- Barbara Marshall Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Arms cranking, leaning into it, Gary Elsner flies past, illustrating the art of the possible in sweat, swiftness and a three-wheel handcycle.
“Speed is my thing,” he says, catching his breath after a few sprints around his Boca Raton condo community. “I like a hint of danger and adventure.”
It’s a gutsy thing for any 77-year-old to say, but particularly for a man who, less than a year ago, had almost become resigned to using an electric wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“Almost” squeezed out enough room for Elsner, a disabled man in his eighth decade, to become a competitive athlete.
“I can’t even tell you any client that’s like him,” said Ann Marie Panetteri, Elsner’s physical therapist. “He’s like a high school kid who just got his drivers’ license.”
But until early 2017, Elsner hadn’t played any sports, hadn’t been physically active, for 66 years.
He’d grown up on a farm in northwest Arkansas, where he milked cows before school and helped his farmer father with chores after school. He played baseball and basketball.
He was 11 when his muscles froze.
In 1951, Elsner was among 28,000 Americans paralyzed by polio, the terrifying virus that affected tens of thousands, mostly children, in the first half of the 20th century in the years before Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine.
He spent six months in a Kansas City hospital, before returning to junior high, barely able to walk even with metal braces on both legs.
“Yet, I never felt disadvantaged, never felt sorry for myself,” he said.
His legs’ unpredictability was countered by an ordered mind. Elsner earned a PhD in econometrics, a branch of economics that uses statistics and math to quantify human behavior.
As assistant director of outdoor recreation for the U.S. Forestry Service, his research placed a dollar value on the benefit of nature to Americans as compared to what the Forestry Service gained from selling timber, whose harvesting often destroys recreational land.
“It came out close,” said Elsner.
But in a diabolical sequel, polio often returns to its victims during middle age. By 51, post-polio syndrome, as it’s known, had further wasted Elsner’s muscles, forcing him back into a wheelchair he’d left at age 11.
His health deteriorating, Elsner, married with two grown daughters, retired early and moved to Florida.
His daughter, Sarah Gualtieri, became so concerned about her father that she moved south shortly afterward.
“He looked horrible,” she recalled. “He was fading away, he was depressed to be in a wheelchair.”
Panettieri recalls her client spending his days in front of his computers.
“He was so sedentary, so solitary,” she said.
A divorce forced him into a reevaluation of his life, Elsner said.
That, and basketball.
Gualtieri, who was volunteering at Palm Beach County’s Therapeutic Recreation Center in Lake Worth, suggested her father might want to watch the center’s wheelchair basketball games.
“I just threw it out there,” she said. “People have to want to change.”
Elsner, plagued with back pain, on high doses of various medications, did.
“Most of my life, I’ve been an introvert, a scientist and researcher,” he said. “But it lit a candle inside me that got everything going.”
He began playing basketball at the center and using a manual wheelchair as much as possible to build upper body strength.
“Right away, it alleviated my back pain greatly,” said Elsner.
With Panettieri’s assistance, he started working out at the gym at his condo complex, Edgewater at Boca Pointe.
“At first, I could barely lift 40 pounds,” he said. “Now, I lift 110 easily.”
Panettieri helped him exercise in his community’s pool.
“At first, he could hardly get in and out of the pool,” she said. Now he doesn’t need me to help him there at all. When he’s in his wheelchair now, I have to run to keep up with him.”
Early last summer, Elsner discovered handcycles, the three-wheel recumbent racing bikes operated by hand pedals. In his first race on the Fourth of July in Tequesta, he came in first for his age group.
And acquired bragging rights.
“I was actually number one for anyone over 50,” Elsner said.
On a recent morning, Elsner lifts himself from his wheelchair and settles into his $4,000, 27-speed handcycle.
Using his hands, he lifts each of his uncooperative legs, placing them on the pedals and fastening the Velcro straps. In blue jeans with a bandana covering his head, he seems far younger than 77.
“He looks like a badass,” said his amazed daughter.
His new arm muscles bulge as he powers the bike from his front door onto the roadway, where he typically pushes himself hard for four-to-six miles.
“Instead of my second cup of coffee, I do this,” said Elsner. “The endorphins are better than coffee ever was. I love endorphins.”
Something else changed as his strength increased. The introvert became one of the community’s most popular residents. People wave and honk in the mornings as he completes his circuits. He plays pool with his neighbors almost every day and fields regular dinner invitations.
“I probably know 200 people by name here, and everyone knows me because I make myself so visible,” said Elsner, who still speaks in the neutral language of the social scientist. “As my body got stronger, my mind got sharper and it enhanced my desire for social interactions.”
Meaning, he has a wide circle of friends, including some female admirers.
“He has dinner with a group of ladies and everybody looks at him like, ‘Why are they with him?’” said Panetteri with a laugh. “He’s definitely branched out.”
But nothing has excited Elsner move than scuba diving.
Working with an organization called Diveheart, that trains disabled people to venture underwater, Elsner has discovered that his disability nearly vanishes in the buoyancy of the underwater world. He was featured in a story about the group on the Dr. Oz show.
He’s excited about joining the group on an upcoming dive trip to Cozumel, Mexico in April.
“It’s incredible,” said his daughter. “When he realized that his life was sink or swim, he literally decided to swim.”
He and Gualtieri are planning a father/daughter safari to Tanzania at the end of January, to check another item off Elsner’s bucket list: to see Africa’s biggest animals in the Great Rift Valley.
Then there’s a possible dive trip to South Africa. And more handcycle races.
“He makes the most out of every day,” said Gualtieri. “It’s like he doesn’t have any limits.”