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Post reporter’s widower carries friend with ALS through triathlon

They covered the same amount of water and ground as all of the other participants in Juno Beach’s warm, sun-intensive Turtleman Triathlon on Saturday. But for the members of Team SpenWen — one “literally carrying the rest of the team on his back,” as friend Kule Yong put it — it’s been a particularly long but meaningful journey.

“We’re doing this because people with ALS need your help, because they can’t help themselves,” said John Wendel, triathlete and widower of late Palm Beach Post reporter and author Susan Spencer-Wendel, who detailed her brave, resilient struggle with ALS for the paper and in her New York Times best-selling memoir “Until I Say Goodbye.”

Wendel finished the 30-yard swim, 5-mile bike and 1.2-mile run of the triathlon’s Super Sprint distance alternately carrying, pulling and pushing friend Susan Werling, who like the other Susan in his life, was diagnosed with ALS. For the pair, their purpose in traversing the course in the punishing South Florida summer heat was to raise funding and awareness about the devastating neurological disease for which there is not yet a cure. And it was well worth the sweat, they said.

Werling said that more people need to know about ALS, and she is one of many working to get the word out.

“It’s so hard to find a cure, and we need help,” said Werling, who before her diagnosis was a teacher at Wellington Landings Middle School, and an athlete who participated in running the Olympic torch to the Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996.

OBITUARY: Susan Spencer-Wendel, former Palm Beach Post reporter and author, dies

She added that she was doing the race in memory of Spencer-Wendel and friend Tom Paquette, who died of ALS last year shortly after he completed this same triathlon with the assistance of ski poles. On Saturday, Paquette’s pal Pamela Olah-Brennan, completed the course in his stead, using those same ski poles.

“ALS is such an underdog disease,” said Kerry Olah-Brennan, Pamela’s wife. The couple founded the Palm Beach Gardens-based awareness group Always For ALS. “That’s why we’re here.”

Wendel said he had competed in several races before his wife Susan was ill, but his interest in racing waned after her death. Eventually he said something changed.

“I met this woman, also named Sue, who was in a wheelchair, and heard her speak,” he remembers. “She had the same spirit my Susan did, so bright and smiling. And I thought ‘Well, I can stop feeling so sorry for myself.’”

PHOTOS: Susan Spencer-Wendel     

Competing in a triathlon is grueling enough solo, but the lengths that Wendel and Werling went through to participate was on another level. Before the early-morning swim, Werling was strapped into a special life jacket on Wendel’s back, so he could support her head above water as he swam. After they hit the beach, she was put into a wheeled beach chair, taken to Wendel’s bike and strapped into a cart behind it. They endured the distance even after getting a flat tire. And for the final run, he pushed her in her wheelchair.

By the time they got to the finish line, more than an hour after the start, Wendel helped Werling to her feet.

“Sue wants to walk across the finish line herself,” explained Wendel, who walked his partner to the finish line as the other supportive members of Team SpenWen, including his children and current wife Nellie King, cheered.

Post archives: See past stories by Susan Spencer-Wendel

“She’s so gritty and determined, and he has such a strength of character that I’ve never encountered,” King said of Werling and her husband as she waited near the finish line. “He’s a beautiful person, inside and out.”

After the race, the tired but triumphant racers took photos with supporters and reflected on their achievement, which “hopefully raises awareness for ALS,” Wendel said.

So how would Werling celebrate her own victory?

“In bed,” she said, laughing.

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