TAMPA — When Nathan Hunt looked around at the dozens of cyclists about to embark on a 300-plus-mile ride Saturday, he was motivated by what he saw.
A man without an arm and leg, another with burn scars on his face and yet another with prosthetics below both knees — all gathered to raise money and support for fellow wounded veterans through the Ride 2 Recovery program.
Positioned at the front of the pack, Hunt, 28, had an inspiring story of his own.
The Army sergeant lost both legs in May 2008 after getting hit by an improvised explosive device in Baghdad. He said he immediately wondered, "Okay, what can I do now?" He found his answer on a 27-gear, hand-pedaled bike powered and steered entirely by his arms.
Hunt, who is now retired from the Army and lives in San Antonio, Texas, estimates that he has biked about 3,000 miles since September 2008. Already this year, he participated in Ride 2 Recovery events in Texas, Virginia and California.
"It allows me to know that I can still do things," he said.
Saturday morning marked the kickoff for Ride 2 Recovery's first Florida Challenge, a six-day trek from Tampa to Jacksonville.
Cyclists began on Bayshore Boulevard and will ride through Spring Hill, Gainesville and St. Augustine before participating in the coin toss at the Jaguars football game in Jacksonville on Thursday night.
Decked out in red, white and blue jerseys, participants from across the country met at MacDill Air Force Base for an opening ceremony within sight of a sparkling Tampa Bay.
"You took a different path," Lt. Gen. John Allen told the riders. "You took a path that you know would be fraught with great risks. Thank you for your sacrifices."
In addition to providing bikes and cycling programs for injured veterans, the Ride 2 Recovery program aims to improve their health and morale.
Capt. Anthony Wiggins, a base chaplain, prayed for a safe and therapeutic journey.
"Whatever we face, we do not face alone," he said. "Wherever we go, we do not journey alone. Whenever we suffer, we do not suffer alone."
Ride 2 Recovery has proved that point for Matt Labady, 23, an active Marine based at Camp Pendleton in California. A blast in Iraq left him with spinal and traumatic brain injuries. He can no longer play group sports he loved, such as football.
But he can bike alongside others like him and see that he is not alone.
"I think it helps mentally," he said. "There's more than just me."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.