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Wheelchair marathoner Gabriel Cordell brings inspiration to hometown

West Hempstead native Gabriel Cordell, who recently completed

West Hempstead native Gabriel Cordell, who recently completed a 3,100-mile journey across the country in his wheelchair, met with handicapped youth and their families in West Hempstead to share his story. From left: Peri Finkelstein, 13, of West Hempstead, Cordell, Kevin McDermott, 26, of West Hempstead, and Chris Costello, 22, of Centereach. (July 16, 2013) Credit: Amy Onorato

Last Monday, Gabriel Cordell completed his 3,100-mile wheelchair marathon across the country when he crossed the finish line in his hometown of West Hempstead.

During his 10-day-stay in New York, Cordell has already used his experience to help others. Last week, he visited with children at the YMCA Summer Day Camp at Glen Cove, and on Tuesday, he made a more personal visit to the home of Peri Finkelstein, 13, who suffers from muscular dystrophy.

“It’s powerful to affect people,” Cordell said.

In both cases, Cordell spoke about his experience on the road and overcoming obstacles.

“It’s amazing, you can’t imagine that someone would be doing something like this across America,” said Finkelstein, who also recently met Mets player David Wright after the California-based charity When U Dream A Dream facilitated a meeting.

Finkelstein’s mother, Lori, reached out to Cordell through his Facebook page and invited other local members of the handicapped community and their families to her home.

“You always want to see someone who grew up in your neighborhood do something amazing,” Lori Finkelstein said. “I thought he would be a very good role model for my daughter to meet.”

Sitting on the Finkelstein’s patio, it was the little things that were of the most interest to the crowd of 13: How did Cordell keep control while rolling over pebbles and sand, which can often offset the thin wheels of a wheelchair? Did he use extra wheels? How much training did he do?

Ann Pellegrino, 46, of Centereach, whose son, Chris Costello, 22, uses a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in a car accident two years ago, said she doesn’t think other people understand the limitations of someone in a wheelchair.

“It’s just an awe-inspiring story, that someone would even dream of doing that,” she said.

Cordell spent 99 days on the road, weaving through mountains, across interstates and along back road routes from Los Angeles to Long Island. Cordell rolled with nothing but his wheelchair, using his right arm (he calls it his “bionic arm”) to propel himself forward and his left arm to give him direction.

“That’s ridiculous, all arms and shoulders,” Kevin McDermott, of West Hempstead, said, waving his arms in a circle around the wheels of his own wheelchair.

McDermott, 26, has spent the past four years working from home to regain movement in his body after a diving accident left him completely immobile. Now, McDermott has control over his upper body and is working to regain control of his legs.

Along the way, Cordell said he fell several times, endured shoulder pain from strenuous rolling and went through two sets of wheelchair tires. Regardless of the obstacles, Cordell was determined to persevere.

For Cordell, his journey across America is only the beginning. On Friday, Cordell plans to travel back to California to begin turning his journey into a full-length documentary. Cordell also plans to work with the YMCA to fundraise for his next endeavor: rolling across Israel to promote peace. He knows the trip presents a set of new dangers, but Cordell is ready to take on the challenge.

“If I could save a life, that’s what it would all be for,” Cordell said.

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