Helping others drives River Bank Run handcyclist

River Bank Run

KENTWOOD, Mich. (WOOD) — In a little more than two years, Matthew Chaffee has gone from a novice to one of the elite handcyclists in the nation.

“I guess I’ve always loved speed and going fast and the adrenaline rush, especially in races,” Chaffee said. “You get so much adrenaline and your heart just goes crazy. It’s a lot of fun.”

In his first race at the River Bank Run in 2017, he couldn’t keep up with his teammates. Last month, he finished fourth in the Boston Marathon.

“It would have been cool to finish top three,” Chaffee said with a smile. “I was like feet from third, but it definitely felt really awesome. It kind of gave me the confidence. Now I know that I can hang with the big dogs.”

His training, focus and passion has increased each year.

“My entire first season, I put in about 300 miles,” Chaffee said. “My second season last year, I put in just over 3,000 miles — 10 times as much. And this year I’m already at almost 2,700 miles. It’s only May and I’ve almost gone as far as I did all last year.”

He’s always loved fitness and speed.

“I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was probably 7 years old,” he said.

The move to handcycling came out of necessity and circumstance.

“I was riding with a group,” Chaffee recalled. “It was in November of 2014. I was coming into a corner just way too fast and there was gravel in the corner. And I just slid off in the corner and slammed into an embankment. And the last thing I remember was my tires leaving the pavement, grasping my feet. And I blacked out. Then I woke up laying on my back, looking up at the sky and having a hard time breathing.”

He had broken eight ribs, punctured his lungs and shattered the T8 vertebra in his spine. 

“All I knew was that I couldn’t move anything,” Chaffee said.

At 24 years old, he was paralyzed from just below the chest down.

“So from (there down), I have absolutely no feeling or function,” Chaffee said.

He spent nearly three weeks in intensive care.  

“At first I was in disbelief,” Chaffee remembered. “I didn’t want to believe it. I thought it was just temporary and I was going to be OK. It took a long time to kind of accept that it was permanent.”

He moved back home to Michigan to be closer to family.

“That worked out really well,” his younger brother Adam Chaffee said. “I was still at Western (Michigan University) living in Kalamazoo, so I was able to see him as often as I could.”

Meanwhile, Matthew Chaffee began months of recovery at Mary Fred Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids.

“It was really helpful,” he said. “Before that I couldn’t even sit on the side of my bed… I was just helpless. I couldn’t push a wheelchair. I couldn’t sit up for more than like five minutes without vomiting because I was so weak. And they build up my strength and they taught me everything I needed to know to be independent and then how to live my life again.”

When he was finally able to leave the hospital, he moved in with his brother in Kalamazoo.

“It worked out that he was able to live and move around in the house that I was already living in,” Adam Chaffee recalled.

“He built a ramp so I could get into his apartment and then he helped me with a bunch of stuff,” Matthew Chaffee said. “I was still pretty weak.”

While Matthew Chaffee improved physically, he began to struggle mentally.

“I was feeling really down about myself. I mean, I was in a bad place,” he said. “I was really sad. I felt that my life was over.”

Then, just eight months after Matthew Chaffee’s injury, tragedy struck again — this time to his brother.

“It was a swimming accident,” Adam Chafee said. “Basically I was pushed into off a dock into a lake and broke my neck.”

His injuries were even more severe than his brother’s.

“I’m paralyzed from it’s more like shoulders down,” Adam Chaffee said.

Suddenly Matthew Chaffee went from being cared for by his brother to needing taking of him.

“It kind of gave me purposes again,” Matthew Chaffee said. “And then also seeing how much he lost, compared to what I had, like I still have my hands, and it just made me realize how much I have to be thankful for.”

The drive to care for his brother pushed him to be as independent as possible.

“He basically did everything he could to make sure I was doing OK,” Adam Chaffee said, “when I was in the hospital and afterwards.”

Matthew Chaffee is now working at Mary Free Bed, trying to help others with spinal cord injuries.

“Kind of teaching them how to use the gym equipment and how fitness can improve their lives and make them more independent,” he said.

Other than his family and patients, there is nothing he is more passionate about nothing more than racing and the independence and freedom that comes with it.

“It’s a chance to leave the wheelchair behind and be just really free,” he said. “And when I’m out on the handbike, most people don’t even know that I’m paralyzed. They just think that I’m some guy that’s getting a good workout with his arms.”

He heads into Saturday’s Amway River Bank under the tutelage of former River Bank Run and Boston Marathon champion Tom Davis.

“My goal for it is a podium finish,” Matthew Chaffee said.   

His ultimate hope is to represent his country.

“My dream is to become a Paralympian in Tokyo in 2020 or in Paris in 2024,” he said. “That’s the goal.”

He has set up a GoFundMe account in hopes of raising money for a high-speed, Olympic quality, carbon-frame handcycle used by most of potential Paralympic competitors.

“I’m just lucky to be alive, honestly,” Matthew Chaffee said. “So it’s like a second chance at life.”

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