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Foster turns Tragedy into Triumph


Herald-Whig Sports Writer

Larry Foster never played basketball at Blue Devil Gym.

But the Quincy High School alumnus has played at Staples Arena.

He's earned more medals than Michael Phelps has in the Olympics.

And he's been in a movie with Tom Hanks.

None of these accomplishments or events would have ever happened if Foster hadn't endured the worst day of his life.

One costly slip

Foster wasn't always one of the nation's premier athletes.

He also didn't always live life without his right leg.

In a sense, Foster has lived two different lives.

Foster was 21 years old, starting his post-military life after a three-year stint in the Marines when he went down to Carbondale, Ill., for a night of fun on Oct. 31, 1981.

Foster didn't make it past 5:30 p.m.

Foster and approximately five friends were in a car driving when they were stopped at a railroad crossing.

The trains driving past sparked the memory of when the group used to jump trains near the Quincy Soybean plant.

After getting their adrenaline rush train surfing, the friends were about to drive off.

Until they realized someone was missing.

Where's Larry?

Unfortunately, during this train surfing session, Foster believes a handle on the side of the train broke and he fell underneath.

Foster survived this scary situation.

His right leg didn't.

To this day, Foster doesn't know who called the ambulance.

Or how he managed to survive an encounter with a freight train.

Surprising survival

His heart stopped twice that night.

But Foster, who received 50 pints of blood and survived nine surgeries, never stopped fighting.

Rosie Foster, Larry's mother and a current Quincy resident, will never forget that night.

Or the update from the anesthesiologist.

"I told the doctor to give Larry a kiss for me and tell him that I loved him," Rosie said. "And later, the anesthesiologist told me that he thought that's probably what brought Larry through."

Foster somehow lived to tell about his encounter with the locomotive.

There was definitely a reason he was spared.

But it took 16 years for Foster to discover his purpose.

Finding purpose

At first, Foster felt fortunate to be alive, and not paralyzed. But he became depressed at the prospect of living the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Weeks after the Halloween, the ER doctor came to visit Foster --wearing a pair of dark brown, suede shoes.

"These used to be white until you came into the emergency room that night," Foster recalls the doctor saying. "... Now they're covered with your blood. I'm the one that called your mom and told her that you probably weren't going to make it. And we really didn't think that you were. But here you are."

Foster doesn't remember that emergency room doctor's name, but those words have stuck with him ever since.

But how could life in a wheelchair possibly be fulfilling?

It turned out athletics -- specifically wheelchair athletics -- was where Foster, 50, could quench his competitive thirst. And the ex-Marine could also help fellow disabled veterans.

Years passed and in the winter of 1996, Foster was referred to Dr. Suzan Rayner, who was then the director of rehabilitation program at Sepulveda VA in North Hills, Calif.

"He told me about some things that he used to do," Rayner said. "And I said, 'Well, why aren't you doing them now?' And he said, 'Well, because I have an amputation.' And I said, 'So what?'"

Rayner encouraged Foster to go skiing with a Veterans Affairs group of 300 disabled veterans at a winter sports clinic in Crested Butte, Colo.

"I had never been around that many disabled veterans in my life," Foster said. "And I was like, 'Wow, I finally found something and people I can relate to.'"

Fresh off the excitement of that trip, Foster decided to train to compete in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in the summer of 1997 in San Diego -- where Foster ended up taking the gold in the air rifle competition.

"I was driving home from San Diego, back from L.A. and I had the medal on and I didn't take it off for a couple of days," Foster said. "I was just so happy. ... It was a life-changing experience."

Twelve years later, Foster has earned 17 career medals at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games -- which includes the bronze medal he earned in the slalom during the 29th annual games last week in Spokane, Wash.

The medals are nice.

But working with the children and rookie injured veterans -- coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan -- is even more rewarding.

"Just kind of showing them the ropes a little bit because the older guys showed me the ropes when I first started coming," Foster said. "Because I was clueless."

Making memories

Foster's had some extraordinary experiences over the years -- experiences that would have never occurred if Foster had two legs.

He's played at Staples Arena during halftime of a Lakers game, played an exhibition game in Times Square, been an extra in the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" and been an inspiration to others.

"That's why I think that I'm still here -- to help other people who are going through what I went through," Foster said. "I'd hate for anybody (else) to waste 16 years of their prime in a wheelchair not knowing that there's things out there that they can be doing. ... It's taken me places I probably never would have gone if I hadn't gotten involved with it. I've met people I never would have got to meet and I've just had these amazing experiences that I wouldn't have had otherwise. I guarantee that."

After sitting around depressed for 16 years, Foster finally found an activity to occupy his time.

Foster, who works at the VA in Los Angeles, is making sure this doesn't happen to other potential athletes.

There, he has the opportunity to recruit plenty of potential athletes in wheelchairs.

And make sure they don't waste the best years of their life.

Like Larry did.

Nearly everytime Foster sees a person in a wheelchair, he spreads the word about the options that are out there.

"I try to get the word out there as much as possible and I try to get a lot of newly injured veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan -- try to get them on board and try to lift their spirits up a little bit," Foster said.

Leon Bostick is a quadriplegic and one of the veterans that Foster has successfully recruited.

"It's a challenge to get people involved in it," Bostick said. "So the fact that he keeps on going up that same hill over and over again is a testament to his determination. I've tried to get people involved myself, and I've run hot and cold myself. Even if you say it's free to go, free equipment, free hotel, free travel -- people still won't go."

But just like when he was in the hospital in the winter of 1981 -- fighting for his life -- the Quincy native refuses to give up.

"I see a lot of wounded vets at the VA on a daily basis," Foster said. "... I try to pump them up, give them support and try to let them know no matter how bad things look now, they're gonna get better and they could always be worse. Like I could be missing both my legs. And I almost lost my arm actually in the accident too. Things can always be worse than they seem. I try to pass that on to a lot of injured vets that I see."

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