Four months into his deployment to Afghanistan, Army Specialist Stefan LeRoy of the 82nd Airborne, stepped on an improvised explosive device while carrying a fellow soldier to a waiting helicopter moments after explosions went off all around them.
The life-changing incident on June 7, 2012, left Stefan without his legs, which were partially amputated above the knee on his left and below the knee on his right. The then 21-year-old hasn’t slowed down in the years since the traumatic event that occurred thousands of miles from his home.
“I am constantly adapting, and I still have frequent pain, but my life is my new normal,” Stefan, now 26, tells PEOPLE. “I find myself catching my falls without thinking and getting back up.”
The Army veteran has since completed the 26.2 miles of the Boston Marathon in 2013 and 2015 using a handcycle—a modified tricycle that is powered by a person’s hands rather than their legs. Then, once he was fitted with prosthetic legs, he finished the 2016 Boston Marathon in 6 hours and 43 minutes.
Running has given him a renewed freedom, Stefan says.
“Running calms me down and reenergizes me. As soon as I knew I would walk, I wanted to run,” Stefan says. “My first day walking without holding rails, I tried to run. It definitely didn’t look like it, but I just told my body to run. It took some time to get my mind and legs on the same page. I feel so normal running. It’s like nothing changed.”
During the 2016 race, Stefan ran alongside his fiancée, Katie Smith, and their pal David Cordani, the president and CEO of Cigna, who helped him navigate the route.
“Stefan is out there in the Boston course for over six hours, fighting against every hill and every step,” David, 52, tells PEOPLE. “As a veteran, he’s made enormous sacrifices for his country and he has not let what happened on the battlefield hold him back.”
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Stefan met David through the company’s partnership with Achilles International, an organization dedicated to enabling people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events. Stefan and Cordani will be pounding the pavement once again on April 16 for this year’s race in Beantown, two years after their first Boston Marathon together.
On Monday, Cordani will play an active role in making sure Stefan stays safe and focused while running through the crowded streets of Boston. He’ll guide Stefan through the water paper cups littered across his path and make sure he stays hydrated and paced. Cordani will also be carrying an Allen key in case Stefan’s prosthetics need adjustments mid-race.
“Stefan’s sheer force of will and commitment after he was injured is so motivating,” David says. “What excites me the most about Stefan is that anything is possible for him. And, he knows it. He embodies what’s best about the human spirit.”
While he has done incredible things in the face of the trauma he endured, Stefan admits it didn’t come easy.
“Life is tough and sometimes all I want to do is throw away my blades and quit,” he says. “When we turned the corner on Boylston Street the last two times, I wanted to cry. Most of the time, I just try to have fun with my fiancée Katie and our friends.”
Stefan hopes to empower other people with disabilities to remain strong despite their hardships, because triumph may be waiting on the other side.
“If it was easy, it wouldn’t be called adaptive,” he says, referencing the term for sports used by people with disabilities to remain active. “Even though I constantly work through my disability, running in Boston means I am undefeated.”