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Cycling helped USA Paralympian Freddie De Los Santos with PTSD, and now he sees his disability as a blessing

Freddie De Los Santos lost most of his right leg after he was injured in a rocket attack in Afghanistan. Cycling has become his passion, and his way to manage PTSD.

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Editor’s note: The following story includes mentions of suicidal thoughts. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the Veterans Crisis Line is 1-800-273-8255 (press 1), and you can text HELLO to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. 

When someone first suggested doing a marathon to Freddie De Los Santos, he thought they were making fun of him.

De Los Santos, now 51, was being treated at a military hospital following a rocket attack while he was serving in Afghanistan in 2009. Due to his injuries, surgeons had to amputate his right leg above the knee.

What De Los Santos didn’t know at the time was they were serious and that he could do it with a handcycle. It was the start of a new journey from the Dominican Republic-born rider that would lead him to become part of Team USA’s Paralympic squad in Tokyo.

“I signed up to do the marathon with a handcycle and it took me like three hours,” De Los Santos told VeloNews from the Team USA hotel in Japan. “After the marathon, I couldn’t move for two weeks and I was like, I will never do that again. But guess what happened? The next year I signed up for the Boston Marathon and that’s when I realized, wow, I just did a marathon and that’s pretty impressive.”

After that first race, De Los Santos had caught the cycling bug and he took part in several events organized for service members. He also started riding socially and was eventually persuaded to compete in a growing number of events.

“I was getting faster and so I started doing like national and local races. And it started to be part of my rehab and then it became a passion. And then that passion became a way of life. That journey, that passion turned out to be a professional career. It’s weird,” he laughed.

As well as helping him physically recover, taking up cycling has aided De Los Santos mentally as well. Being “blown up” in Afghanistan and losing a limb has had a lasting impact on him, as has the loss of several of his friends and comrades during combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When he returned to America for treatment following the incident, he had to deal with a lot of pain and trauma. Cycling has been a way of processing that and becoming an active member of his community in Hopewell Junction, New York.

It has also allowed him to see his disability not as a limitation but as something good.

“Cycling has become my coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety, my PTSD. So, that sense, it has given me a new way of life,” De Los Santos said. “It has been the most rewarding experience to be able to compete at this level, despite my disability.

“When I got wounded, I was very suicidal. I was in a hospital for two years and I pretty much had to learn how to talk, how to walk, and gain self-confidence. So, I had a lot of concerns because I isolated myself from everybody, I was very aggressive. I was taking a lot of medication.

“Twelve years ago, I was going through the worst time of my life and now I can say that my disability has been a blessing. It sounds funny, but to me, it has been a blessing because I have a different perspective about life. I’m closer to God, I have a better relationship with my family, and I’m in the best shape of my life. Cycling has helped me to incorporate myself in society in very positive ways, socially, mentally, and physically.”

Becoming an artist and going for gold

Freddie De Los Santos competing at the Invictus Games in 2014
Freddie De Los Santos competing at the Invictus Games in 2014 (Photo: Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images for Invictus Games)

Cycling is not the only activity that De Los Santos has used to move on from the most difficult period of his life. During his recovery, he also picked up painting and photography after someone from the Veterans Association suggested he take part in art therapy.

De Los Santos has always had an artistic side as he trained and worked as a graphic designer before joining the military, but he didn’t want to do it. He had to be convinced to take a class but it has become another passion of his and he has used it as a way of showing his friends and family some of the feelings he has struggled to say out loud.

“Somehow they convinced me because I didn’t want to go,” De Los Santos told VeloNews. “I was very suicidal, and I attempted suicide a few times, so the art therapy was going to be good for me.

“I didn’t want to tell my family what I was going through. I felt like I have a demon inside of me and I couldn’t get rid of that demon and I couldn’t talk to my family and my kids and my community. I wanted them to know, but I was afraid to let them know, verbally. So, my painting became a way for me to express myself. The more I was painting, the better I was feeling.

“I was able to put all my nightmares, my insight, my frustration, everything I went through when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

As time has moved on, De Los Santos’ paintings have changed in their content. There is still some pain, but other themes are developing. Through it, his family has been able to understand what he has been feeling, too.

De Los Santos’ family is a big part of his life and has played a big role in his new career as a professional athlete.

“They are so excited,” De Los Santos said. “My wife is my biggest coach. My son is 22, my daughter is 26 and they are so proud of me. They say “dad, you are amazing”. I don’t see myself like that, but they are always pampering me. They are always fighting to take me to the airport, they also look out for me. My son works at a bike shop, where they fix my bike. So, he’s always on top of my equipment, making sure everything’s good.”

The Tokyo Games are De Los Santos’ second Paralympics after he made his debut at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

In Brazil, he took fourth in the road race and seventh in the time trial in the H5 category, but he has gained a lot more experience since then and he wants a lot more this time around. He will be racing the same events in Tokyo on Tuesday and Wednesday next week.

“My aim is to win gold. I’ve been training really hard for these races coming up,” he said. “My self-confidence is pretty high, and my equipment has been upgraded. Physically, mentally, I feel incredible.

“Since Rio, I became more tactically better in terms of racing, I dropped like 25 pounds. So I am fitter. I had so many World Cups, so I have a lot of experience.”