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He'll never walk? Just watch him run

Sunday, April 29, 2001

Stories like Denny Chipollini's almost invariably include this emotionally inadequate, technically dubious sentence.

Doctors said he would never walk again.

As if doctors, in tandem or teams, routinely approach the beds of the catastrophically injured and make formal pronouncements in those exact words. As if, even when they do, the wrecking impact of a life's contorted implications can be conveyed in such a naked, straightforward statement.

And still Denny Chipollini remembers it wasn't terribly unlike that at all.

"I remember being in bed," he said. "They'd done an operation. On the right side of my abdomen, they'd removed some muscle and put it down on my left leg. The muscle flap died within seven to eight days. They had to go back in and remove it.

"I remember lying there in that bed. My parents were there. My wife was there, and in came the doctors, and one of them said, 'He's probably not going to walk again.'"

Probably?

Not after an accident like that. On a short crossing of the rain-glazed Turnpike from Ambler to Conshohocken that Saturday morning in 1989, Denny's car hydroplaned toward a guard rail, hit a post and hopped up along the rail's upper edge like a 3,000-pound skateboard. The rail pierced the car's undercarriage.

Then it pierced Denny's.

Probably he's not gonna walk?

"When they said that," he remembers, "this is what I said: 'No way, pal.' And I started my rehab. As soon as they left the room, I raised the bed as far it would go and started doing sit-ups. I did sit-ups until my abs burned. Then I did some more. "

I revisit this darkness this morning for three reasons.

One is because Denny is coming into town for next Sunday's Pittsburgh Marathon, that weekend each spring when we are reminded of the potential of the heart and the will. Every runner can feel the accomplishment almost metabolically, right down to the cells. But as ever, it's a little more meaningful to some than others.

Within 10 months of that fateful "No way, pal," Denny Chipollini walked with a cane. Less than four years later, he ran a 5K with a prosthetic left leg. Two years, ago, he completed the Philadelphia Distance Run (13.1 miles). Last June, he finished the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon.

Another is that next Sunday's Pittsburgh race is the first regional event that includes the Pittsburgh Chapter of Athletes Helping Athletes, an organization brought here by Allison Park lawyer and distance runner Lou D'Angelo.

"I was looking for a way to make my running mean a little more," said D'Angelo, now a financial services manager for Prudential. "When I met the people who volunteer in this organization, I was just blown away. They were an inspiration. Just the guts and the willpower. The physical obstacles are tough enough, but to want to compete that badly is just phenomenal. The cost of one of these [prosthetic] devices is sometimes $25,000 because they're specially made for runners, weight balanced, etc.

"I know Denny has run in a marathon with a foot that really isn't built for running. It causes him pain. People say to me, 'What do I get out of it?' Huh? How 'bout self-worth? I've got three kids, and they're all fully capable, and it's just a way of giving back, I guess. They help. They ran a lemonade stand all summer to contribute $42."

That sort of introduces the third reason. Denny has children, too. Seven-year-old Elyse and 11-year-old Nicholas. Nicholas has neurofibromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes tumors to sprout near nerve endings.

"It's devastating," Denny said. "The tumors grow in nerve-rich areas. The brain, spinal column. Puberty is a major key. That's when these tumors really grow. Freckling is a symptom. He's made fun of. That's hard. He's been complaining of headaches."

You wonder how much Denny Chipollini can carry across 26.2 miles, across a lifetime, but he says it's not about him anymore. He plans to work for sponsorship so that he can run and bike across America next year to call attention to his son's condition and to all childhood diseases.

"Something's been given to me," he said. "I've got to go into schools and hospitals and talk to kids about what they can do. I did a school just the other day. It was awesome. I came out dancin'."



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