Gold medalists highlight Sadler's Alaska Challenge handcycle field

Beth Bragg
Larry Coutermarsh of Fairbanks celebrates finishing the 2001 race at Davis Park in Mountain View.
Erik Hill
Hand cyclist Carlos Moleda of Virginia Beach, Va. pounds the hills outside Ester to open up a lead in the first stage of the 2000 event on the Parks Highway.
Erik Hill

Everything is upsidedown this year in the Sadler's Alaska Challenge. The finale is now the prologue and most of the veterans are rookies.

Known as the world's longest and toughest handcycle race, the 267-mile marathon begins Monday in Anchorage, the place where it usually ends.

Instead of wrapping up with a time trial from Eagle River to Anchorage, the week-long stage race will begin with a time trial from Lake Hood to Kincaid Park. After that, racers head to Fairbanks -- the traditional start -- for a series of races that will take them to the finish line at the top of Hatcher Pass.

"It's a big difference ending at Hatcher Pass with the hillclimb," Beth Edmands of Challenge Alaska said Thursday. "That keeps it a real race to the end, because you never know how people are going to do on that."

A field of 17 racers is entered, nearly all of them rookies. The only race veterans are Fairbanks staple Larry Coutermarsh, who will be racing for the 26th time, and past champions Peer Bartels of Germany and Carlos Moleda of South Carolina.

Each and every racer comes equipped with a compelling story. Moleda, for example, is a Brazilian who moved to the United States as a teenager and went on to become a Navy Seal. He was sent to Panama, where his 10-man unit came under intense gunfire that wounded nine of them, four fatally. Since then, Moleda has claimed four Hawaii Ironman triathlon championships, two national handcycling championships and the 1999 Sadler's championship.

Moleda, 50, is one of nine military veterans in the race and one of five who was injured while serving in the military. But he and Coutermarsh are the only veterans who have done the Sadler's race -- the rest are rookies.

Adding heft to the field are two gold medalists from the 2012 London Paralympics. Rafal Wilk, a 38-year-old from Poland, won two golds, and Walter Ablinger, a 44-year-old from Austria, won gold and silver.

The race lost another gold medalist earlier this week when Muffy Davis of Salt Lake City was nominated for an ESPY award. The awards ceremony is Wednesday in Los Angeles, so Davis, who won three gold medals in London, withdrew from the race, Edmands said.

Reach Beth Bragg at or 257-4335.

Sadler's Alaska Challenge lineup

Walter Ablinger

AGE: 44

HOMETOWN: Rainbach Austria

BIO: He was a two-time medalist at the 2010 London Paralympics, winning gold in the 56-kilometer road race and silver in the 16-K time trial. He's a skilled alpine skier too, with seven Austrian national titles in the giant slalom.

Gerard Ah-Fook

AGE: 36

HOMETOWN: Tucson, Ariz.

BIO: A rookie in the Sadler's race, he has completed an Ironman triathlon and is active in Paralyzed Veterans Racing. He was injured in a 2000 boating accident while serving as a Navy petty officer.

Peer Bartels

AGE: Unavailable

HOMETOWN: Leer, Germany

BIO: He's a two-time winner and five-time finisher in the handcycle 2 division of the Sadler's race. A former motorcycle racer, he was injured in 1990 during a desert race in Egypt and started handcycling three years later.

Joseph Beimfohr

AGE: 35

HOMETOWN: Wesley Chapel, Fla.

BIO: Injured in a 2005 IED attack in Iraq, he medically retired from the Army in 2006 after 11 years as a calvary scout. He began racing in 2009 and is a Sadler's rookie.

Michael Bishop

AGE: 35

HOMETOWN: Beech Island, S.C.

BIO: He injured his spinal cord in a 1997 car accident and two years later got involved in disabled sports when he went to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1999. Ten years later, the veteran of the Army's 82nd Airborne began riding for Paralyzed Veterans Racing.

Larry Coutermarsh

AGE: 52

HOMETOWN: Fairbanks

BIO: He's practically the face of this race -- the veteran of 25 previous events, he has missed only two races since the first one in 1984. He was injured as a U.S. Army Ranger in 1985 and learned about the race while in the hospital; using a standard wheelchair, he entered his first race that summer.

Alfredo De los Santos

AGE: 43

HOMETOWN: Hopewell Junction, N.Y.

BIO: While serving Afghanistan in 2008, he was injured when his vehicle was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Handcycling, biathlon and wheelchair basketball keep him active.

Carrie Finale

AGE: 39

HOMETOWN: Pacifica, Calif.

BIO: A talented athlete before she was injured in a car accident at age 22, she didn't discover adaptive sports until a decade later, in 2007. By 2011, she had qualified for the U.S. national team.

Jacob Freeland

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Greenville, S.C.

BIO: He made it safely through 15 months in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008, but in 2009 while on assignment at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was clipped by a vehicle while riding a motorcycle. He met a handcyclist during rehab and has been racing ever since.

Karin Korb

AGE: 45

HOMETOWN: North Lauderdale, Fla.

BIO: After breaking her back in gymnastics, she became a world-class wheelchair tennis pro. A 10-time member of the U.S. world team and a two-time Paralympian, she started a series of camps for young girls and women with disabilities called "Divability: Mine, Yours, Ours." She started handcyling in November.

Butch Martin

AGE: 54

HOMETOWN: Fishers, Ind.

BIO: He started racing a month after sustaining a spinal cord injury in 1982 and has been at it ever since. "After I check the Sadler's Alaska Challenge off my bucket list I hope to return to Alaska for a big-game hunt and fishing trip," he said.

Carlos Moleda

AGE: 50

HOMETOWN: Bluffton, S.C.

BIO: He has a long, impressive resume that includes four Hawaii Ironman titles and the 1999 Sadler's title. He's a spokesman for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and is the triathlon coach for the foundation's Operation Rebound.

Michael Postell

AGE: 45

HOMETOWN: Snellville, Ga.

BIO: He was born with spina bifida in 1967 and by the time he was 12 he was competing in wheelchair sports. He started handcycling six years ago.

Bobby Puckett

AGE: 39

HOMETOWN: St. Petersburg, Fla.

BIO: After a medical retirement from the Air Force because of rheumatoid arthritis in 1999, he decided to pursue a degree in exercise science. In his second quarter in school, he lost both legs below the knees in a truck accident. He went on to earn a psychology degree and become a certified personal trainer.

Thea Rosa

AGE: 45

HOMETOWN: Cool, Calif.

BIO: A horseback riding accident left her with a spinal cord injury in 2004, and in 2009 she began to handcycle. Her experience includes the STP Seattle to Portland race, a two-day, 225-mile ride.

Jeff Snover

AGE: 46

HOMETOWN: Evans, Ga.

BIO: He served 18 years in the Army and was home on leave in the fall of 2003 when he was injured -- he was clearing land on property in Tennessee when a tree tipped the wrong way and crushed him. He got into racing after attending several Paralyzed Veterans Racing events and joined the team in 2011.

Rafal Wilk

AGE: 38

HOMETOWN: Rzeszow, Poland

BIO: He's a two-time gold medalist at the 2012 London Paralympics. He was a Polish speedway champion until suffering a spinal cord injury in a 2006 race and began monoskiing six months later. In 2009, he borrowed a handcycle and was soon training full time and winning races.