Defying the Odds

Mimi swims

Written by Steph Heinatz—

Athletes who refuse to slow down despite disease and physical limitation

Thoughts of his daughters. That’s what washed over Jeff Kerr that day in 2006 when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating disease with no cure that threatens to rob him of his senses. 

Would he see them graduate from college? Would he be physically able to walk them down the aisle? Feel their hugs ever again? 

It made him want to fight. His weapon? A bicycle. 

Kerr pedaled 1,000 miles last year through the pain that lesions on his brain can create and numbness in his toes.  

He—along with Mimi Ulsaker and Bill Sorrell—lives each day with every reason to stay in bed. Yet all three power through their disabilities to excel in the trifecta of endurance sports—swimming, cycling and running. 

Ulsaker, bound to a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury from a car accident, finds a way, or someone, to get her to the water’s edge to swim, sometimes for miles.  

And Sorrell, a marathon runner, reminds himself, and every new runner he encounters, that even when you don’t want to run, by persevering through it, you set your body up to live to run another day. 

They are inspiring and don’t know it, and motivate without speaking.

 
I have always just loved being in the water

Stretched across the Mathews, Va., Williams Wharf waterfront stands dozens of swimmers. Teenagers. Older adults. And right in the middle of them all, Mimi Ulsaker. She’s sitting. But she loves to swim. 

Forty years ago, Ulsaker was in a car accident that left her with a spinal cord injury and paralyzed from the armpits down. When told she would never walk again, she didn’t hear that she couldn’t swim. So she continued. 

“I was never on a swim team or anything before or after my accident. I just have happy childhood memories of swimming in Hawaii and Scotland and have always just loved being in the water.” 

Throughout the Middle Peninsula swimming community, Ulsaker is known as an inspiration. Tell her that, though, and she’ll laugh you off. “Aw, I’m Just good at floating,” she’ll say, and cite the hand paddles and wetsuit she wears. 

But it’s more than that. 

As a paraplegic, it takes more logistics—and resolve—to make it happen.  Getting into open water to swim requires Ulsaker’s son, or husband, to carry her in. But once there, “it’s very freeing,” Ulsaker says. She still can’t move her legs. But to sense limbs you can’t feel stretch out beneath the surface as the rest of your body moves with the water is comfortable and a sensation she can’t replicate anywhere else. 

She may dismiss it, but her ability to overcome a physical limitation is no small feat. 

“Swimming is a complex motor skill,” says Karen Kovacs, an accomplished triathlete, clinician with Tidewater Physical Therapy and Level 1 Coach with USA Triathlon. 

“Not only do you have to use both arms and legs, or learn an effective compensation in the case of paralysis, and coordinate this with breathing, but the swimmer also has to overcome drag and the tendency to sink in order to get forward motion.”

Admittedly, says Catesby Jones, “the first time I saw Mimi swim, I was nervous.”

Jones owns Peace Frogs clothing and hosts the annual Peace Frogs Bank to Bank Charity Swim across the York River to raise money for children’s charity in southeast Virginia. 

“She has swam in nearly every Bank to Bank – which is a hard three mile swim – and is so relaxed in the water. It makes her an inspiration.”

 

There was no question that I would keep riding

On the bad days, the lesions on Jeff Kerr’s brain take over. 

It zaps his energy, reminds him that there’s no cure for multiple sclerosis, the disease he’s fighting, and breathes life back into his greatest fear—“Not being able to walk my daughters down the aisle, see them graduate, feel their hugs.”

MS is a chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system—the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. Symptoms range from numbness in the arms and legs to paralysis or loss of vision. 

“The progress, severity, and specific symptoms of MS are unpredictable and vary from one person to another,” according to the National MS Society. 

On Kerr’s good days, without a flare up of symptoms, strap on your helmet and get ready to ride. 

“MS may try to slow me down, but my bike is one way I work to help fight it off,” says the 43-year-old, who serves as a lieutenant with the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office. 

Kerr started cycling as a young boy and carried that love into his adult years. Before his diagnosis in 2006, Kerr logged upwards of 5,000 miles a year in the saddle. 

“When the doctor told me that exercise and a healthy lifestyle were key to fighting the symptoms of MS, there was no question that I would keep riding.”

Or that he’d bring his friends and family along with him. 

In 2006, Kerr organized the “Heroes Live Forever” cycling team to ride in the annual Bike MS: Virginia’s Ocean to Bay Ride, a fundraiser for the Central & Eastern Virginia Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

The event on Virginia’s Eastern Shore brings cyclists together to ride 150 miles over two days while raising money for research into finding a cure for MS and  support programs to help patients and families dealing with the disease.

Last year, Kerr finished the 150-mile MS ride in record time. 

Since 2006, Kerr’s team has raised nearly $200,000. 

Kerr also rides each year in the Police Unity Tour where cyclists pedal from Portsmouth to Washington, D.C., in honor of police officers killed in the line of duty. 

Because of Kerr’s riding and his openness to talk about living with MS, he says that his number has gotten out there and people will call to talk about coping with MS. 

“I always say no two people who live with MS have the exact same symptoms or challenges. You just take each day as it comes,” says Kerr.

There’s more leg and foot pain these days for him and some days are better than others. He equates MS to a passenger sitting on his handlebars holding onto the brakes while he fights to pedals through. “As I get more lesions on my brain, I realize where my limitations are,” he shares. “You have to listen to your body more than ever. Some rides are great. Some I realize I can’ t do everything because I can’t get overheated.”

But he rides on.

 

You just put one foot in front of the other”  

Flip to the first entry of Bill Sorrell’s running journal and you’ll see that on Sept. 13, 2010, the 50-year-old firefighter jogged two miles. 

Each time Sorrell hit the track, or ran a trail after that, he recorded the distance. 

Some days are blank. Some weeks are blank. 

But when looked at in total—in 2012, he ran 1,057.9 miles and since 2010 has recorded 2,757.7 miles—Sorrell’s running log alone tells the story of a man who got off the couch and built himself into an elite runner.

All while he suffers daily from the pains of arthritis. 

In 1997, Sorrell received his arthritis diagnosis. 

“At one point, I was on nine prescriptions,” Sorrell says. “I gained about 45 pounds. The more weight I gained the worse I felt. The worse I felt the more weight I gained.” 

Then, one night while watching TV with his daughter, an intense pain radiated through his chest. As a firefighter, Sorrell knew what that meant. 

“While riding in ambulance to the hospital, I was thinking this was not the way I wanted to go,” he remembered.
Sorrell didn’t have a heart attack, but did have blockage in his arteries that if not addressed would have lead to a heart attack, or worse. The doctor told him to lose weight and start exercising. 

“I figured even with arthritis I needed to try,” Sorrell says. “I started walking and light jogging.”
The very first day, before he started his log, Sorrell “probably only did 100 yards.”

He hated it. 

“But I did it and each day I would go a little bit farther. Then one day, before realizing it, did a 10k. The next thing I know I’m doing marathons, a 50k and a 200-mile relay.”

His first half marathon was the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series in Virginia Beach, Va. He finished his first full marathon—the Shamrock—in 2012, participated in the 200-mile relay run from Charlottesville (Va.) to Jamestown (Va.) and in May 2013, on his 50th birthday, did a 50k (which, just in case you were wondering, is 31 miles). 

Sorrell still has arthritis. 

“Some days are better than others. I still have pain. I still have to listen to my body. When (the arthritis) says today is not the day, I do some walking and slow it down so I can live to run another day.”

Sorrell now also works as a salesman at the Point 2 Running Company in Newport News, Va. 

“I tell my story to anybody who will listen, which is pretty much everybody who comes in,” Sorrell says. “When the new runners come in, they claim they don’t know how to run.

“Sure you do. You just put one foot in front of the other.”