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Fennelly: Double amputee triathlete has no time for 'I can't'

ST. PETERSBURG

High-tech arms. What a pain.

Hector Picard sat in a restaurant Friday and explained that the electronic prosthetic he uses on what remains of his left arm was on the blink.

The food arrived. Picard employed his own invention, a fork attached to a piece of rain gutter. He fitted it over his left stump. Ingenious. Picard is always creating things, including admirers.

Diners walked past him, then looked back. Nothing new.

Picard doesn't have a right arm. Both his arms were amputated after an accident 24 years ago.

"People stare," Picard said. "They think, 'What happened?' or 'Poor guy.' The one thing I get all the time is people trying to help, asking to carry my bags or something. They're very kind. But I tell them I'm okay, I've got this. I always want to wear a sign around my neck that says, 'Four-time Ironman triathlete.' "

•••

Saturday morning, Picard, 50, competed in his 136th triathlon, at Fort De Soto Park. He did a half-mile swim, a 20-mile bicycle ride and a 10-kilometer run in 2 hours, 46 minutes, 46 seconds. Picard never uses a prosthetic arm in races. The triathletes who compete with him look at the double arm amputee with awe.

Picard did carry a sign around his neck Saturday, a laminated photograph of a 2-year-old named Michael, a patient at Broward Children's Center in Pompano Beach, not far from Picard's Fort Lauderdale home. Michael has severe medical issues. Picard raced for Michael and will present his medals to Michael at a ceremony Tuesday at the center.

Picard is doing that at all his races this year, a different photo each race, to honor 25 children. He's trying to raise $50,000 for the center. He's halfway to his goal.

"When it's hot and I'm tired, I look down at their pictures," Picard said. "They inspire me."

•••

Picard became the first double amputee to complete an Ironman competition when he finished the 2012 U.S. championship in New York City. That's a 2.4-swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon. In October, Picard entered the granddaddy, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

"I fell short," Picard said. "I did the swim fine, but 80 miles into the bike, I overheated. They had to take me off the course. I'm going back in October."

He grinned.

"I've always been stubborn. I never liked taking 'no' for an answer."

•••

March 31, 1992.

Picard, who grew up in Dade County, was an electrician working on a substation transformer in Hollywood, Fla. "The only thing I really remember is Live and Let Die by Guns N' Roses was on the truck radio," Picard said.

His right arm brushed against a live transformer. "I got 13,000 volts through my right arm, down my side," Picard said. "It blew out the top part of my foot. On the way down, I must have touched it again, my left arm. Two entries, two exits. I fell two stories. I was on fire. That's what I was told."

A month later, he emerged from a medically induced coma. His arms were off. He thought of his wife and their 1-year-old daughter, Jazy.

"I woke up, and I started living again," Picard said.

Why was this man even alive?

"I decided there was a reason," Picard said. "I worked to be independent. I am independent."

"I never really saw him as disabled," Jazy Picard said. "He'd fix things with his feet. He'd write things with his feet, type with his feet. The greatest memory I have of him is him playing video games, playing Mario, with his feet,"

"I never even thought about my dad being different," said Francis Eljabbour, Picard's youngest daughter, who was born after the accident. "He did everything every other dad did. He built things. He coached my teams."

"I just redid my garage," Hector Picard said. "Put walls and a door in."

And he recently cradled his grandson, Ender, Jazy's 6-month-old, in his upper left arm while onstage for a triathlon awards ceremony.

"I'm so blessed," Hector said.

You heard him.

Blessed.

•••

Picard swims on his back during triathlons, powering along with a frog kick. He designed the modifications to his bike. The brakes are on the frame, so he can use his right leg to tap them. He steers by fitting what's left of his left arm through a ring on the handlebars. He shifts gears with his chin. Nothing to it.

Picard began doing triathlons after a divorce several years ago. He is now a professional triathlete sponsored by Novation Settlement Solutions. He makes dozens of public appearances a year, speaking to groups and schools. He is thinking about writing a book. Picard's message is unrelenting: Don't stop living.

"I have zero tolerance for the words, 'I can't,' " he said. "You can make anything happen."

•••

That leads us to Picard's second wife, Wendy Marquard-Picard.

After his divorce, Picard tried match.com. "I had pictures of myself, just head shots. But as soon as I'd mention my arms … silence."

Wendy read only part of Hector's match.com profile. She thought he was handsome. They agreed to meet. It was only then that she saw the final line of Hector's profile: "Oh, by the way, I'm a double arm amputee."

"My first reaction was that I couldn't go out with this guy," Wendy said. "Would I have to feed him? Would I have to take care of him? I couldn't sleep all night. I felt guilty. I called him. He said, 'It's just dinner, Wendy. Just have dinner.'

"He saw me through the restaurant window, jumped up and opened the door for me. That was it. We closed out the restaurant. We stayed for hours, talking, laughing.

"I don't take care of him. He takes care of me. He does the laundry and cooking. He put in an entire sprinkler system two weeks. Hector is amazing.

"He actually hugs me with his whole body, his legs, his neck. He hugs me all the time."

•••

Broward Children's Center, a private nonprofit, provides medical, educational and living services for those with special health needs. In 2012 the center was looking for someone to help raise funds and advocate for the children. Along came Hector.

"He connected with the kids immediately," said Melissa Lane, the center's development and corporate relations manager. "What better person to tell these children how far they can go?"

"These kids don't quit," Picard said. "I love being a role model for them. That's my mission in life. Maybe that's why I'm here."

Michael gets his medals Tuesday.

Fennelly: Double amputee triathlete has no time for 'I can't' 08/21/16 [Last modified: Monday, August 22, 2016 11:22am]
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