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Paralympians among elite athletes set to compete in River Bank Run

Grand Rapids, Mich. — Three-time Paralympian and World Champion Oksana Masters (top image) and three-time Paralympian Aaron Pike (bottom image) will return to Grand Rapids this week to defend their titles in the Fifth Third River Bank Run. Masters will race in the women’s handcycle division and Pike in the wheelchair racing division.

The elite athletes will join 51 participants with physical disabilities slated to compete in the 25K wheelchair or handcycle divisions of the River Bank Run. This year celebrates the 40th anniversary of the race, the largest 25K road race in the country.

The event on Saturday marks the 28th consecutive year that the Mary Free Bed Guild has sponsored the 25K wheelchair racing division and the 12th for the 25K handcycle division.

“This is the only event in the world that offers racers a 25K wheelchair division,” said Christy VanHaver, director of the wheelchair and handcycle divisions. “It attracts Paralympic-level racers and racers competing for the first time. These athletes have desire and drive.”

Masters, of Louisville, Ky., has represented the United States in three Paralympic Games in three sports. She won a bronze medal in rowing at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and a silver and a bronze in Nordic skiing in Sochi in 2014. She took fourth in handcycling at the 2016 games in Rio. And in February, she won four championships and a bronze at the World Para Nordic Skiing Championships in Germany.

Masters, who won the women’s handcycle division in the 2016 River Bank Run, was born in the Ukraine with birth defects linked to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Adopted by an American woman as a child, she moved to the U.S., where she had surgery to amputate her legs and reconstructive surgery on her hands.

Pike, of Park Rapids, Minn., competed in Nordic skiing at the 2016, 2014 and 2012 Paralympic Games. He has competed the past three years in the Open Para Division of the wheelchair racing division of the River Bank Run. Pike, who sustained a spinal cord injury in a hunting accident when he was 13, took first place in 2015 and 2016.

Forty-two handcyclists and nine wheelers are registered to compete. The handcycle division starts at 8:15 a.m., and the wheelchair racing division starts one minute later.

Among those competing are former Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital patients introduced to adaptive sports through the hospital’s Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports program, one of the largest of its kind in the country.

Wheelers use specially designed gloves to push racing wheelchairs, reaching speeds of 18 to 20 mph or more. Unlike racing wheelchairs, handcycles have gears that enable athletes to propel 30 mph and faster.

Mary Free Bed once again has challenged the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, formerly the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, to recruit wheelchair and handcycle racers to participate. The winning hospital will earn the right to display the “Proud Mary Cup” for the next 12 months. Mary Free Bed won the “Proud Mary Cup” in 2016.

Athletes will race for $29,200 in prize money between the two divisions. Click here for race details and registration information. For more information, email VanHaver at christy.vanhaver@maryfreebed.com.

Mary Free Bed is a not-for-profit, nationally accredited, rehabilitation hospital. For more than 125 years, Mary Free Bed has restored hope and freedom through rehabilitation for children and adults who have experienced brain injuries, strokes, spinal cord injuries, multiple traumas, amputations, cancer and other diagnoses. The combination of comprehensive services and an exclusive focus on rehabilitation enables specialty physicians and staff to help patients achieve outstanding clinical results.

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