National Guard staff sergeant Gideon Connelly was only 21 when a motorcycle accident took his left leg. Nasty scene: the throttle jammed on his bike, and he lost control of it just as a car was coming around the corner. He (and the bike) flipped a few times, landing on the curb. The damage: his left foot was severed at the Achilles tendon, and his knee and right arm were snapped in half. He lost blood and consciousness. Taken to Walter Reed Hospital, he was given a choice: wait three years for his leg to possibly recuperate, or amputate now.
That was in 2011. In 2016, he’s training to run with a prosthetic leg. His goal: to be part of the U.S. Olympics track-and-field team.
In 2014, at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, he ran the 200-meter dash in 29.4 seconds. At the Invictus Games in 2016, he ran 100 meters in 13.46 seconds, and 27.48 seconds in the 200-meter competition. At the 2016 Paralympic Nationals, he ran 12.9 seconds in 100 meters and in the 200-meter race, he ran 27.2 seconds.
Throughout his post-accident ordeal, his eyes were on the prize: after the hospital, he wanted his old body back. He started lifting and running again. He had to learn how to use a prosthetic correctly, to get the energy return out of it. In Maryland, he went through two coaches, trying to learn technique, style, track workouts, and functional movement. As well, he was working a full-time job.
Training for the games, he gives himself no slack or sympathy. He goes at it four hours a night, in the gym and on the track, often by himself. Of this ambition, he says, “I’m trying to grind, but I’m also trying to become both a better athlete and a better person.”
Gideon was always driven. At age 20, in addition to being in the Maryland National Guard, he bartended and worked weekends at Home Depot. Those 70-hour work weeks – plus his military signing bonus -- gave him the dough to buy a house, a motorcycle and a car.
“I forged my own path,” he says, “and got what I wanted.”
His mother had left him with relatives when he was 14. He had been in and out of homes. No dad in the picture, but two uncles who were incredible role models, and very supportive.
He was on his own again after finishing high school. He wasn’t a natural student, but the one thing he did love in school: running track. After his accident, he decided to strive for returning to the sport, but it wasn’t a straight and narrow path.
“I went through a phase where I just wanted to give up,” he recalls, regarding his post-accident hospital stay, “but I was 21-years old, so I figured I still had a whole life ahead of me, and made the decision to keep pushing.”
His Uncle Lonnie has a medical background and is a devout Catholic. He drove up to DC regularly from Baltimore to help with Gideon’s rehab, prayed with him, helping him navigate through the ordeal.
He received a donated prosthetic running leg from a company named Ossur, which makes them. From there, he took off.
When it came to rehabbing, Uncle Lonnie took him to New York, the best place in the world for walking (if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere). It’s there where Gideon learned how to use his prosthetic leg.
The push led him to Tampa, Florida, where the Maryland native is still on active duty with the Guard, now as a chaplain’s assistant.
“My job is teaching resiliency to others,” he says. “How to overcome, and how to embrace your positive side, even through your negative times and tragedies. That’s what I’m teaching in the military at this point. I’ll be doing speeches at yellow ribbon ceremonies, for post-deployment troops coming back from Iran and Afghanistan.”
Funny how life throws in some surprises – a new life is created out of adversity and, frankly, a lack of a plan.
“At first, I had no plans,” he admits. “I knew I wanted to run here [in Florida] and find a coach. Nobody in my family has ever moved away from Maryland. But I never gave up my military obligation. I moved from aircraft mechanic to chaplain’s assistant. I want to help others with counseling: financial, family, illness, injury, and loss.”
The accident, ultimately, did him more good than harm. He says, “I was a self destructive person before -- vain and negative. I couldn’t change. I was into bodybuilding and competing, always into looks and aesthetics and always trying to be the best I could be. After the accident, I lost 95 pounds. I lost muscle. But that’s what I needed to bring out the real me, the person who helps others, the one who wants to be a good-hearted person.”
His Catholic upbringing ultimately led him back to the path, but as a chaplain’s assistant, he’s open to all religions and ideologies.
“I just want to connect with you on a human level and guide you,” he says. “I just want you to know that I’m here for you.”
He recalls, “I really wanted to change my direction in life. I want to be motivational, inspirational to others. Education is not my realm; going to school is not my realm. That’s not me. So what do I do?”
Training, for one. He trains every day with Rey Robinson, a professional coach; and with a small team. On the side, he offers personal training.
“I have to make sure that I train to the best of my ability and succeed,” he says. “Everybody has hiccups and problems along the road, but I block out all my problems, get out on the track, and push through it -- I give 100% and just push through it. I’m not living by anybody else’s rules at this point. I’m just living by my own rules. I’m trying to make a path for myself.”
Along the way, he’s gaining quite a following on that road.
“I’m not a preacher,” he says. “I won’t preach to the world about what I’ve done. The people who are inspired by me are never the people I reach out to and try to touch. Instead, they're the people who see what I do, what I give every day – those are the people who are inspired by me. Those are the people who come to me. They think the path that I’ve chosen is great, but not everybody can give up everything and pursue their dreams 100%. But I don’t want to be the person at 50 who says, ‘I wish I would have given that a shot.’ I don’t want to be a shoulda-woulda-coulda kind of guy.”
Follow Gideon – and his race toward his goal -- on Facebook and Instagram @gideoncon