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."

The moments that follow have been burned into his memory: hearing a woman scream for help, knowing he couldn't go to her.

One of the men he'd managed to avoid hitting helped Ordaz-Cruz out of his van and to safety. For weeks following the collapse he has wanted to thank that man, but didn't know who he was. Last week he met someone who knew that man, and he had a message: Thanks for saving my life.

"I told him to say the same thing," Ordaz-Cruz said. "Because he also saved mine."

A long journey

Ordaz-Cruz was 17 when he left Mexico. He settled first in Florida, then in North Carolina, where he worked in the tobacco fields. He was 19 when his life changed forever.

He was with a group looking for some friends in a trailer park. There was another group there, too. People had been drinking and a fight broke out. A shot rang out from a trailer, hitting Ordaz-Cruz in the side. He remembers lying on the ground knowing everything had changed.

Paralyzed from the waist down, Ordaz-Cruz moved to Minnesota shortly after leaving the hospital. The rest of his family -- his parents and his brother -- moved here from Mexico to be with him. And shortly after that, Sharon VanWinkel noticed Ordaz-Cruz racing through the Courage Center.

"I'm also in a chair, so I know how valuable it is to be active," she said. "Once you see yourself gaining in strength and endurance, you see that life is easier when you're stronger. He was always a focused, determined guy."

Ordaz-Cruz had always loved playing soccer and basketball, so he was receptive. It didn't take long for him to set his sights on a marathon. Paul VanWinkel remembers the joy in Ordaz-Cruz's eyes when they crossed the finish line together three months later.

The process drew him out.

"When Marcelo first came here we had to find interpreters when he joined the basketball team here," Sharon VanWinkel said. "A couple years ago we got a young man from Honduras, and Marcelo was his interpreter."

Now, looking forward

Ordaz-Cruz continues to work to get his GED, though by his own admission he takes the summers off because of his racing schedule. He and his family, who live in Crystal, are trying to earn U.S. citizenship.

There is little time to wonder why, or what if.

"When I got shot, I thought, 'God did this to me,'" Ordaz-Cruz said. "I complained to God. But you learn that it's myself. You can choose the way you want to live the way you want to hang around. It is your choice."

And Ordaz-Cruz has chosen to participate, and hopes to be an inspiration.

This spring he finished ninth among men in the wheelchair portion of the Grandma's Marathon, setting a personal best of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 25 seconds.

He wants to go faster. Gary Westlund at Anoka-based Charities Challenge has started a drive to buy Ordaz-Cruz a state-of-the-art racing chair. The aim is to raise enough money to buy the chair and send Ordaz-Cruz to the factory to be custom-fitted.

Ordaz-Cruz? He is working, training ... and waiting. Right now his life is his example.

"Maybe I will encourage people, maybe I will work with young kids," he said. "With what I've been through, I can help people."

Kent Youngblood • 612-651-4365

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