Larry T. Hughes has set national records for physically disabled track and field athletes, directs his own community service agency and is viewed as a hero by elementary school children who seek his autograph after wheelchair basketball demonstrations.
But it took many years for the 47-year-old Columbia resident and likely Olympian to repair his life after Vietnam War injuries plunged him into a haze of drugs and alcohol, and feelings of isolation and self-pity. To escape his frustrations, Mr. Hughes made a seven-year sojourn in South America.
Now he's not only training to win a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, but he's helping several other wheelchair Olympic hopefuls and heading a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing opportunities for the physically disabled through athletics -- all without compensation.
"It's a lifetime occupation. I do it from the heart," says Mr. Hughes of Maryland Wheelchair Athletics Promotions Inc., the nonprofit agency he founded in 1987 to organize events and defray costs for wheelchair competitors.
The agency sponsors everything from wheelchair basketball leagues to fishing derbies to rugby for quadriplegics.
"The wealth that comes out of it comes from seeing people who were in a fog like I was come out of it," he says.
In July, Mr. Hughes set national records in the discus, shot put and javelin in a Wheelchair Sports, USA regional meet at George Mason University in Virginia -- just three years after first picking up the events. That qualified him for the Paralympic Trials next spring.
In the meantime, he's trying to raise $2,700 to compete in the Pan American Games in Argentina next month. And he's training other wheelchair competitors with Olympic dreams.
On a recent morning, Mr. Hughes urged on two of his students at a practice session. Their venue was the same one that Mr. Hughes uses to practice -- a small grassy lot bordered by a shopping center and condominium a few blocks from his home in Columbia's Oakland Mills village.
"He's helped me more than I could ever say," says Susan Katz, 16, of Gaithersburg, who has spina bifida and has been working with Mr. Hughes on field events for two years. "Larry took me to another level. I've always dreamed of competing at the international level, the Paralympics, and now I'm there, pretty much."
Cory Florentino, a bilateral leg amputee, is attempting a return to field events after a 13-year layoff under Mr. Hughes' tutelage.
But throughout all these activities, Mr. Hughes says pain from nervous system damage and associated diseases is his constant companion. The ailments were aggravated when he was hit by a van in 1987 while training for a wheelchair road race.
Friends, wheelchair athletes and Mr. Hughes' trainer, Roosevelt Johnson, marvel at his determination, energy and ability to withstand pain. He once completed a 54-hour, 367-mile wheelchair road race in Alaska after a spill in which he broke bones in each wrist.
Mr. Hughes' trainer, Mr. Johnson, said the wheelchair athlete trains harder than any able-bodied athlete he's seen. But that isn't what impresses him most about Mr. Hughes.
"One thing that amazes me about Larry is the balancing between what he does for himself and what he does for the community," says Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Hughes participates in a Howard County disability awareness program, speaking to school children about the disabled and coordinating wheelchair basketball demonstrations. "Kids see beyond the disability and see a really neat person," says Anne Wade, the program's coordinator. "He's a superstar athlete in their minds."
But Mr. Hughes went through a long, troubled period in his life. A football player and 1966 graduate of City College in Baltimore, Mr. Hughes joined the Marine Corps after high school and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He was injured the next year by shrapnel -- in an incident that he won't discuss in detail.
Returning to Baltimore, he medical problems worsened and he ended up in a wheelchair. Today, he battles multiple sclerosis, lupus and a blood disease.
Struggling to adjust, Mr. Hughes says, he "fell into the sorrow" of drinking and drugs. He left Baltimore for Colombia in South America in the early 1970s "to find someplace where I could have some worth," he says, "someplace to get away from frustration."
There, he taught English at a Catholic school. When he returned home in the late-1970s, he started on his current path at the coaxing of a friend, Nathaniel Powell of Baltimore, who persuaded an out-of-shape and reclusive Mr. Hughes to enter his first wheelchair road race.
"He started coming out, doing a little more and a little more," Mr. Powell says. "Then he seemed to get more and more involved in road racing and just took off."
Mr. Hughes said racing made him feel better physically than ever. And he then found other new directions, completing bachelor's and master's degrees in computer sciences from the University of Baltimore and going to work in 1983 as a systems programmer for IBM.
But his IBM and road racing careers were cut short by his 1987 accident, in which he suffered broken ribs and nerve damage to both arms -- requiring many operations.
"That made me feel for the first time really disabled," Mr. Hughes says. That's when he formed Maryland Wheelchair Athletics Promotions, which runs on volunteer energy and an annual budget of from $15,000 to $25,000 -- all from private donations.
Mr. Hughes says misfortune has shaped his life. "In spite of everything that's happened to me personally, if it hadn't happened, I may never have been put in this position to make a difference," he says. "I'm not doing this to earn recognition or win a plaque. I'm doing it because there's a need, a void, and I was one who suffered through that void."