Lawrence Viariseo has survived falling off a 100-foot cliff and breaking his back, paralysis from the waist down and bladder cancer. At 53, the Palo Alto native is voluntarily embarking on another challenge -- a 100-mile bike trip to raise money for cancer research.
Viariseo will bike in the Canary Challenge, a Sept. 29 fundraiser for the Stanford Cancer Center. The ride will take him from Palo Alto to Skyline Boulevard, through Pescadero and San Gregorio, onto state Route 1 and back down to Palo Alto.
Despite his paralysis, Viariseo is able to control the quadriceps in his upper thighs and one knee. To cycle, he shifts his upper-body muscles to move his hips and propel the pedals; plastic braces support his paralyzed legs.
When he needs to stop, he rides up to posts, stop signs, fences and lights that he can hold on to. He can't put his feet down to stop as other cyclists do because his legs cannot support his weight.
Viariseo said he always regarded doctors' prognoses as setting "a pretty low bar."
"I didn't accept my disability on my doctors' terms. I accepted it on my own terms. Doctors can't tell you who you are going to be. They can't measure your heart," he said early Wednesday morning outside Peet's Coffee and Tea on Homer Avenue.
Viariseo recalled the 1981 skiing accident that put him in a wheelchair. He was 21 then, an aspiring emergency medical technician/firefighter. He had moved to Lake Tahoe after graduating from Cubberley High School.
Studying for his career and working on the ski slopes at Squaw Valley, he did "extreme skiing" into the far side of the valley, skiing alone, on his days off.
"I skied off a cliff and fell 100 feet and broke my back," he said.
Laying face up, with multiple broken bones, Viariseo tried to lift himself from the snow, but he could not get up, he said. He did not yet realize he was paralyzed.
A dentist skiing in the same area saw Viariseo fall and rushed to help him. The dentist pulled up Viariseo's shirt to let the cold snow ice his back and reduce the swelling, then lay on top of him to keep him from rising and possibly severing his spinal cord, Viariseo recalled.
Viariseo spent three months in a Reno hospital and four more at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. Doctors hoped he could hold his body upright in a standing frame during physical therapy. It was their best hope, he said. But it was not what Viariseo wanted to hear.
"At 21, I was angry," he recalled. "When my friends were going to college, I had to wear diapers and learn to walk."
"I need my body back," he told doctors and therapists when asked what he needed.
It took two years to stand up in the supporting frame. His thighs were barely as wide as their bones, he said. Eventually he was able to ride a stationary bike. His brother would slip Viariseo's feet into shoes bolted onto the pedals, he said.
Viariseo stayed on the bike for three hours at a time, eventually logging more than 3,000 miles. As his thighs grew stronger and bulked up, he thought he would try riding his father's bike. But after three turns of the pedals, his foot slipped off, lodging in the spokes. Viariseo crashed to the ground and broke his arm, he said.
But that did not deter him.
"Six days later I cut off the cast and made sure I pushed down when I pedaled," he said.
He used a mountain bike with large pedals and adapted them so his feet would not slip off.
In 1989 he rode solo across the country to New York. More than 20 years later, Viariseo still rides 40 to 45 miles each day.
Three years ago life threw him another curve ball. After several months of fatigue and bladder infections, he was diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer. His bladder was removed and he had chemotherapy, vomiting every day.
He has been cancer free for a year. Participating in the bike challenge is a way to give back and to show the love he feels for his doctors and medical staff at Stanford, he said.
He's already exceeded his goal to raise $2,000, bringing in $2,385 so far.
Viariseo, who uses a wheelchair, said he understands that people look at him differently -- and he hasn't let life changes get in the way of exploring new frontiers.
"I know I'm doing the right thing when I'm frightened. When change is OK, you end up becoming a better person. When you fight change, you regress," he said.
An artist, Viariseo has dedicated himself to portraits and landscapes in paint and pastel. This month, he will participate in Italian street painting at the Palo Alto Festival of the Arts. He's planning an Andy Warhol-esque pastel of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, he said.
Viariseo said he feels a connection with Jobs, who also had cancer but died last October from the disease. Viariseo's stepfather had a similar personality to Jobs': tough, tenacious, brilliant and temperamental.
"I learned a lot from him and his tenacity," he said.
On days when Viariseo doesn't feel like biking, he calls himself "Lazy Larry," he said. But he has a remedy.
"Whenever you have to have motivation ... you have to remember where you were at. Whenever I don't feel like riding, I remember what it was like when I was getting needles stuck in me all the time and was in so much pain," he said.
"I just know how lucky I am."