Today, a replacement tendon from his forearm gives him almost full use of that arm, though not quite enough to make his newfound love, Olympic-distance triathlon, a walk in the park.
Triathlon provides variety
Lee, an attorney from Yarmouth, will compete in the Ford New York City Triathlon in July, his fourth competition. The one-mile swim, 40-kilometer bike ride and 10-kilometer run are a test of all-around physical endurance, which Lee said is part of the attraction.
"It's partly the challenge," Lee said. "It's a great accomplishment, finishing one.
"I'm not going to do marathons because I don't want to put my legs through that much strain at this time in my life. Plus, I like the variety, doing three different things. To train, I can just jump in the pool or hop on my bike. I love to get out and do my ride. And the different locations (of the competitions) are fun."
The competitions have taken him from San Francisco to Clermont, Fla., and soon to Manhattan. In New York, as in the other races, he declined to register in the "physically challenged" classification. He will make the swim through the Hudson River, ride along the Hudson River Parkway and run through Central Park as just another competitor in the 45-49 category.
His arm is compromised, but he found ways to play baseball and tennis as an ambidextrous youth and hardly considers his arm a handicap.
"I'm not a gifted athlete, but I'm not a challenged athlete, which is a category," Lee said. "I probably could get into that category if I wanted to. But there's people without limbs out there doing this, so really I'm just an in-betweener."
John Korff, who organized the 5-year-old NYC Triathlon, said "heroic" stories are common in events like this. When the race organizers asked entrants to write something about themselves, Korff said he was amazed by the stories that came in.
An entrant from California will compete, like Lee, with his able-bodied peers despite lacking an arm. Another was once told he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. One blind participant needs to be led by a rope during the run, but he's so fast he needs an Olympian leading his way or he'll outrun his guide.
"I don't think it's about staying in shape for them," Korff said. "I think it's about showing that they can turn an apparent disadvantage into an advantage and prove they can overcome it, especially in New York because it has this image or being a tough, hard city. And certainly the Hudson isn't your neighborhood pool."
After graduating from Colby College, Lee had the surgery on his arm and took up ballet. He danced for the Portland Ballet Company, but it proved too physically demanding.
He then started running recreationally. While running one day, he hurt his hip and began swimming as a lower-impact exercise. After his hip improved, his sister mentioned that all Lee needed to complete his repertoire as a triathlete was a bicycle. So he got a bike and entered his first Hannaford Lobsterman Triathlon in Freeport.
It's not about winning
Two years later, Lee has no illusions of finishing with the top triathletes, who finish in about two hours. His 9-year-old son, Travis, makes sure his father doesn't forget that, saying, "No offense, Dad, but you come in kind of late." But winning is not the motivation, Lee said. His is a long-term goal.
"When I was at Alcatraz (Triathlon in San Francisco), all the different age groups came in, and there was this one 80-year-old guy who came in at the end," Lee said. "I mean, the swim is hard, the bike is hard and then the run is hard, but if he can do it, I can do it.
"I'm like the turtle. I'm not Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson, but I want to be that guy who's 80 years old and still doing Alcatraz."
Staff Writer Ben Watanabe can be contacted at 791-6428 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org.