‘We are all disabled in some way’

Two women cope with traumas by competing in athletic events together.

Watching Kerry Gruson and Caryn Lubetsky running together, you think it’s obvious who is helping whom.

Lubetsky is pushing Gruson, a paraplegic who reclines in a recumbent tricycle along the Flagler Drive sidewalk in downtown West Palm Beach to demonstrate how they compete in road races and triathlons.

Gruson, 67, a retired journalist who lives in Miami, was paralyzed 40 years ago following an attack while reporting a story.

In the years since, with the assistance of able-bodied athletes, she’s learned to sail, has participated in a triathlon and last summer, an 8-mile open water swim from Islamorada to the Alligator Reef Lighthouse.

On Sunday, Gruson and Lubetsky will compete together in the Eau Palm Beach Marathon in West Palm Beach.

“At the end of the day, we all are disabled in some way. Mine is just more visible,” said Gruson, whose paralysis has left her head inclined to the right side. The injury also affected her voice, which barely rises above a whisper.

For Lubetsky, competing with Gruson is a way to get past the trauma she experienced after witnessing the carnage of the 2013 Boston Marathon.

After finishing the race, Lubetsky was standing near the finish line with her husband and three sons, ages 4, 6 and 8, when the bombs went off. No one in her family was injured, but the horror they saw in the bombs’ aftermath left deep emotional scars.

“We had a very hard time after what my kids saw,” said Lubetsky, who lives in Miami Shores.

Her boys have had nightmares. She hasn’t been able to shake the images.

When she could run again, she wanted her sport to have a deeper significance in her life.

“I needed running to mean something more, to be bigger than me,” Lubetsky said.

Earlier this year, she started volunteering for Thumbs Up International, a new South Florida nonprofit organization. Helping Gruson became a way of helping herself through the fear and the memories.

“The purpose is to pair able and disabled athletes to meet life’s challenges. … ” she starts to explain.

Gruson interrupts and Lubetsky leans down to hear her. “Oh, you’re right, Kerry. To meet life’s potential.”

Thumbs Up is all about tapping the potential of both kinds of athletes.

“I want to show people that they can do whatever they set their hearts on,” Gruson said. “We are limitless. All of us are limitless.”

By mid-summer, Gruson and Lubetsky, along with other volunteers, were training for one of the toughest open water swimming contests in the country, slicing through eight miles of choppy Atlantic water to circle the 19th century lighthouse on Alligator Reef before heading back to Morada Bay in Islamorada.

“We were all covered in hundreds of jellyfish stings,” said Lubetsky, who helped push Gruson on an inflatable boat.

Gruson was 26 in 1974 when, on a reporting trip to Vietnam, she stopped in Hawaii to interview a former Green Beret. He strangled her in a psychotic incident, thinking she was a Viet Cong soldier.

The lack of oxygen left her paralyzed, her head permanently tilted to the right side. But not defeated.

She worked in the Miami bureau of The New York Times before retiring and devoted herself to her new career as a daredevil. A daredevil who can’t walk a step or swim a stroke unassisted, yet one who refuses to be sidelined in life.

Her motto, she says with a sly smile, is “Why not?”

“She wants to go skydiving,” said Lubetsky, going down a list of sports Gruson wants to try that includes paddleboarding, SCUBA diving and swimming with sharks.

“Without cages, naturally,” laughed Lubetsky.

Why is she drawn to sports most able-bodied people would hesitate to try?

“The alternative is unacceptable to me,” Gruson said. “If that means other people see that they can do something like this too, it’s a wonderful thing.”

For Lubetsky, it’s a way to shift the definition of what being an athlete means.

“That’s how we change the perceptions of what people with disabilities can do,” she said.

Gruson and Lubetsky chose the Eau Palm Beach Marathon for their next challenge because it’s a flat course, which is important when you’re pushing someone for 26 miles.

“And it’s a really pretty course,” said Lubetsky, “so that’s good for Kerry, so she has interesting things to look at.”

After they put the marathon in their rearview mirror, the women have their sights set on a far more grueling competition: the Ironman, which combines a marathon with a 112-mile bike race and 2.4-mile swim.

Gruson is grinning at the thought.

“I never give up,” she said.

Lubetsky sighed and said, “How can you say ‘no’ to someone like this?”

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