Marcelo's endurance quest

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2007 - 1:38 PM

After surviving a gunshot, paralysis and the 35W bridge collapse, Marcelo Ordaz-Cruz has a reason to embrace life.

Marcelo Ordaz-Cruz is still waiting, wondering, looking for the reason.

There has to be one, he insists. A 26-year-old man whose Christian faith continues to grow, Ordaz-Cruz knows there has to be a reason why he didn't die seven years ago when a bullet fired from a trailer entered his side and severed his spinal cord, costing him the use of his legs.

There has to be a reason he was able to stop his blue van mere feet from the edge of the abyss the day the Interstate 35W bridge he was on tumbled into the Mississippi River.

A survivor who rolls on, literally, trying to put the sadness behind him, Ordaz-Cruz knows he is still here because of a plan. And he's ready to hear it.

"I keep trying to figure it out, but it's hard," Ordaz-Cruz said. "God can do anything, you know? You have to have faith that there is a plan. You have to look inside of you and look around every day. Because any day, God can show you what to do. But sometimes we don't pay attention."

Ordaz-Cruz is listening. For now, he's decided all he can do is live well, be an example. He tries to be strong for his family, who followed him from Oaxaca, Mexico, to the United States after Ordaz-Cruz was shot in the street of a trailer court in North Carolina seven years ago. He tries to be an example for fellow bridge collapse survivors with whom he regularly meets.

On Oct. 7, Ordaz-Cruz will settle into an old racing chair with hand-taped wheels and a slightly-bent handlebar and take part in his fifth Twin Cities Marathon, his 10th overall. With every mile, a message.

"You have to remember to live every day," he said. "You have to enjoy your life. It is up to you, everything. You choose if you want to be depressed or if you want to keep going. I keep going."

"Is it time to die?"

Ordaz-Cruz was driving south on Aug. 1. It was rush hour and he was late. He had left his job setting stones for a jeweler in Roseville and was headed for the Courage Center in Golden Valley.

Courage Center has been a haven since his move to the Twin Cities from North Carolina months after the shooting, the place where he learned his life didn't have to end because he could no longer walk, the place where the door to wheelchair athletics was opened for him.

Sharon VanWinkel is the director of sports and recreation at the center. She remembers the first time she saw Ordaz-Cruz as he raced past her door on the way to therapy and thinking, "This is an athlete."

One day she cut him off at the pass and invited him to a basketball practice. That's where it started. From there, Ordaz-Cruz moved to racing, attracted by its solitary nature. Paul VanWinkel -- Sharon's husband and the winner of the wheelchair 1,500-meter race held in conjunction with the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles -- showed him the ropes, ultimately riding with him at his first marathon.

Ordaz-Cruz liked to show up at Courage Center track practice, say hello, help out, and he was headed there when he crossed onto the 35W bridge and felt it start to shake. No time for fear, he said, only a prayer.

"I just said to God, 'All right, is it time to die? I'm OK with that,'" Ordaz-Cruz said. "I said, 'I'm not afraid to die if you want to take me, right here.' But it wasn't the time."

Ordaz-Cruz jammed on the brakes as his section of the bridge fell towards the river, but he quickly realized that wouldn't be enough. So he decided to drive his van into the railing at the center of the bridge.

But wait -- two workers were in front of him, clinging for their lives. Ordaz-Cruz waited until he was past them before veering into the railing.

"I would have turned earlier but I saw those workers and said, 'I'm not going to kill them,'" he said. "I preferred to go over than to kill them."

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