours to do it and that’s OK. You still got out there and did 26.2 miles. That’s a long way to go,” he said.
The Boston Marathon is the premiere marathon, and Tempest is looking forward to it.
“It’s high level competition,” he said, “and I so pumped to do it.
“I’m going to have a grin on my face the whole time no matter the result. I’ll give it my best to the end and I will be happy I finally got the opportunity.”
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