On June 4, 2017, James Sa took his place on the starting line of the Synchrony Financial Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon. He took a deep breath and started to tame the butterflies; In addition to the usual nerves that come with racing a half marathon for the first time, James had the memory of his accident, which happened in a similar race environment 6 years earlier.
During that race, an obstacle course event in Michigan, James sustained an injury that changed his life forever. After misjudging a dive on a course that failed to meet regulations, James was knocked unconscious and trampled by several waves of overeager racers. He was retrieved and resuscitated by emergency personnel, but the damage was already done – the 21 year-old college student was paralyzed from the chest down.
Most people would give up right there, assuming their story was over. James certainly went down that path in the months after his accident. But a grant from Toyota and Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) quickly helped him to realize his story was actually just beginning. With advanced wheelchair technology and the support of other athletes with physical challenges, James rediscovered a new kind of mobility, and with it, a reclaimed identity as an athlete.
Six years later, it was time to finish the race. Lining up at the starting line of the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon was more than just a race for James – it was a statement. He was strong and resilient, no matter what life threw at him. This race would be his victory lap over all the challenges he had overcome in the last six years.
But race day was a challenge in and of itself – just a mile from the finish line, James crashed. As course marshals flipped his overturned wheelchair upright, he looked at his watch: 1 hour and 20 minutes, just 10 minutes off from his goal time. One of the wheels on his wheelchair was misaligned. His shoulders were scraped and bleeding from the crash. Could he finish?
“Let’s go,” James said with a determined nod. He brushed away the road debris on his skin and pushed his wheelchair toward the finish line.
When the starting gun fired, James focused only on what would help him finish – pacing, hydration, and technique. He ticked off the first few miles in strong fashion. He felt strong; he had this.
And then the crash happened. While rounding a corner, runners ignored warnings of a wheelchair racer coming down a hill, forcing him to take it too wide and too sharp. Crashes and accidents are inevitable. What we choose to do after a setback dictates who we are. The 12 mile marker read 1:20. There was still enough time to finish in 1:30, if help came fast.
“You okay?” The course marshal asked as he returned the wheelchair to an upright position.
James wiped the blood and road debris from his scraped shoulders and gave a determined nod. “Yeah. Let’s go.” One of the wheels was misaligned, but the finish line was within reach. One hour and 34 minutes after the starting gun and almost six years after the race that made him a quadriplegic, James Sa finally crossed his finish line.
What’s next for the 27 year-old athlete? The sky is the limit. Sa continues to train in a variety of sports, including road racing and wheelchair rugby. He mentors other wheelchair athletes as well, using his story as a reminder to focus on strength and ability, not disability. Because he crossed that finish line, he knows anything is possible – and he’s set out to prove it.
This post is the second of a two-part series brought to you by Toyota, helping challenged athletes “Go Places.” In a partnership with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, Toyota strives to help challenged athletes accelerate their journey back to athletics and life. We are honored to feature James’ journey as Part 2 of 2 in Toyota’s continued involvement in its “Let’s Go Places” mobility program.
Read and watch Part 1 of the series: Triple Amputee, Mike Atherton, Trains For His First 5K