The wheelchairs move so quickly on the Riverloop, sometimes it’s tough to tell what disability they have, and what the colors on some of the wheelchairs represent.

Valera Jacob Allen was born with spina bifida, and as a child, his toes where amputated.

“The surgery wasn’t well done because they left a small piece of bone on the bottom,” said Jacob, as he’s referred to. “So, every time I walk on it, it created pressure, and it started opening up.”

To prevent further infection, his legs were amputated as well, putting Jacob in a wheelchair.

“I just have to keep living and do whatever I can.”

Jacob’s surgeries happened in Ukraine, where he is from.

“I had a pretty good childhood in the village where I was living with my parents.”

Jacob had more adversity at age six when his father died. He lived in an orphanage for children with disabilities. A short exchange student stay with a host family in Houston led to an offer to be adopted.

“If I said yes, I would start living here and and I’d have to leave all my friends in Ukraine and all the people I know feel sad. But, on the other side, if I start living here, I grow and maybe I have a better life.”

Jacob decided to move to America. In Houston, he was required to take up a sport in high school. With his options limited, he took up adaptive athletics, specifically wheelchair racing.

“It was kind of hard in the beginning because I did not speak English very well.”

Helping Jacob out was Dustin Stallberg, a fellow student who was also born with spina bifida.

“He’s always a pleasant guy,” said Stallberg. “He’s always smiling in life, and has a pleasant attitude.”

Today, they compete for the University of Arizona wheelchair track and road racing team. And, they practice for marathons on Riverloop near Riilito Park.

“I have so many people motivating me and they help me to go further,” said Jacob.

Jacob was living his best life, as they say, until his birthday last February.

“The next day after I woke up in the morning, I saw the shocking news Russia invaded Ukraine.”

One of Jacob’s friends has already lost his life in the war.

“It was very sad.”

And, Jacob says he can’t always communicate with his mother. The blue and gold on his wheelchair are in support of his native Ukraine. Jacob pedals on, knowing a sad truth that many people in Ukraine will now have to live with disabilities as well, due to the war. Jacob longs to help them, beginning with a little inspiration.

“If you start doing it and keep going, and never give up, you can do anything you want to. You just have to believe it.”