Genie Wellons has always loved life, and in many ways, life loved him right back. In 1990, Wellons' life took a detour when he broke his back in an automobile accident. He was 41 at the time, a machinist in Shop 30 at the Navy Yard, with a well-earned reputation for driving in life's fast lane.
His girlfriend died in the crash and he was paralyzed from the waist down. Understandably, his view of the world from that point forward was way different. For the rest of his life, the world would be seen from a wheelchair.
Wellons had used his hands to make a living all of his life. The son of a North Charleston carpenter, he graduated from Chicora High School and followed most of his friends to jobs at the Navy Yard. As a machinist, he knew how to use powerful, yet precise metal-cutting tools.
But who knew his knowledge of working a lathe or a drill press would serve so many others who also were forced to view life from his seated perspective?
Crossing the bridge
Just a few months out of rehab, Wellons decided to become a wheelchair athlete. His legs were no longer capable of any movement, but there was a drive to compete that still burned inside. He would travel to different wheelchair games where other athletes competed in archery, basketball, target shooting and road races. In his first mile race, he labored to a finish of 7:28. He would eventually shave more than two minutes off that time. That's what any good machinist would do, right?
Wellons watched the Cooper River Bridge Run gain popularity and wondered why there was no place in the event for people like him. For the longest time, race organizers told him it just wasn't safe. For a few years, it really wasn't.
But in 2002, a decision was made to allow competitors to participate in an exhibition. Two wheelchair racers were allowed to start ahead of the pack. Wellons was one of them.
Coming down the Pearman Bridge (the Ravenel Bridge wasn't built yet) Wellons' racing chair was clocked at 35 mph. His arms were like spaghetti noodles, though, by the time he reached the finish line. Even so, he proved it could be done. But the committee still needed to tweak some things to make sure everybody was safe.
In 2006, wheelchair racing officially became part of the Bridge Run. Again, Wellons was entered. He took three training trips on the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday before the Saturday race. There were about 10 others along for the inaugural venture. At the end, Wellons couldn't lift himself out his chair for more than 20 minutes. But he got to the finish line.
Share the load
Wellons, now 64, no longer races, but he doesn't sit on the sidelines, either. Using skills he honed in Shop 30 all those years at the Navy Yard, he's custom-built a trailer that hauls wheelchairs.
For the past few years, it's Wellons who meets the competitors at their hotel on race day at 5:30 a.m. The racing chairs are loaded and then carried to the start line in Mount Pleasant. There, they're off-loaded as the competitors' everyday chairs are placed on the trailer. Wellons then carries those chairs to the finish line in downtown Charleston. When the race is over, the racing chairs are loaded back on the trailer and returned to the hotel.
At the end of a long, long day, Wellons knows that he's done much more than tote a few pieces of metal around town. He's helped people carry dreams, cross bridges and reach finish lines they never thought they'd cross.
At the Cooper River Bridge Run, even if your legs can't move, it's still possible to offer a helping hand.
Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@ postandcourier.com.
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