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From a low of leg amputation, redemption comes on two wheels

Leo Rodgers, 32, of Tampa was once an avid motorcycle rider but lost his leg in a 2007 accident which he says changed his perspective on life. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Mar. 20, 2017

TAMPA

There are kids who break things and then there are kids like Leo Rodgers.

The son of a former U.S. Army helicopter mechanic, tinkering came easy to him. He made a Knight Rider steering wheel out of Connex bricks and was soon cannibalizing bicycle parts to soup up his BMX bike.

By the time he was 23, thrills came from pulling wheelies, sometimes at 100 mph, on a high-performance Suzuki motorbike.

His luck ran out on a clear, cool night in 2007 when he struck a guardrail on Fowler Avenue and wound up in the Tampa Bypass Canal.

That was how he lost a leg, and learned that a life could be put back together, too.

On any given day, Rodgers is in motion, his right leg pumping like a piston and dreadlocks flowing from beneath a helmet as he cycles 11 miles to his job. He works at a bike store, balancing on crutches while trueing buckled wheels and replacing worn bottom brackets.

Cycling has provided a bigger purpose. The 32-year-old recently competed in California in the U.S. Paralympics Track Cycling Open. His sights are set on representing the United States at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

"It's given me a sense of freedom," he said. "It's turned my disability into an ability."

• • •

Rodgers, a graduate of Dixie Hollins High School, grew up in St. Petersburg, a typical teenager who pushed against discipline, his father said.

"He wanted to wear his pants down below his butt, but that wasn't allowed on my agenda," Eddie Rodgers said.

It was he who bought Leo Rodgers the motorbike, which the son dubbed a "crotch rocket."

"First thing I told him was 'This machine will kill you if you're not careful,' " his father said.

The warnings fell on deaf ears. Rodgers frequently speeded. He was showing off to friends by pulling a wheelie along a 55 mph stretch of road at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning when he lost control.

Two friends likely saved his life by dragging him from the canal. Doctors, however, could not save his left leg, which was badly damaged and then became infected.

The brash young man learned the stark truth when he woke from a weeklong medically induced coma.

At first he couldn't accept it. It took several days before he could steel himself to watch as nurses opened up a flap of skin to clean the wound.

Doctors had cut close to the hip; there was no leg left.

"You did this," he told himself. "You did this to yourself."

In the weeks that followed, Rodgers had little to do but take stock of his life as he rehabbed. He was 23, the father of a 3-year-old boy and no longer able do his job as an industrial mechanic, since it involved heavy lifting.

"It opened my eyes and made me think about a lot of things," he said. "I was trying to find myself."

For a while, he lived off disability and raced remote control cars to take his mind off the accident. He then became certified as a motorcycle mechanic and worked for about a year at a repair store in Madeira Beach. His next job was a stint as a delivery driver.

Nothing stuck until he was in Denver making a drop-off and he saw the Denver Cruiser Ride, a weekly gathering of bike and beer enthusiasts often ridden in outlandish costumes.

He saw in bicycles the same freedom that he first felt when crutches liberated him from a wheelchair.

He went to a bike shop and asked how he could ride. The staff there explained that he could use a regular bike shoe that clipped into the pedal so he could both pull and push the pedal round.

Not long after, he saw a picture on the Internet of a one-legged cyclist competing in a race.

"I knew that was what I wanted to do," he said.

• • •

The sight of Rodgers powering along 40th Street in Tampa on his commute often has motorists doing a double take and reaching for smartphones to video him.

Riding a fixed-wheel bike, he averages more than 20 mph on the flat. Riders he overtakes — and that's most of them — sometimes call for him to stop because they want to know who he is or tell him he has inspired them.

"I sometimes wonder how many videos there are of me out there," he said.

Rodgers was still living in St. Petersburg when he got a job at City Bike Tampa, a bike store on Cass Street. For the first few months, he rode 24 miles, crossing Gandy Bridge to get to work. Eventually he moved to the University area to make the commute more manageable.

Store owner Kevin Craft said Rodgers has become an integral part of his business and a close friend.

"You quickly forget he has a disability," he said. "All he ever wants to do is to help other people."

Craft also sometimes joins Rodgers on evening rides around downtown with a cycling group known as the Wolfpack.

"He's fast," Craft said. "When someone is at the same pace as you and they have one leg, you feel like they're kicking your a--."

Paralympic athletes are placed in different categories based on their disability. Rodgers competes against amputees and other disabled people in a category for riders who can use standard bicycles. His competitions take place in a velodrome, an indoor cycling arena with banked curves.

Until two years ago, 100-mile rides were part of Rodgers' training routine. He recently learned that was overkill for the short, intensive cycling events like the 1-kilometer time trial event he rides. He now averages about 200 miles a week, part of a training regime that includes weight lifting and short sprints at lung-bursting pace.

His disability is still frustrating.

He keeps crutches at home, at work, at his mom's and dad's homes and wherever else he regularly visits so he can get around. He pleads with security guards to let him ride his bike to get around large stores.

Then there's having to pay up to $200 for a pair of cycling shoes when he will only ever use the right one.

"Everything becomes a problem-solving situation," he said.

The shoe problem he at least solved, partnering with an amputee cyclist from California who has the same shoe size but is missing the opposite leg.

Rodgers hopes that representing his country at the Paralympics could also be a stepping stone to becoming a motivational speaker and that his story can help others.

Rodgers and his father, who is 70 and retired, are still close. The son will sometimes borrow the father's car but knows not to touch his Goldwing motorbike, Eddie Rodgers said.

"He doesn't have that kid mentality anymore," Eddie Rodgers said. "He's my backbone. Whenever I have problems, I can depend on him to help me with it."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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