Near-fatal accident can't keep a good SEAL down

Al Kovach hasn't let his disability slow him down  Credit: Tim Mantaoni
"When youre disabled the last thing people expect you to do is be competitive in a sport," said Al Kovach. "But I believe that was what motivated me to do what Ive done."

Injured in a 1991 skydiving accident that left him with limited use of his arms and paralyzed from the neck down, Kovach has become a force in the world of wheelchair triathletes.

Kovach, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who lives on Coronado Island in San Diego, won six championships between 1994 and 1998.

In 1999, he garnered a first and two seconds in the National Hand-Cycling Championships and took two golds and silver at the Southern Cross Hand-Cycling Championships in Australia. He also won the Superfrog Half Ironman in his adopted home of Coronado.

For all his efforts both on and off the triathlon course, Kovach, 35, was honored recently as the San Diego Hall of Champions Disabled Athlete of the Year.

"It meant more for our sport than it did for me," said Kovach. "But it does mean a lot to me. San Diego is such a great town for disabled athletes. Its great to be on the road and someone will go by, honk the horn and give you thumbs up. Back east they might give you a different finger," joked Kovach, who is originally from Philadelphia.

For Kovach, who was an All-American swimmer at high school in Michigan and a champion in Indiana Universitys powerhouse program, the road back to competitive sports has been long and arduous.

Kovach sustained his injury on May 21, 1991, during SEALs training at Browns Field near the Mexico border. He got entangled with another SEAL on a skydiving drill and didnt have time enough to pull his backup parachute.

"Those early days in the hospital were needless to say very difficult," said Kovach. "When youre an athlete and you have that athletic ability taken away from you, its a great loss. It was such a big part of me. I thought I could never be competitive again and it took me 22 years to see that I could. People kept beating me over the head and just didnt believe. I wanted to be at an elite level like I was before the accident.

"I owe a great deal to a lot of people," said Kovach. "Carlos Moleda got me started and interested in the Para Olympics. He is in a wheelchair and like me he was a Navy SEAL. He had to do a lot of arm twisting to get through to me."

Moleda won the wheelchair division of the Hawaiian Ironman the last two years.

"My recreational therapist at the VA hospital, Kellie Kaliszewski, and her husband Steve got me back on track," said Kovach.

Steve Kaliszewski is also a recreational therapist and is in a wheelchair and is also a member of the San Diego Hall of Champions.

Another wheelchair athlete and Hall of Champion honoree David Bailey gave Novach his first racing chair. It was Novachs college roommate Rob Mackle, a professional triathlete, who called Bailey to tell him of Novachs need for a racing chair.

"The chairs can cost upward of a couple thousand dollars," said Novach. "They are custom built and no two are alilke, but Davids fit me very well. He had a sponsor for his chair and so he donated it to me."

Although Novach had done some triathlons before his accident, he wasnt very keen on the idea of doing it as a wheelchair athlete. At least at first.

"To tell the truth I never really wanted to do a triathlon until someone approached me at the City of San Diego Triathlon Challenge, which raises money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation. I was doing the running leg of that event. The guy came up to me and said Al, Im doing a triathlon that starts in L.A. and ends in New York City ... want to go?'

"I asked him if we had to swim. He told me it wouldnt be triathlon if you didnt swim and that wed be swimming in the Colorado River Lake Michigan, Lake Erie. And if the Mississippi River looks good, well swim that too."

With the help of Doug Boyd, another one of Kovachs college roommates and head swim coach at UCSD and friend Beau Barnum, Kovach learned how to swim all over again this time with a special wetsuit and without kicking his legs.

"It took us 65 days to cover 3,500 miles on that triathlon," said Kovach. "There were four of us with different types of disabilities. We didnt do it as a race, but to raise awareness and money for kids with disability."

Kovach is one of only a handful of wheelchair triathletes who compete regularly in the United States.

As impressive as he is in competition, it is Kovachs involvement with three charitable organizations: Cal-Diego Para Veterans Association, Torrey Pines Kiwanis Club and the Challenged Athletes Foundation that also defines his true spirit.

"That's my way of giving back to the sport and helping others who face tough challenges every day."

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