Day is breaking at the Quantico 50-meter pool as U.S. Army Master Sgt. Luis Morales stands with his father, also Luis Morales, minutes before the second annual Quantico Triathlon begins.
Father and son exchange a few words before the younger Morales, known as “Gerry” by family members, inches toward the water’s edge.
Once he reaches the starting marker, Gerry leans forward and removes the prosthesis extending from just below his right knee along with a sweat sock underneath, hands both to his father and jumps.
The Quantico Tri, held Sunday on the base, was the Green Beret’s third triathlon of the year. It attracted 475 participants.
For the Spotsylvania County native, who received the Silver Star Medal in 2008 with several other soldiers in his unit for actions during Operation Commando Wrath in Afghanistan, the 400-yard swim, 8-mile bike ride and 5K run was “a good opportunity to tune up” for The Nation’s Triathlon in Washington in September.
Gerry said one of his colleagues who had completed an Ironman motivated him to get involved in triathlons again, regardless—or because—of the mid-calf amputation Gerry underwent 18 months after being injured in combat.
“I needed to go out, I needed to do it. In my mind, I know I can swim, even though you can’t use a prosthetic when you swim, and I can cycle,” he said. “Running was kind of a challenge, so I decided to build up my tolerance.”
Halfway across the pool, Luis Morales spots his son. Holding the prosthetic across his chest, he says it’d be nice if Gerry had one of those swim feet, but is awed by how fast he’s moving.
“Last one, let’s go,” he says as Gerry passes into the final lap. Less than a minute later, he’s out and soon jogging to his bike.
Gerry, who trained for the swimming portion at Woodlands Pool in Stafford County and the biking at Quantico, said he mostly focuses on getting to the next transition during a race.
“It’s really all I think about,” he said. “Keep a steady pace, but don’t completely deflate.”
Once while training, he was approached by an older veteran who felt encouraged watching Gerry walk around. Though he said experiences like that had been uncomfortable at times, the Courtland High graduate warmed to the idea of shouldering another’s burden.
“I try to talk about them because they’re probably going through some sort of struggle,” he said, “and I try to encourage them to overcome whatever struggles they have.”
His mother, Sharon, says he does things like that to be the supporter, the “glimmer.”
“He’d rather be shoulder-to-shoulder with you, encouraging you,” she said. “He’s the one by your side.”
After Gerry’s out riding on the 8-mile course, Luis sits down on a nearby storm drain and reflects on his son’s nature.
“It’s the silent warrior mentality,” he says. “For the Green Berets, the Army Rangers, you don’t read or hear a lot about individuals. It’s all about the team, not the person. An army of one.”
Luis says his son has always been humble, that his determination in completing sprint-distance triathlons in preparation for an Olympic-distance race are a great part of the healing process.
Pulling out his phone, the Army veteran illustrates his son’s road to healing by displaying a few photos of Gerry’s injuries from 2008.
“He walked from his quarters at Walter Reed to the hospital to have his leg amputated,” he said, voice raspy and eyes bright. “Now, he says he doesn’t even notice it.”
When Gerry completes the bike portion, Luis steps close to speak to his son as he prepares for the last part of the triathlon.
Race director Rich Nealis walks over to shake both of their hands and thank Gerry for his participation.
“I think he shows that people can make the transition back,” Nealis said later. “We’ll never know who he touches, who he encourages to think, ‘I can bike, I can swim and I can run.’”
Gerry crosses the finish line as the clock passes the one-hour, 18-minute mark—more than 10 minutes ahead of his initial projections for the race.
He’s greeted by his mother, Sharon, his wife, Kathryne, and his two young children at the finish line. Telling his daughter that he’s very sweaty, Gerry sweeps her up for hugs and kisses with a smile.
It’s not an exaggeration: Gerry said that built-up sweat in the liner for his prosthetic can cause sliding and chafing, which is why he wears the sweat sock underneath.
For now, though, discomfort seems a nonissue. It’s Sunday: In the Morales household, that means waffles for breakfast.
Dawnthea Price: 540/374-5403
©2014 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.