WASHINGTON - We often drive right by them when we are stuck in D.C. traffic, but there are amazing pockets of outdoor wilderness right here in the District.
Every week, a group of wounded warriors get together for adventure and healing on the whitewater rapids to conquer the Potomac River. It is the same way they conquer their disabilities every day.
When combat veterans come back to America, they deal with all sorts of trauma – both physically and mentally. Sports are often used as a way for these veterans to get back some of the things they lost in battle – a sense of purpose, the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie.
A half mile away from the commotion of the District lies a serene oasis.
“I'm surrounded by rushing whitewater and all I can see are rocks, trees and birds, and there is no sign of human civilization,” said Brian DeCicco. “I can completely forget that I'm 15 minutes away from Metrobuses, traffic, politicians and everything that is going on in the city."
It is well worth the trek and a haven for paddlers in a metropolis full of peddlers.
“Coming to the river was a place to release that stress,” said Joe Mornini, co-founder of Team River Runner. “What a venue we have in the Washington D.C. area. This is world class whitewater.”
Some come here to escape while others come to train. But the paddlers of Team River Runner come here to heal.
“Kayak means ‘work boat,’ so the work our kayak does is help with health and healing and purpose,” said Mornini.
He started Team River Runner 12 years ago with one chapter at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“We saw some guys in wheelchairs missing limbs and we are like, ‘That's a no brainer. We'll put them in a kayak,’” Mornini told us.
They now have 54 chapters in 31 states.
“When you lose your leg or lose your arm, you are losing a lot of yourself and you are losing a lot of ability, but the guys here don't take that as ‘I can't do something now,’” said Mike Dosedel, a member of Team River Runner. “There are so many things you can do.”
He would know as he had his leg amputated after getting cancer when he was three years old.
“Life is so much more than sitting in a wheelchair,” he said. “You can do so much more. You have the power to do anything you want to no matter what people tell you and what sometimes you tell yourself.”
For those that tell themselves they can't, Mornini and his crew will do anything to prove they can.
“I have got quad amputees – three of them have paddled with Team River Runner now,” Mornini said. “They are missing all four limbs, so incomplete quadriplegics that can’t use all four limbs are paddling with us if they can move their arms. We put them in a double kayak and we take them out. We put anybody on a boat.”
“Everyone has got their own beautiful story to tell,” said Alex Neilson, a retired Army medic. “They have got their own struggles and they have got their own victories.”
“If you see Larry here – that guy is 81 years old and he comes out and he runs whitewater,” said Mornini. “His doctor told him that he wants him to die running whitewater and not of cancer. Who does that? We do that.”
They do that multiple times a week in the pools at Walter Reed and on these rapids. These are the same rapids where the U.S. Whitewater Team trains. These are the rapids where they can forget about their daily struggles.
“You can't be thinking about something else when you are running whitewater,” said Mornini. “You got to be present in the moment where you are at. So when you are doing that, think about the power that would be for someone who has a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress to be able to let go of those things that have been plaguing them.”
“I have built friendships that will go on the rest of my life with vets I wouldn’t have met if it weren't for Team River Runner,” said Neilson.
“Every day is inspiring,” Mornini said. “It makes you not think about what your own issues are. When I started thinking about [having] a problem, you know what I do? I close my eyes. That is what my blind vets see every day – that. I don't have a problem and they overcome those things. For them, it is just a speed bump and they keep moving.”
If anyone would like to go out on the water with Team River Runner or would like to donate the time or money to the cause, visit teamriverrunner.org.