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South Korean military veteran wins men's wheelchair marathon title

Gyu Dae Kim of Champaign, Ill. crosses the finish line of the Grandma's Marathon Wheelchair race Saturday in Duluth. Kim was the top wheelchair finisher with a time of 1:36:11. (Clint Austin / / 3
Susannah Scaroni of Urbana, Ill. crosses the finish line of the Grandma's Marathon wheelchair race in Duluth Saturday morning. Scaroni was the top female finisher with a time of 2:02:53. (Clint Austin / / 3
Wheelchair racers leave the starting line of the 2014 Grandma's Marathon near Two Harbors on Saturday, June 21, 2014. (Bob King / / 3

After what Gyu Dae Kim has been through, holding off wheelchair marathon competitors is the easy part.

Kim, a 30-year-old South Korean living in Champaign, Ill., won his first Grandma’s Marathon wheelchair race Saturday, rolling to the finish line just ahead of former winner Rafael Jimenez.

Kim’s time of 1 hour, 36 minutes and 11 seconds was 3 seconds faster than Jimenez, who had made a charge past two other competitors before his stretch run down Canal Park Drive came up just short.

“I didn’t see him, I just kept pushing myself,” Kim said. “Then when I got to the finish line, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, he is right behind me.’ ”

Facing a challenge is nothing new to Kim.

As a surgeon with the South Korean Navy SEALs, Kim partook in a parachute jump at about 1,500 meters in December 2004.

“My main parachute didn’t open,” he said. “I opened (the backup chute) as soon as possible. That’s why I am still alive.”

The secondary device around his midsection slowed the impact with the land, but Kim suffered a spinal cord injury that paralyzed his lower half.

He underwent several months of recovery, accompanied by the helpless feeling paraplegics endure after such an incident.

“Right after the accident, when I was in my everyday chair, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do anything,’ ” Kim recalled. “It was a really hard time. I didn’t know what I should do. Finally I found what I wanted to do and it was wheelchair racing.”

Kim, who competed in triathlons before his injury, has represented his country at the London and Beijing Paralympic Games. He’s lived and trained the past 18 months at the University of Illinois, known to have one of the best training centers for disabled athletes in the country.

On Saturday he was a part of a four-man pack that pushed together after the 10-mile mark. A headwind slowed progress as did a wet surface that made gripping the wheels more difficult.

“The last few miles were very hard,” said Kim, who took the lead around the time he hit the bricks on Superior Street.

Jimenez was in fourth at the 10-mile mark but made up ground on the downhill portion. The 2007 winner and two-time runner-up passed defending champion Krige Schabort and training partner James Senbeta to move into second with 500 meters to go, but couldn’t catch Kim.

“I had no power for the sprint but I was very happy with my finish,” Jimenez said.

Women's race

After back-to-back runner-up finishes, Susannah Scaroni of Urbana, Ill., won the women’s wheelchair marathon in 2:02:52.1. Scaroni, 23, was second both years to seven-time winner and course record-holder Amanda McGrory, who also trains at the University of Illinois complex. McGrory was participating this weekend in the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in San Mateo, Calif.