National Ability Center athlete to participate in Bataan Death March challenge
February 23, 2019
When the National Ability Center called Matthew Melancon two weeks ago, the assignment initially sounded like a caveat to his existing plans — representing the nonprofit at an endurance event honoring the survivors of the Bataan Death March.
Midway through the conversation, though, it became clear that wasn't exactly the case. He'd been training for an annual event stateside that was to prepare him to climb Denali in Alaski this summer. The NAC had more humidity in mind.
"They're like, 'Well, you'll need to be able to run; how well can you run,'" he recalled. The event he'd been training for takes place in White Sands, New Mexico, and while he can march on sand, his leg prostheses don't interact well with soft terrain when running. That's when he realized he was being asked to go to the Philippines. Melancon called it an "'Inception' moment" when it clicked.
After some "soul searching," he agreed. Melancon, a 29-year-old snowboarder and Army combat veteran with a bilateral amputation of both legs beneath his knees, is set to represent the National Ability Center at this year's edition of the annual military history-themed Epic Charity Challenge. The Park City-based adaptive sports nonprofit is a beneficiary of this year's endurance challenge, a 160-km relay retracing the Bataan Death March.
This year's Epic challenge solidifies an already-existing connection between the event and Park City. A contingent of Parkites was among a force of athletes who hit the shores of Normandy during last year's D-Day-themed challenge on June 6. And for this year's event, Epic Charity Challenge founder Lance Cummings (a former Navy SEAL) selected the NAC as a beneficiary after seeing the organization work with his son, Tanner, who is a skier with lymphedema.
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"Both Lance and his son have lived the mission of the NAC because they participate in our programs," said Carey Cusimano, director of development at the NAC. "We were honored to be selected as the nonprofit beneficiary of this year's event."
The event, set to take place the weekend of March 2 and 3, aims to honor a less triumphant event in a different theater of World War II.
In 1942, the victorious Imperial Japanese forced tens of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war to march between 60 and 70 miles to prisoner-of-war camps after they'd lost the fight for the island. The prisoners weren't freed from their brutal captors until the Philippines were retaken in 1944. Thousands died on the march and at the camps.
Melancon has met a few of the survivors of the war crime and said speaking to them was "incredible," but he also tries to keep their struggle in perspective. He aims to push back against traditional narratives of military heroism.
"It's so easy to put people like those brave men and women (of the march) on pedestals," he said. "They're not these overwhelmingly incredible people, they're very, very human and when times were tough they were able to call upon the strength inside of them."
Cusimano said she's "thrilled" to have Melancon representing the NAC.
"It's amazing what he's overcome and has been able to achieve," she said.
A native of Cedar City who is now a student at the University of Utah, Melancon has his own experience to draw upon. He joined the Army after turning 18 with the intention of never returning to his home state. He passed through basic training in Ft. Benning, Georgia, sniper training in Ft. Riley, Kansas, a deployment in Iraq and a station in Germany before heading to Afghanistan.
In September 2011, three months in, a roadside bomb hit the vehicle he was occupying, breaking the bones of both of his feet and resulting in two years of attempts to salvage the limbs.
The experience brought Melancon to "rock bottom," he said. At one point he weighed 300 pounds and was on 14 different medications for the chronic pain. Eventually, an infection forced the amputation of his left leg.
"It was this revolving door at the ER," he said. "I'd pretty much given up all hope of ever having an active lifestyle, my salvaged legs were incredibly painful and I was terrified of becoming an amputee."
Eventually, through occupational therapy, he got active again. He lost 100 pounds and, a year later, doctors looked at his right leg and decided it had to go. In letting go of his limbs, he said, he started an ongoing journey out of his depths.
"My first amputation helped me liberate from all of that, and then my second amputation I walked out of physical therapy 32 days after," he said. "I haven't looked back since."
While living in San Antonio, where he had undergone his treatment, he decided he wanted to take his athletic goals to another level and asked where he needed to go to achieve them. The answer led him back to the state he had joined the Army to escape.
"Everybody who was anybody in this industry was like, 'Actually, have you ever been to Utah,'" he said.
With some trepidation, he decided to visit the National Ability Center.
"I flew in for a weekend, rented a car, drove up here, met my would-be coaches and the director of the NAC; even just parking I could just feel the spirit of the NAC and I just knew that … it was going to happen here."
While he's not a dedicated runner (making him thankful the Bataan race is a relay), his "Cheetah" prostheses, paid for by the Department of Veterans Affairs, enable his athletic endeavors. In trading skin and bone for carbon fiber and rubber, the Paralympic boardercross hopeful has become part of a tight-knit, growing international adaptive boarding community. He has also become an advocate for a broader acceptance of amputation and prosthesis rather than pain mitigation regimens that involve extensive time spent at the doctor's office and, among other medications, opioid painkillers.
He hopes to show that people with disabilities don't need to push for excellence solely for others, saying he dislikes words like "inspirational." He's open about his struggle. And he says things like working for the NAC, participating in the Epic Charity Challenge and training to become the third-ever amputee to bag Denali are just as important for himself as they are for others to see.
"It's been a nonstop daily grind to get to where I am," he said. "Too often people highlight these exceptional individuals like Navy SEALS and Green Berets and (how) as soon as they were hurt they never let anything get in their way."
"The story I prefer to tell is the value of having hit rock bottom."
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