Champion man will operate hand-cycle in Peace Race
By Joe Scalzo
Brett Clingan spent 18 years in the Army and visited 15 countries, including stints as a drill instructor in West Virginia, a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic in Korea and a maintenance first sergeant in Iraq.
He was a member of Maplewood’s first state cross country team under Ted Rupe — “My twin brother was better; I goofed off quite a bit” — has run two marathons and a half-marathon and, before he was hit with a rare neurological disorder, he would run to work, oversee PT (physical training) for his subordinates, then run back home, covering 5-10 miles a day.
Clingan, 42, suffers from adult-onset AdrenoLeukodystrophy with Ataxia, a nasty disease that first stole his balance, then his ability to walk, then his ability to stand. He hid his symptoms from the Army for five years, until one day a group of soldiers saw him running and thought he was having a seizure.
“They grabbed me and said, ‘You’re going to the hospital,’” he said.
He got his diagnosis in 2008 and the symptoms have only worsened, but he still gets up at 5:30 a.m. most days to train on his hand-cycle at the bike trail a half-mile from his house.
He drives his own car, mows his own lawn and plants his own tulips in his backyard garden. Heck, he even skis.
But if you ask him if he’s trying to inspire people, he’ll frown and said, “I am so low on the pole of inspirational people. I go to a winter sports clinic with the VA every year and I’ll see a guy missing two legs and and arm that’s 60 years old and he’s skiing.
A week from today, Clingan, 42, will compete in his first Peace Race. He’ll do it because he likes to compete, but also because his high school coach asked him to. He’ll likely finish with a pace between six and seven minutes per mile, which will be faster than 70 percent of the competitors and slower than he used to run.
He’ll do this knowing that exercise (particularly in the heat) worsens his symptoms. But when you ask him “Why do you keep doing this?” he’ll point to his son, who is sleeping soundly on his lap.
“For him,” he said.
AdrenoLeukodystrophy is a genetic disorder. His twin brother R.T. has it, as does his older brother and his sister and several other relatives.
“My twin and I are exactly the same [symptom-wise] and my oldest brother is catching up in a hurry,” said Clingan, who lives in Champion with his wife and two children. “He never had a stressful job.”
Five months ago, he got a service dog named Albus (short for Albus Dumbledore, the wise and good wizard from the Harry Potter series). Albus, a labrador/retriever mix, often goes with Clingan on bike rides (“He likes it but he’s not very good”) and helps him open doors, pick up items and, when necessary, get help. A few weeks ago, Clingan got stuck in his yard and Albus ran to the house, pushed open the door and woke up Clingan’s napping wife.
He’s actively involved with Veteran’s Affairs, which gives him a chance to connect with other soldiers and compare injuries, but mostly it gives him a chance to laugh.
“You’ll look at someone and say, ‘Man, that’s messed up,’ and I’ll think to myself, ‘I’m not in that bad a shape,’” Clingan said, breaking into a grin. “Then guys will look at me and say, ‘Brother, you’re messed up.’”
“At the summer sports clinic, one guy whose leg was amputated ended up falling down and was laying in the street. So one of the guys said, ‘Hey, do you need a hand? I know you need a leg, but do you need a hand?’”
He shakes his head and says, “I never have such a good laugh as when I sit with the vets.”
Clingan doesn’t want hero worship, but he does want others to know what’s out there for people with disabilities, whether it’s scuba diving equipment, hand controls for cars and trucks (and tractors) or service dogs named after fictional characters from children’s books.
(He’d also like drivers to be more careful when they back out of their driveways. Even though he has flags on his hand-cycle, he’s almost been hit three times.)
Clingan has already competed in the June’s Run for the Deputies 5K Dash and August’s Pizza Splash 5K. Two weeks from today, Clingan will participate in the DogFest Walk ‘n Roll at Cleveland’s Volunteer Park. The event benefits the Canine Companions for Independence. They’re hoping to raise $10,000. So far, they have $4,210. To donate, go to CCI.org.
Clingan has a link to his DogFest page on his Facebook page, along with pictures of Albus, his tulip bed and this message: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
It’s an inspirational message from an inspirational man.
(Just don’t tell him that.)