Photo: Joe Berenyi of Oswego won three cycling medals at the recent 2012 Paralympic Games in London, and has been named WCC’s Featured Alumnus. Berenyi played baseball for the Chiefs before losing his right arm in an accident. Courtesy Photo
SUGAR GROVE—Over the last few months, Waubonsee Community College graduate Joe Berenyi, an Oswego resident, has won gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, met President Barack Obama, and been hailed as a hero at local and national appearances.
In recognition of all of these recent accomplishments, as well as the many years of dedication and strength that went into achieving them, Waubonsee is proud to name Berenyi its Featured Alumnus for October.
Growing up in Aurora, Berenyi was always an athlete. He played football and baseball at Aurora Central Catholic before playing baseball at Waubonsee in 1988 and 1989. A pitcher and outfielder, his school record of three doubles in a single game still stands.
“Joe was a quiet, tough player,” said Waubonsee baseball coach Dave Randall. “And he’s used that competitiveness to excel in what he’s doing now.”
After graduating from Waubonsee in 1989, Berenyi’s playing days were over, but his competitive fire still burned.
“I had always liked riding my bike, and I started to do it more for exercise,” he said. “But I like to compete, and so entered a few local races.”
Then, in his second year of cycling, the day before a big race, Berenyi was involved in a construction accident that resulted in a broken leg, shattered kneecap and the loss of his right arm.
Needless to say, recovery was not easy, but after a few years, Berenyi decided it was time to try out the truth of the old axiom about not being able to forget how to ride a bicycle. Prairie Path Cycles was able to modify bikes to include electronic shifting gears and brakes that work with just one lever so Berenyi can ride using only his left arm.
By 2009, Berenyi was back in local races, and in 2010 he was at the Paracycling National Championships.
“I was interested to see how I would fare there, because everyone I had raced around here had been able bodied,” Berenyi said.
Berenyi took silver in that first paracycling race and hasn’t looked back since. In this, his first year of international competition, Berenyi won medals in three of his five events at the Paralympic Games—a gold in the 3 kilometer individual pursuit, a silver in the men’s individual time trial and a bronze in the track cycling mixed sprint competition.
“It was bigger, better and more impressive than I expected,” Berenyi said of his Paralympic experience.
At 6,000 strong, the crowd at the games was large and especially loud, given that Berenyi’s competitor in the gold medal race was British.
“The decibel level was like a jet engine, but it didn’t distract me,” Berenyi said. “I knew what I had to do—just pedal.”
Pedaling is mostly all Berenyi had time for while in London. He and his family were able to take the train to Paris for a day, but otherwise, Berenyi was training, recovering and competing. And, of course, living life in the Olympic village.
“The food in the village was very good,” he said. “They have stations with food from all over the world.”
Berenyi will have plenty of chances to sample more international cuisine as he continues to paracycle on the world stage over the next few years. While he hasn’t ruled out competing in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, right now he’s trying to enjoy being home and adjusting to his newfound celebrity.
After receiving a hero’s welcome when he returned home to Oswego on Sept. 10, he was off to the White House on Sept. 13, where he and a group of 400 other Paralympians and Olympians got a chance to meet the Obamas and Vice President Biden.
“I don’t know how it happened, but I was chosen to stand in the front row right behind the president,” Berenyi said. “I was right next to [Olympic sprinter] Tyson Gay and two down from [Olympic swimmer] Michael Phelps. I think that photo might end up being the family Christmas card this year.”