A training disaster left Rob Balucas a paraplegic. But it did not end his desire to compete — now, as a para-athlete, in triathlons.
— L.A. Daily News (@ladailynews) August 6, 2020
By Tarek Fattal | [email protected] | Daily News
PUBLISHED: August 6, 2020 at 11:27 a.m. | UPDATED: August 6, 2020 at 1:08 p.m.
Rob Balucas said he focused on three things in 2015: Triathlons, running his web design and marketing business and walking Chloe, his dog. With a “less is more” approach, Balucas was ready to take things to a whole new level.
“It was going to be a breakthrough year,” he said.
Life changed on Labor Day that year. While training for a half-Ironman event, Balucas lost control of his bicycle and toppled over the side of a hill.
Initially, he thought he’d suffered a collarbone break in the fall. He’d recover in a month or so, he believed.
But a deeper look by doctors revealed an L1 burst fracture in his lumbar spine. Balucas was now a T8 Complete Asia Score A paraplegic, losing all control and feeling in his legs.
“The world changed,” said the 42-year-old Pepperdine grad who now resides in West Hills with his girlfriend.
Unable to walk after his accident, Balucas, who resided in San Francisco at the time, was forced to use a wheelchair. He moved into his parents house in Fresno, focusing on occupational and physical therapy.
“I found myself commiserating with others through the physical therapy,” Balucas said chuckling. “Going to the grocery store, or just the movies, with my therapist became routine. But each trip came with its challenges now that I was in a wheel chair.”
Balucas said learning to drive with his hands only, a process he said was expedited by his stepmother, helped him recapture much of his freedom.
“Despite what was going on, I felt her hinting at me — beginning to look for an apartment, starting to drive and be more independent,” he said. “At the time, it seemed insensitive, but in hindsight she was definitely trying to help me. I’m thankful for that push.”
Now training as a para-athlete, Balucas promised himself that he’d be return to triathlons — which generally include long-distance running, swimming and cycling — within a year.He kept that promise, competing in his first triathlon in August 2016.
“By the one-year mark of my accident I’d done three triathlons,” Balucas said, competing in Oakland, Santa Cruz and Malibu. “But it wasn’t without the help of friends and family.”
Rob Balucas crossing the finish line at the Ironman 70.3 event. (Contributing photo/SCSPhotoworks)
Balucas needed adaptive equipment to compete, including a hand-cranked bike for cycling and a racing wheelchair, for the distance-running portion of the competition. A crowdfunding page helped Balucas pay for the gear.
“I’ve always pushed myself,” he said. “I like to see what my limits are. I’ve gotten up to 43 miles per hour on the arm bike — that’s fast.”
Balucas is currently participating in the Angel City Virtual Games presented by Hartford, an event committed to a summer of sports, special events, and community building for adaptive athletes with physical disabilities.
The event is usually held on the campus of UCLA, at such facilities as Pauley Pavilion and Drake Stadium. But amid the pandemic, the festival has gone virtual. Instead of a few days, the event’s various competitions, activities and workshops will last through the end of August.
“For those with physical disabilities, this event is a game changer,” Balucas said. “It’s the same reason why able-bodied people do sports — but times 10. It shows adaptive athletes that there’s a world out there for them.”
The games provide training and challenges in such sports as wheelchair basketball, swimming and table tennis. Instead of physically competing, participants watch a training video from high-level coaches or Paralympic athletes then submit a video of themselves competing in whatever the challenge might be.
“I did the track and field challenge, which was pretty much a pushup-challenge,” said Balucas. “I submitted my video and felt good about it — but then I got crushed by a kid that did 67.”
Balucas’ ultimate goal is competing in the full Ironman World Championship event. The 2020 event was postponed until February, but then rescheduled again to October, 2021, in Kona, Hawaii.
After qualifying for the 2019 world championships in Lubbock, Texas with a second-place finish at the Ironman 70.3, he elected to compete in the half Ironman World Championship in Nice, France. As remarkable as qualifying for the event was, Balucas was left unsatisfied.
“I didn’t finish,” he explained. “There’s a horrendous hill that I couldn’t climb by the checkpoint time.”
Full of renewed desire, Balucas has set his sights on 2021 events — and pushing his limits yet again.
“I’ve seen every type of person cross those finish lines,” Balucas said. “Cancer survivors, obese people, people with one leg, a person with no arms — I’ve seen it all. I know I can do it.”