DEL MAR — “The path of least resistance — taking the easy way out — really never leads to the most rewarding outcome.”
That’s one message Marine Capt. Eric McElvenny tries to convey, and one that motivated him to complete the Ironman World Championship less than two years after he lost the lower half of his right leg when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.
“The word challenge has a negative connotation, but when we’re challenged, that’s how we grow,” McElvenny said during a Sept. 6 presentation at the Del Mar Library. “If you’re going to do something you might … as well put all of your effort into it.”
The Pennsylvania native said school was always a big priority in his life, initially because his parents wouldn’t let him participate in sports unless he maintained good grades and completed his homework.
“I tested that once in fifth grade,” he said, and was not allowed to go to a Little League practice.
That focus on education helped him with an eighth-grade career research project that resulted in a desire to serve his country.
Since his teacher didn’t allow students to choose professional athlete as a career, he opted on life in the military. McElvenny said he learned a lot about the role of those who fight for freedom.
More effective was what I learned about the Marine Corps, their history and the sacrifices they make for us, he said. “I knew I had to be part of that.”
McElvenny’s grandfather suggested he join the Navy “because you can still be a Marine officer,” he said, so he attended the United States Naval Academy, majoring in mechanical engineering.
He said it turned out to not only be a good career choice, but the place where he met the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Following their graduation and marriage, Eric and Rachel McElvenny alternated deployments and caring for their daughter, Lupe, who was born in 2006.
“I learned to be a mother and a father,” he said. “Being deployed is a lot less stressful than being at home.
“But I feel kind of blessed,” he added more seriously. “My dad didn’t get the opportunity to be the primary caregiver. It gave me an opportunity to get closer to my daughter.”
McElvenny was sent to various parts of the world but he was eager to serve in Afghanistan. He said he “finally got the call” and in August 2011 “ended up with the coolest job ever” as an adviser to the Afghan National Army.
On Dec. 9, 2011, he was on his way back to base after a five-hour patrol.
“Everything went pretty smooth,” he said. “We checked a few compounds, met a few people.
“As we were finishing … I stepped on an IED and triggered an explosion. … I remember it being pretty violent. I was disoriented for about five to 10 seconds.”
McElvenny said he was conscious during the entire experience. He said a high-pitched ringing in his ears made everything feel like it was happening in slow motion. He said initially he felt no pain.
“My first thought was, ‘I get to go to heaven,’” he said. “I was not in control. My second thought was about my wife and daughter and I didn’t want to go to heaven yet.
“Then I felt pain,” he added. “It felt like my leg was on fire. I was confused. … The mission had turned into saving Capt. McElvenny.”
Seventeen minutes after he stepped on the device, a helicopter landed despite being fired on by Taliban forces. After a three-minute flight he was being prepped for surgery “and that started my next journey in life,” said McElvenny, who was 28 at the time.
“What was normal changed,” he added. “I felt like a different person. I lost my identity.”
Going forward, McElvenny said, he was influenced by two people — his daughter and a former boss.
After being told her father had lost his leg and was coming home, Lupe, who was 5 at the time, said, “Daddy’s going to be home for Christmas.”
“A child quickly pulled something positive out of this,” he said. “It put a smile on my face.”
Because of their deployments the family hadn’t spent many Christmases together. The one at the Naval Medical Center in Balboa “is one I’ll never forget,” McElvenny said.
Maj. Isaac Moore also had a significant impact on his life at the time.
“He knew what it took to motivate me,” McElvenny said, describing an email he received asking when he would be running his first marathon.
“At first I thought, ‘That jerk,’” McElvenny said. “But that forced me to focus on what I could do in the future and not what I can’t do anymore.
“He challenged me,” McElvenny said. “We’re Marines, so we’re competitive. I had to one-up him. So I set a goal to run an ironman.”
On Feb. 9, 2012, barely two months after his accident, he tried on his prosthetic leg. “It was a cool moment to put it on but it was pretty painful because I was still swollen.”
Eight months after he was injured, McElvenny became involved in the Challenged Athlete Foundation’s Operation Rebound, a sports and fitness program for American military personnel, veterans and first responders with permanent disabilities.
He eventually got a special leg for running and then began biking. “Swimming was more challenging,” he said. “It took a while to learn how to stop swimming in circles.”
Within the first year he ran four major races and in October 2013, as part of a team that included one of his favorite athletes — former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward — he completed the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, in 11 hours and 54 minutes.
He said there were times during the race when he wondered what he got himself into. “But when I crossed the finish line, all those thoughts left,” he said. “It was really awesome.”
McElvenny now lives in Carmel Valley with his wife and two daughters. He is currently the assistant director for the Troops to Engineers program at San Diego State University, providing career and internship assistance to students studying science and engineering.
He enjoys the job but misses his life as a Marine.
“Transitioning out of the military, I felt a void,” he said. “There’s not another job that I will ever find where I feel that sense of pride.”