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Mendoza Keeps On Rolling

Marathon: Polio victim captures the wheelchair division for the fifth consecutive time.


Saul Mendoza, a native of Mexico City who now lives in Warm Springs, Ga., has become a big wheel in Los Angeles.

He is cinco for cinco, having won the wheelchair division of the Los Angeles Marathon for a fifth consecutive time Sunday.

His winning time was 1 hour 32 minutes 50 seconds.

That's well off the course record of 1:28:43 he and Heinz Frei of Switzerland set in 1997 when Mendoza won by a whisker, but Mendoza finished well ahead of second-place finisher Ernest Van Dyk of France, who came in at 1:33:14 Sunday.

Third place went to Joel Jeannot of France, who had a time of 1:35:34. Jeannot finished second to Mendoza last year.

"I like this course because of the hills," said Mendoza, 34. "I'm a climber."

He has a muscular upper body but weighs only 125 pounds. The hills work to his advantage because his lighter weight makes them easier to conquer.

He said the threat of rain didn't worry him.

"I like it when it rains," he said. "It may bother others, but it doesn't bother me."

The wheelchair competitors stayed bunched until Mile 5, then Mendoza began to pull away.

"I felt good the whole race," he said.

Finishing first in a weak women's field was Ariadne Hernandez, 35, of Puebla, Mexico. Her time of 2:04:30 is 26:31 off the course record of 1:46:09 set by Jean Driscoll of Champaign, Ill., in 1996.

Mendoza and Hernandez each won $2,000.

Mendoza and Hernandez are both victims of a polio epidemic in Mexico that affected thousands of babies in the late 1960s. Mendoza was barely a year old when he was stricken, and Hernandez said she was one year eight months.

Hernandez teaches junior high Spanish in her homeland and has to find three or four hours a day to train.

Mendoza has a sponsor, Eagle Sportschair, and has had the luxury of being a full-time wheelchair racer since finishing his studies in industrial design at Metropolitan University in Mexico City.

"I do 20 to 25 miles a day," Mendoza said. "That's about 125 miles a week. But I also listen to my body. Some days my body might say, 'Do eight miles,' and my schedule says to do 20. I do eight."

He has become a national hero in Mexico, particularly since winning the wheelchair 1,500, an exhibition race, in a packed Olympic Stadium in Sydney last year.

He has lived in Warm Springs, about an hour and a half southwest of Atlanta, since 1996. He moved there after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, where he won a gold medal in the 500-meter race.

Mendoza lives and trains at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute, where the motto is: "To empower individuals with disabilities to achieve personal independence."

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who contracted polio at 39, came to Warm Springs in 1924 at the urging of his friend George Peabody to search for relief. Peabody told Roosevelt about the 88-degree waters that flow from the ground there.

Today, the Roosevelt Institute's staff yearly treats more than 5,000 people with various disabilities. Mendoza is proof that they must be doing something right.

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