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Superwoman on wheels

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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MS has not slowed down active athlete

Don't tell Jeanne Goldy-Sanitate she can't do something. If you do, you better get out of her way.

Jeanne suffers from MS, her right leg is paralyzed and she's confined to a wheelchair, yet the 59-year-old lives an active, independent life with goals and achievements that go way beyond what most people could accomplish.

If you look close enough, you'll see that her custom wheelchair does not have push handles. "I'd rather push myself," she says with a big smile. People who know her say that sums up Jeanne in four words.

Over the past nine years, she's been a competitive swimmer, Nordic skier, shooter, handcyclist, bowler and golfer. She has played softball, basketball and table tennis, and tried scuba diving, curling, rock climbing and snowboarding.

Wearing her signature pearls around her neck and a skirt with leggings, the U.S. Air Force veteran has competed in a series of events for athletes with disabilities. She's not only participated, but come home with a trunkful of medals -including gold - from events all over the United States.

With Jim, her husband of 22 years, Jeanne moved to the Cape Region from New Jersey five years ago, and the couple live in Sawgrass South near Re-hoboth Beach. Most nice days she can be found training on her high-tech handcy-cle in and around her neighborhood. Her eyes light up when she transfers herself from her wheelchair to her handcycle; she calls it her mental health machine.

"Yes, I have MS, but it doesn't have me. I'm not going to let it get me down," she says.

She credits her active lifestyle with giving her an edge in her battle against the disease. Competition and sports have always been an important part of her life.

"Sports gave me back my life," she says. She was a natural. Having never competed in handcycling, she borrowed a bike and won a gold medal in the 10K race in her first Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"It's amazing what you can do. You just have to get out there and do it," she says.

She has good and bad days, and a nurse helps her most mornings. "Even today, I go back and forth between anger and acceptance," she says.

Acupuncture has cut her daily pain in half on the 10-point scale. Fortunately, she says, as an Air Force veteran, the Veterans Administration covers most of the cost. She has also been able to reduce her daily regimen of medication, and she takes no pain pills.

Although she has always watched her diet, she is now on a gluten-free diet to reduce gastrointestinal issues. It seems to be working, and she's been able to lose some weight.

She wears special eyeglasses that help reduce her double vision.

Medical issues and recent operations have slowed her down, but she is fast on the road to recovery and ready to get back in the pool.

Forced to redefine her mission

Life has played cruel tricks on Jeanne. Throughout her life, she has been forced to redefine her mission.

Jeanne planned a long career as an officer in the Air Force. But that plan was cut short when she broke her back during an accident serving as part of a medical unit, which left her unable to walk.

Not to be sidelined, she maintained a rigorous physical therapy regimen -while maintaining her military job as an optometric technician - and within a few months she could walk with a cane. But her disability resulted in her discharge from the Air Force in December 1984 with the rank of staff sergeant. "I lost my career; it all went out the window when I broke my back," she said.

After she left the military, she worked with special education students in a New Jersey Department of Corrections residential program. She then moved to Birmingham, Ala., and worked with low-vision patients at the Southeastern Blind Rehabilitation Center. She had moved to Birmingham from New Jersey to attend the University of Alabama for pre-med courses. Taking classes was not unusual for Jeanne, having spent most of the first half of her adult life taking college courses.

While working toward her doctorate in optometry in low vision at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, she started having trouble with her right eye and her right leg was starting to drag. She began to fall down a lot; she knew something dramatic was going on. Even so, she continued with school and got her degree, one of five she holds today. She also continued to participate in as many sports as possible.

Even before she left the Air Force, she started to have weakness and numbness in her right hand and constant bouts of what was diagnosed as uveitis, an internal inflammation of the eye. Those symptoms could have been the onset of MS, but she didn't receive that diagnosis until many years later in 1999.

In 1998, the same symptoms that had haunted her since the early 1980s hit with a vengeance: daily burning pain in her right leg nearing 10 on the pain scale; numbness; vision problems; and falling. She could no longer hold a job.

The MS diagnosis hit her like a wall and set her into a deep depression. By 2005, she was relegated to a wheelchair full time. But sports - the thing that had been a constant throughout her life - would end up her salvation.

In 2006, with no training, she competed in her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Alaska, winning gold medals in table tennis and bowling. Although she had never shot an air gun before, she won the gold in that event. She also brought home a bronze medal in softball as the only female on the team.

That same year, she took part in the National Disabled American Veterans Winter Sports Clinic for the first time, and she has returned every year since.

"I needed those games"

It was the inaugural 2010 Warrior Games that really lit a spark in Jeanne. There she met some of the most courageous veterans she has ever come in contact with; some have become lifelong friends. As a member of the 25-member Air Force team, she competed against 200 other ill, injured and wounded service members from the Army, Marines, Navy and Special Operations. "I needed those games to get out of my funk," she said.

The games have been held each year since at the U.S. Olympic training facility and the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

She never thought she would be selected to the team, but she ended up as the 17th selection and was the only woman in a wheelchair on the team. With limited training, she competed in handcycling, swimming, basketball and shooting. After not having been in a pool in more than 25 years, she ended up winning a gold medal in the 50-meter backstroke, which because of her paralyzed leg, is the only stroke she can do. She says the discipline and confidence she learned during her eight years in the military have helped her achieve her athletic goals.

2011 was a very good year

Jeanne's list of achievements just over the past six years would fill a book. She says 2011 was her best year.

In May's Warrior Games, she won a bronze medal for swimming, and in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in August - competing for a Wilmington team - she won gold in the 100-meter backstroke, hand-cycling and trap shooting the first time she competed using a borrowed gun. She also took bronze in air-gun competition.

She attended training sessions for the Warrior Games and attended a cycling camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., just missing the military standard to make the U.S. Paralympics Team.

In September, she rode her handcycle in the Ride2Recovery 9-11 Challenge in Florida, logging 120 miles during the first two days. A five-cycle crash injured her shoulder, but using just one arm, she cycled the last 15 miles of the event. Also in September, she rode 82 miles in the National MS Society Bike to the Bay ending up in the hospital for over-hydration. She also rode more than 260 miles in the Grea Lakes Challenge, an event sponsored by the American Legion.

In the winter, she attended the Disabled American Veterans Nordic Winter Sports Clinic, competing in four days of Nordic events and one day of trap shooting. She took part in a local pheasant hunt thanks to fh< group Hunters Helping Soldiers and took part in a trap shoot fundraiser for the group.

Staying on the cutting edge

Jeanne is on the cutting edge of adaptive technology. She struggled to play golf with her husband, but could only play certain holes, and she eventually gave it up. That was until she was introduced to an adaptive golf cart complete with a swivel seat. "Living with MS, I never thought I would be able to play golf," she said. She now plays golf as much as possible. Her story was featured in the national Paralyzed Veterans of America magazine.

To hone her skills, she's participated in the National Veterans TEE Golf Tournament in Iowa and the New England Handicapped Sports Association Disabled Veterans Winter Sports clinics.

She is also excited about a new brace for her right leg that allows her to stand and walk. "I've really forgotten how to walk since I've been in a wheelchair full time since 2005," she said. This past fall, she tried out a new all-terrain wheelchair for use on sand at the beach. It worked out so well she used it when she participated in her first Special Olympics Polar Bear Plunge in Rehoboth Beach.

She's had some issues with accessibility - especially with violations of handicapped parking - since she moved to the Cape Region. "I've won medals and done all of these events, yet I can't access my own community," she said.

She said she has plans to advocate for handicapped issues in the near future.

Jeanne has worked with many other veterans through the DAV to help them navigate the bureaucracy of working with the Veterans Administration. "The message I want to get out is that we are not disabled, but differently abled," she says.

She wants to continue to help women veterans, especially those who are struggling with sexual abuse issues. Jeanne says she has firsthand experience with what can happen.



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Original Publication Date: February 3, 2015



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