Wheelchair marathoner ends cross-country journey in West Hempstead

Gabriel Cordell, 42, hopes that his 3,100-mile cross-country trip via manual wheelchair will inspire people and show them that “you can do anything you set your mind to." Videojournalist: Chris Ware (July 8, 2013)

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Gabriel Cordell's journey across America ended at 7:15 p.m. Monday night when his wheelchair crossed the finish line at West Hempstead High School.

Supporters cheered the paraplegic ultramarathoner who rolled along the nation's belly at a pace averaging 31 miles per day in a 99-day odyssey across 3,100 miles.

"I wanted to inspire a nation that is sometimes complacent with their lives," said a visibly fatigued but exhilarated Cordell, who began the trip in Santa Monica early April 1. "You can do anything you set your mind to. . . . Think about your life and what you can do to make someone else's better."

Inspire he did -- drawing more than 500 people, fire trucks and a police escort to the finish line on Nassau Boulevard. Cordell, 42, was the first person to travel across the country in a standard manual wheelchair.

"I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started, but I knew it would be the most challenging thing I ever did in my life," he said as he was presented with a West Hempstead High School football jersey and a certificate. "I knew once I told the first person, there was no turning back."

Cordell's father, mother and sister were there to cheer him, as were many people touched by his feat of sheer endurance.

"I just think it's awesome," said Chris Sennesi of West Hempstead. "I was tired from work today, but I figured if he can travel all this way, then I can get in a car and come out here to support him."

Christopher Russo of West Hempstead said he attended West Hempstead High School with Cordell, whose jersey bore the year he graduated -- '88.

"It's overwhelming to see all of these people of all ages come together," Russo said. "It's a great lesson for kids and for anyone who may be struggling."

Cordell's journey began when he was 22 years old.

He was driving to his first professional acting audition in New York City when another car struck his, paralyzing him from the waist down. He still became an actor and landed roles in commercials, films and on stage.

In February, he brought the idea for a documentary to Lisa France, an independent film director and producer, and the two collaborated on "Roll With Me: A Journey Across America," their first documentary.

"It's an absolute miracle, and we could not have done it without the kindness of strangers," France said last week. "People cooking us dinner, people letting us stay in their homes."

Following 10 days in West Hempstead, the team will be headed to Los Angeles to begin postproduction work on the film.

With Zachary R. Dowdy

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