Wearing bib numbers 18998 and 18999, Joe Rooney ’08 and Mikey Nichols stood at the starting line of the New York City Marathon on November 3. The race was the culmination of a shared goal and a testament to the power of friendship.
Rooney, an English teacher at Monroe Township High School, first met Nichols while he was a student. The two connected in the hallways over their shared love for words, specifically hip-hop music and poetry.
In 2014, during Nichols’ sophomore year, an ice hockey injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Through rehabilitation, he was able to regain the use of his arms. While the local community rallied around Nichols, Rooney was left stunned by his resolve.
“Mikey and I kept in touch over the years and developed a friendship,” he says. “He became the most impactful hero I ever met and I’m honored to call him a friend.”
At a basketball game in 2017, Nichols mentioned to Rooney that he’d like to handcycle the New York City Marathon, which would require a special chair with pedals, brakes, and a steering wheel that could be manipulated by hand.
The timing of their conversation was serendipitous as Rooney had already been training for the Philadelphia Marathon that year. The groundwork to experience the event in tandem was laid.
In 2019, they put the plan into action.
“It all stemmed from that conversation; we quickly made steps to make that dream a reality,” Rooney says. “I became inspired by the dream to push my hero the 26.2 miles.”
Thankfully, Rooney possessed the athletic prowess to face the demands of their shared goal. He has been an avid runner since the eighth grade and was a member of the cross-country team at Christian Brothers Academy before training with the TCNJ Triathlon and Cycling Club in college. He’s also competed as a triathlete and biked across the United States in 2011 and Australia and New Zealand in 2014 for the Mama Mare Breast Cancer Foundation. His first marathon was in 2018.
Their training regimen was aggressive, beginning with a four-mile race in September. Within a month they had moved to a 10-mile run. By October, Rooney and Nichols competed in the Jersey Shore Half Marathon, where they finished 59th overall.
On November 3, with Nichols situated in an aerodynamic three-wheeled racing chair, Rooney pushed his hero through the streets of New York City.
“I’m still processing the actual race,” Rooney says. “It was such an adrenaline-inducing course with a consistent, ecstatic crowd lining the streets, long inclines and declines over bridges, and diversely populated runners sharing comradery. Our community rallied behind us. It was entertaining to see our faithful following grow in size.”
The pair, who ran on behalf of The Reeve Foundation, have raised nearly $45,000. Their story has been told by News 12 New Jersey, CBS News, Access Hollywood, ABC News, Fox 5 News, The Asbury Park Press, and The New York Post, among many others.
When they finally crossed the finish line, clocking in at 3 hours and 51 minutes, Rooney was only able to utter a few words through panted breath before being whisked away for another interview.
“We did it,” he said, as the friends embraced.
— David Pavlak