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With a purpose: UGA grad uses wheelchair racing as inspirational tool

Photo: David McGregor . Jeremy Maddox, a Hoschton resident, will be competing in his seventh Peachtree Road Race on Monday in Atlanta.

Photo: David McGregor . Jeremy Maddox, a Hoschton resident, will be competing in his seventh Peachtree Road Race on Monday in Atlanta.

Jeremy Maddox is right. A week from now, no one will remember the blonde reporter they saw scribbling in her notebook over an iced coffee at Starbucks.

They will remember the young guy in the wheelchair.

Sure, he's good-looking and gregarious. But the chair, despite it's pretty low-profile look, isn't going to go unnoticed.

It's just how Maddox, injured as a 16-year-old in a 1998 motocross accident, likes it.

"This is a great tool to encourage, influence and help out other people," Maddox said. "That's what a lot of the racing has been to me.

"It's been a lifestyle, but then it also provides a great opportunity to communicate."

Maddox is a sponsored member of the Shepherd Center's wheelchair racing team, which will have a number of representatives in Monday's Peachtree Road Race. The 29-year-old has been to every state in the contiguous U.S., traveling near and far for 5Ks and marathons.

"You push a race chair through the airport, people stop you and ask where you're going, what you're doing," Maddox said. "If it sparks people's interest or curiosity, that's really good."

Maddox, who grew up in Braselton and lives in Hoschton, finds the reaction doesn't differ much from place to place.

"They're just amazed that you're getting back out, that you're not letting things keep you down," he said. "One thing I tell people is we all have issues -- you can just see one of mine.

"It's about creating a new normal."

Racing from the get-go

Fast was always Maddox's speed.

He rode his first Big-Wheel into the ground.

Bikes, Go-Karts, eventually motocross.

"Anything I could get on that you could go fast or jump or whatever, I always wanted to be on it," he said.

Maddox was "a punk kid" at a 1998 national motocross qualifier in Dalton when he landed wrong.

"It was just one of those freak accidents," Maddox said. "I didn't have any big gashes or scars. It was just the way I fell.

"Your spinal cord has the consistency of a ripe banana. It's just protected by your spine."

He was rushed to the area hospital, but within a few hours was on his way to the prestigious Shepherd Center in Atlanta.

Maddox was lucky to be there, at a facility ranked among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. He was also blessed with a mental attitude that allowed him to deal with being paralyzed at 16.

Maddox, personable with a healthy dose of down-home Southern charm, is frank about his outlook.

"Crap happens," he said. "It happens to everybody. There's always another side and you've always got to look at the brighter side. You have to decide every day if you're going to look at every day in a positive or negative way.

"There are times to be sorrowful and mourn. But at the same time, you have to know what's appropriate to mourn for. Sometimes you've just got to suck it up and go on."

He had the help of a tight-knit group of family and friends in Braselton, but a lot of it was just who Maddox is.

Getting involved

After he finished college at Georgia, Maddox started playing for Shepherd's basketball team.

Then it was all about going fast again.

Maddox got involved with the center's racing team and is one of a handful of sponsored athletes.

"I was just looking for other avenues to be athletic, stay healthy, entertain myself and just something to do to hang out with the guys," Maddox said. "In sports, it's more than just sports. It's the camaraderie, the competition. It's more than just the sport itself. I missed a lot of that."

It helped get Maddox -- who also skis and wakeboards and got his pilot's license a couple years ago -- into the social network again. There's a lot of mentoring that goes on and Maddox now finds himself filling that role.

"Once you start traveling through sports, you have to get away from your safe zone, your little bubble, I guess," he said. "So you learn a lot from these guys on just day-to-day activities. How to get on the airplane. How to get in and out of these little hotel rooms that aren't accessible. How to do mass transit. So many things you normally don't think about if you're a young guy or newly injured.

"Over the years, I've gotten really heavily involved with Shepherd and with their peer support, mentoring other guys. It's just been a great opportunity to give back to the people and organization that gave me so much."

THE race

In a heavy year, Maddox might go to as many as 15 races as a Shepherd athlete -- and being injured gave him a chance to compete in the upper echelons.

Coming out of high school or college, millions of able-bodied kids are trying to get to the top level of their sport.

"But if you become injured, a spinal cord injury or you have Spina Bifida or whatever your story may be, you're now competing against a couple of thousand," Maddox said in his practical way. "So you automatically are in a position where you can be a high-class athlete. You can probably find a sport where you can go to the Olympics if you have some athletic ability and a lot of drive.

"Being in a chair provides you with a ton of opportunities that most people normally wouldn't have."

Maddox has been to the big marathons in Los Angeles and Chicago. He's also been to Bloomsday, a 12-kilometer race with over 50,000 participants in Spokane, Wash.

The dreaded "Doomsday Hill" has broken many a runner trying to find the crest. But it's the trip down that Maddox mentions.

"You talk about getting over 35 mph in a race chair, it starts getting a little hairy," he said with a chuckle. "Especially if you've got to turn and you've got people a couple of inches from you drafting. One person makes a mistake and you're all going for a fuuuun, hospital-ending ride."

But there are plenty of races closer to home for Maddox to test himself.

Atlanta's U.S. 10K Classic is on a hiatus this year because of reduced sponsorship -- which may be good for Maddox who can't resist suffering through it every Labor Day.

"The U.S. 10K Classic is like 'Why did I enter this?' every year," Maddox said. "I mean, you're dying, about to flip over backwards going up a hill, then you're holding on for dear life going down it. You feel like you're at Six Flags. 'Am I on the Georgia Cyclone again?'"

Yet the Peachtree Road Race, the city's Independence Day tradition, is THE race for Maddox.

"In the wheelchair racing world, Peachtree is what all of us here build up toward every year," Maddox said.

Part of that is the atmosphere.

"You've got 50-some-thousand runners, merging on one city, one morning to take over downtown," Maddox said. "To run the streets, compete, have a good time, be wild and crazy and entertaining. You've got every nationality. It's an amazing time. It's a big, competitive party."

The Peachtree is also special because the wheelchair race gets substantial coverage on TV.

"I don't often see that," Maddox said. "A lot of people don't even know that wheelchair racing exists."

It's an eye-opener.

"They think just because you have a disability, you're disabled and you can't do anything," Maddox said. "It's just awesome when you're doing a race like that, you're pushing a four-minute mile and you know that there's only a few Kenyans that are right behind you that can keep up with you.

"It's nice to know, people may look down at you, but at the same time in the back of your mind, you're thinking, 'Yeah, but I'm a whole lot faster.'"