Hector Picard's journey from electrocution to inspiring triathlete

Riding a bike with only part of one arm is just one of the challenges Hector Picard faces as a triathlete. Frank Massenzio/Novation Settlement Solutions

Hector Picard has completed 115 triathlons, including four Ironman-distance races. He's cycled from Miami to Spokane, Washington, and from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to New York City. He's done an 8-mile, open-ocean swim.

He has never flinched when faced with big challenges. Yet often it's the little things he does that amaze observers. That's the way it is for a double-arm amputee.

"People are impressed with the fact I'm able to grab a can off a shelf and go to the register," he says.

Picard, 49, lost all of his right arm and half of his left because of an accident while working as an electrician in 1992. More than 13,000 volts of electricity surged through his body twice, leaving him covered with second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body.

His arms had to be amputated. He was in a coma for more than a month. When he finally went home to his wife and 1-year-old daughter, he made a vow to live as normal a life as possible. He says he didn't have time to feel sorry for himself. He felt fortunate to still be alive.

"I lost my arms, but I didn't lose that sense of responsibility that I have to be there for them," he recalls. "And that kept me going. I am Hector Picard. I am a man first, I'm a father, I'm a husband. I have to be that. I'm not going to sit back and wait for life to pass by. I'm going to grab it and live it to the fullest and I'm going to help people along the way."

A normal dad

After his accident, Picard had to go through extensive rehabilitation. He learned to use a prosthetic arm on his left side and, eventually, a myoelectric hand that can grasp objects and that allows him to do dexterous tasks such as buttoning his shirt. Over the next few years, he adapted to his new life.

He and his wife had another daughter; he earned his real estate license, made a good living; and then went through a divorce. Through it all, he tried to be a good father.

To Francys Eljabbour, 21, his youngest child, her dad "was just kind of normal."

"The accident was before I was born, so I've kind of never known him any different," Eljabbour says. "He's done everything since I was little. He never lets it stop him. It was never a disability. He did all the things other dads did. Taught me softball, went to all my games, coached my games, too."

She says her dad was always fixing things around the house and building contraptions of his own design, such as a device he could put on his foot that would allow him to throw a softball in the air and then hit with a bat. One of the first things Picard remembers putting together was a device for the end of his prosthesis that he could use to shoot a basketball.

Growing up, he'd always been active, playing basketball, baseball and football. But after losing his arms, that part of his life disappeared as he learned to cope with day-to-day life. It wasn't until after his divorce in 2008, years after the accident, that he began working out and getting fit. Picard was at a gym, doing a spin class, when two friends approached him with a question and suggestion: Could he do a triathlon?

It was something he'd never considered, but the idea intrigued him. He began experimenting and training, and did his first triathlon on July 4, 2009, a sprint-distance race (half-mile swim, 12.4-mile bike, 3.1-mile run) in Coconut Creek, Florida.

More than 100 triathlons later, Picard has his method down pat. He swims on his back, propelling himself with his feet. He also uses a modified bike. The only time he uses a prosthesis is in the transition areas.

However, that first triathlon was both trial and error. He tried swimming on his front, which didn't work.

"I started the race with fins, and 10 feet off the shore, the fins fell off and I said, 'You know what, it's either I drown or I quit or I finish this thing,' so I kept going and I figured out I can float. I know I can float on my back and go a long distance."

Picard uses a frog kick to move through the water on his back. He'll roll over on his side occasionally and use a flutter kick to sight in on his destination. He uses what remains of his left arm to fend off other swimmers when he's in a pack.

His bike is modified to allow him to apply the brakes with pressure from his right knee. He steers by putting his residual left arm into a coupler on the handlebars. He controls an electronic shifting system with his chin.

He has mastered transitions, too, using his residual arm, feet, teeth and prosthetic hand to change out of his wetsuit and get into his cycling gear and onto the bike in four minutes or less.

"I'll spend two of those minutes telling people, 'No thank you, no thank you,' because everybody wants to help me," Picard says. "But I'm able to do it all by myself just using what I have left."

When his friends approached him with the idea to do that first triathlon, Picard's goal was to do only one. But after finishing that initial race in 1:28:36 -- 344th out of 375 finishers -- he kept going. Why?

"You ask 100 people, and 99 would say, 'No, a guy without hands can't do that sport," he says. "And I enjoy that. I enjoy the fact that I'm doing something that most people think is impossible."

"Enjoying every minute"

Today, Picard is a sponsored professional triathlete and a motivational speaker with a heavy schedule of events. His website name carries his message: Dontstopliving.org. He remarried five years ago and is a grandfather. He loves delivering his message and competing.

"I approach every race with a smile on my face and enjoying every minute," he says. "The moment I can't smile before a race, I've got to give it up."

Recently he attempted a grueling 750-mile bike race in France, but was forced to drop out after 384 miles, knowing he wouldn't be able to finish under the 90-hour cutoff time. He's looking forward to the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California in September, an event he's wanted take on do for a while. It comprises a half-mile ocean swim, an 18-mile bike and a 4-mile run, and a whole new set of competitors and scenery.

In October, he'll become the first double-arm amputee to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

"That's the pinnacle," he says. "That's a big deal, and I'm hoping to do well there. We'll see if the Hawaiian gods are merciful."

Picard became the first double amputee to finish an official Ironman race by completing the 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City in 16 hours and 42 minutes. He ranks that among his top two achievements. The other is his 9:38:32 finish in the SavageMan Triathlon Festival in Maryland (1.2-mile swim, 55.7-mile bike, 13.1-mile run). His best Ironman-distance time is 15 hours, 13 minutes at the Beach2Battleship Triathlon in North Carolina in 2012.

In 2016, Picard plans to do 25 or more triathlons across the U.S., each as a benefit for a child with a disability. He'll carry a picture of the child during the event, and then give his medal to the child later.

"I'm not afraid to say I want to be a role model for kids," Picard says. "Especially kids with disabilities. When they're growing up and they're running into all these obstacles and all these hardships, they see someone like me -- and I'm similar to them -- and they can feel like they can accomplish anything."

Despite his success, things haven't come easy. He still has daily frustrations, like dropping a glass of water. And Cheryl Miller, who has been Picard's physical therapist since his accident, recalls the rough early days.

The national director of therapy operations at HealthSouth Corporation, Miller remembers helping Picard learn how to do everyday tasks such as answering the phone, turning on lights and brushing his teeth, while also helping him deal with pain and the slow healing process. But she also recalls Picard's positive spirit, sense of humor and willingness to tackle new challenges. In that regard, she says he's "very special."

"He never seems to be satisfied," she says. "He always wants to accomplish more to add meaning to his life and that of his family."

His efforts had an impact on Francys, who says she and her sister could never whine their way out of something difficult as kids.

"There's no excuses with him," she says, laughing. "So us growing up, we never had an excuse, because if he can do it, we definitely could do it."

Picard will continue to prove the impossible is possible. In every race, he has the chance to inspire.

"I'll go out there and I'll pass people that have to do a double take because they can't believe what they just saw, and I love that," he says. "I love that feeling and the challenge and knowing that I've inspired others."