Iron Man: Hector Picard

Hundreds of thousands have finished an Ironman Triathlon. Only one has been a double-arm amputee. This is Hector Picard's story.

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IN FOCUS: Hector Picard has completed four Ironman-distant races as a double-arm amputee.

By Nila Do Simon
Photography by Edward Linsmier

Inside a one-story home with a curved driveway, in a small room with one window, blue carpet and a worn brown couch shoved against a wall, lives the feeling of belief. It inhales and exhales in here. Above that couch hang 86 symbols of belief—medals, trophies and plaques. The medals, with their brightly colored cloth cords, dangle from metal hooks and glisten when the sunlight from that one window hits them.

Hector Picard, owner of those 86 symbols, built this den-like room of belief with his hands. Well, sort of.

It’s been 22 years since Picard last saw his hands. From what he remembers, they were large, powerful hands. Big mittens that could palm a basketball since middle school. From time to time, it wasn’t unusual to see nicks, cuts, calluses and blisters covering his fingers, the result of being pretty handy around the house and playing his fair share of team sports. The ladies often would compliment him on his strong, workman-like but sensual hands. He misses them.

“But there are more important things in life,” Picard is sure to remind himself.

And Picard’s belief within himself is one of those important things. A freak accident took away his hands, but eventually filled Picard with a sense he could do anything he once did when he had hands: play basketball, shoot pool, build a den—and compete in Ironman races.

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WELL EQUIPPED: During competitions, Hector Picard only uses his prosthetic arm before and after the races.

It was a beautiful March 31 day. On that morning in 1992, the Fort Lauderdale air was clear, sunny and not without its trademark humidity. As he left home to go to work, Picard gave his 1-year-old baby girl, Jazzy, the apple of this first-time daddy’s eye, a kiss and walked out the front door.

The accident happened at the last job site of the day, at a Hollywood electrical substation close to Interstate 75. The early evening sun’s red hues began to flash, a sign he was nearly done for the day. Picard was called to this site to remove ground clips from the transformer. He had been working as an apprentice electrician for the past seven months and knew the imminent dangers of working around such high levels of voltage. In an instant, something could go wrong. He just didn’t think it would happen to him.

An electrical substation is a beast of a scene. Menacing even. Huge cable lines, metal boxes and steel towers are cold, sinister. Electricity crackles. The sound is painstakingly eerie in the still air.

He doesn’t remember much. Most everything Picard describes is from recounts of the three other field workers with him that day. But one thing he does remember—and he gets a kick out of its irony—is that Guns N’ Roses’ “Live and Let Die” was playing on his truck radio as he pulled up to the substation.

He was told there were two explosions. Up two stories on the transformer, Picard reached for a wire with his right hand, not realizing the wire was live. Quick as lightning, 13,000 volts of electricity flew into his right hand down the right side of his body and into his foot. He says as he was falling down the two stories, his left hand hit the same wire, another 13,000 volts traveled down his arm into his left hip. The three workers later told him he lit up like a ball of fire. He had to be held down, as the panic and pain was too much.

“The next thing I remember are the blades of the helicopter,” Picard says. He was rushed to Hollywood’s Memorial Regional Hospital and then flown 320 miles north to Gainesville’s UF Health Shands Hospital for further treatment.

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SOUL CYCLE: Picard rides a modified road bike based off his design. He has even learned how to change a bike tire without hands, showing step-by-step instructions on his YouTube video.

Picard was at Shands for two months. He celebrated his 26th birthday inside the hospital walls. More than 40 percent of his body had received second- and third-degree burns. Picard was in a coma for the first month. When he eventually woke, the amputations already had been performed. The doctors couldn’t wait, or infection would have taken over his body. They removed most of his right arm, leaving only one inch of his humerus bone. Most of his left forearm was removed, with only about two inches remaining. The doctors ended up removing nearly 10 percent of his body. Looking in the mirror, 90 percent of that man he once was stared back.

To a certain extent, Picard lost more than his arms on that clear March 31 afternoon. He lost a sense of himself. A craftsman and electrician who fancied himself better than the average at-home Bob Vila, Picard’s identity disappeared that spring afternoon in 1992. He was Itzhak Perlman without his Stradivarius, Roger Federer without his racquet, Jackson Pollock without his paintbrush. Picard sank into a deep depression. He hallucinated in the hospital, imagining his body being cut up into pieces. He had become a hand-less man, a double amputee and a freak show.

Picard was fitted with a prosthetic left arm five months after the accident. He rehabilitated back in South Florida, where the newly minted southpaw learned how to turn a doorknob, flip on a light switch and brush his teeth. The explosion ripped away tissue in his right foot, so he also had to learn how to walk again.

While Picard was at the rehabilitation center, a man who lost his arm visited Picard to boost his spirits and tell him it would all be OK. After a year of rehabilitation, the man confessed he could feed himself, comb his hair and button a shirt. That was it.

Oh, God, please don’t let that be it for me, Picard thought. Please don’t let my life be reduced to feeling like closing a button on my shirt is an achievement.

There was no way Picard could let that become his limit. After all, he had a 1-year-old daughter to care for, protect and nurture. “I had to be there for her,” Picard says. “She kept me going, kept me moving with her happiness, moving around, getting into trouble. I just wanted to be there for her.”

And so he was. He was also there when his second daughter, Francys, was born a few years later. Picard was there to change the diapers, feed his daughters—and show them how to button their shirts.

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As he watched his girls grow, as Picard hugged them tightly with his prosthetic left arm, praying to God that nothing ever would happen to them, he made a promise to himself. He vowed to dedicate his life to helping others, be an inspiration, a source of hope to those who were physically challenged or missing limbs. Nothing was going to stop him from living his life, not even at minus 10 percent.

Triathletes are a special breed. They live for the chance to push their bodies to the brink of exhaustion by way of three grueling disciplines. Their weekends are reserved for race days, where all the training, all the sacrifices and pains are well worth the exhilaration of crossing the finish line. But it’s one thing to be a triathlete; it’s another to be an Ironman.

It’s been said an Ironman race is an athlete’s ultimate endurance test, a grueling triathlon that brutally tests a person’s physical and mental capacities. It’s the definition of the phrase “easier said than done.” Ironmans require swimming for 2.4 miles, cycling for 112 miles and, for cruelty’s sake, a marathon-distance run of 26.2 miles. You’re either born an Ironman, or you aren’t. Hector Picard is the rare breed who became one.

Born in Miami to Cuban immigrants, Picard was an athletic, friendly kid who loved playing baseball and football with his neighborhood friends. The eldest of three sons, Picard was the most stubborn, known for agreeing with his mother to do one thing, but doing whatever he wanted to instead.

Picard’s path to triathlon competition started as a way to relieve heavy stress. Reeling from an emotionally draining divorce from his daughters’ mother, Picard hit the gym. He couldn’t have imagined competing in a triathlon, though.

“I thought triathletes were crazy,” he says.

After a few gym sessions, Picard began to change his thinking. And then came that belief. “I wasn’t a cyclist, I wasn’t a swimmer, and I hated running. I still hate running,” Picard admits. “But they are all stuff that you would need hands for. All three. They are so important, so vital to that sport. I want to show that not only can I do it, but I can also compete at a high level. And the longer the distance, the tougher.”

So he began training and entered his first triathlon in 2009. It was a sprint triathlon, with distances shorter and more manageable than Ironman distances. Still, Picard didn’t know what to expect.

“It was scary,” he remembers. “I didn’t know how I would handle things, what I would do if I fell off my bike or something.”

During the swim, race organizers allowed Picard to use fins to help propel him through the open water. Within 10 feet of swimming, the fins fell off. With no arms or hands to reattach the fins, Picard turned onto his back and began a reverse breaststroke, looking up at the blue sky, and kicking through the water like hell.

Eighty-six races later, Picard has become a fixture on the South Florida triathlon scene. This year alone he plans to compete in 23 races. At 6 feet tall and 178 pounds, Picard is in his best shape since losing his arms. And it’s no surprise none of his competitors have come to terms with being passed by a middle-aged man with no hands and a flipper for a left arm.

Cycling is Picard’s favorite part of a triathlon. His rides on a modified bike prototyped off his design, complete with gearshift buttons that he taps them with his right shoulder. He rides at about 23 mph, enough to get him in the top 10 percent in the cycling portion of any given race.

Picard is working to improve his run and transitions, which he feels can knock off 30 minutes from his total time. He transitions between swim and bike without his prosthetic arm, setting up his socks just so he can slide his feet into them and uses Velcro-strapped bike shoes, tightening them with his mouth. It’s a marvel to see: a no-handed man on the ground using his teeth to put on cycling shoes.

By the time he gets to the running portion, Picard says his legs are spent. The swim alone is enough to drain a normal man’s leg strength and endurance. But Picard is no regular man. He’s an Ironman.

For Ironman-distance races, the average finisher completes it in just more than 12 hours, while several competitors don’t even finish. Picard has never not finished. In his first Ironman in 2012, Picard came in at 16:42, just 18 minutes before the cutoff time. And when he crossed the line, he became the first-ever double-arm amputee to finish an Ironman.

“It was my most memorable finish,” Picard says. “I was exhausted and was flirting with the cutoff. I vowed never to do another Ironman again.”

That next morning, Picard signed up for his second Ironman, where he finished at 15:13 two months later.

To this day, Picard says he can still feel his hands. In his mind, he can still wiggle his fingers. Phantom feelings, he calls them.

“It could have been worse,” Picard somehow says. “If it were on the other side of the transformer, I would have been fried. That side had 130,000 volts coming in. I count my blessings that I was on the low side and not the high side.”

And so that’s the man Picard has become. A man thankful for being hit twice with 13,000 volts of electricity instead of 130,000. A man whose silver lining is forever extending. He even cracks jokes, claiming he can no longer be hands-on with household chores. He remarried, is father to two stepchildren and is still as doting as ever to Jazzy and Francys.

Picard hasn’t let go of that vow he made some 20 years ago, becoming a source of inspiration to so many across the world. Adversity hasn’t stopped Picard, and he is using his success as a double-amputee triathlete to motivate other disabled people. He is a public speaker through his Don’t Stop Living Foundation, telling hundreds at a time about how that March 31 day changed his life for the better. Picard has even cycled across the country to raise money for a prosthetic for a boy born without arms. He’s out to prove that, yes, he and others may be disabled, but, no, that doesn’t take away their will to live successful lives.

In May, Picard will start in Fort Lauderdale beach and swim 5 miles, bike 200 miles up to West Palm Beach and run 50 miles in 36 hours to raise money and awareness for Broward Children’s Center and its mission to help those with special health-care needs. The best part is he’s inviting the public to go along for the ride. “It’s the ultimate event for me,” Picard says. “And to get the chance to do it with so many people in Fort Lauderdale is something I look forward to.”

Hector Picard sometimes drives by that Hollywood electrical substation. He goes there to do some soul-searching, he says. He doesn’t do much when he’s there. Just thinks. And believes.

Originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue.