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Augusto “Goose” Perez keeps coming back for more


For Augusto “Goose” Perez, East Syracuse, the quest to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski team has taken on mythic proportions.

According to the ancient Greeks, Sisyphus, a king punished for trying to cheat death, was sentenced to eternally roll a huge boulder up a steep hill every day, only to watch it roll back down again at day’s end in a cruel mockery of his effort.

For Mr. Perez, it’s become reality. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at 28, he discovered the medication he had to take to deal with excruciating phantom limb pain left him bedridden. A lifelong athlete, he decided to fight back the best way he knew how, by turning to sport. And then he had to do it again. And again. And again.

Mr. Perez handles the predicament with a sense of humor. After being diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma in 2000, he said, “I have a better chance to win the lottery than to get this kind of cancer. And I got it four times. So I must be lucky.”

The cancer came back two more times and he had to have his left leg amputated in 2003. He keeps the cremated ashes at home.

“I was attached to it for a little while,” he joked.

Then Mr. Perez came back in a big way, gaining a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling Team for the 2006 Torino Games before taking up adaptive outrigger canoeing and winning the 200-meter sprint world championship in 2009.

Despite little prior experience, he eventually found his way to Nordic skiing and the biathlon.

“I did downhill a couple of times when I was young; that’s about it. I learned how to ski this last year, how to shoot, and how to do the long distance,” he said.

He also has competed in marathons, including the 2012 Empire State Marathon in Syracuse, which he finished in 1:45:43 using a hand cycle.

Mr. Perez, who turned 40 in November, is married to Brenda L. Calderon, whom he affectionately calls his “local coach.” She fills in for his team of Olympic coaches — the closest in Maine — by keeping him disciplined, managing his diet and making sure he gets enough rest.

Her husband’s tenacious devotion to his sports is a way to set an example for the family’s 8-year-old twin daughters, Ainoa and Iker, Ms. Calderon said.

“He always tries, no matter how hard life hits him; he just keeps trying, trying, and trying,” she said. “This is the only way for him to show that he’s still alive.”

“It’s an inspiring message,” said Carolyn K. Rees, president of the Winona Forest Recreation Association.

The association helps to sponsor Mr. Perez by grooming certain trails for his use, since he requires hard-packed snow for his training, which takes up about 27 hours per week between the trail and the gym.

Mr. Perez, who came to the U.S. from Spain during his senior year of high school, attended Paul Smith’s College to play soccer before transferring to LeMoyne College, Syracuse, to complete his bachelor’s degree. After graduation he worked for the nonprofit Spanish Action League as the director of youth services, running education programs for at-risk students. Just before his first diagnosis, he worked for Arise Child and Family Services, Syracuse, teaching life skills to children with developmental disabilities.

For now, Mr. Perez’s dreams to make it into the Paralympic elite are self-funded. If he is successful, the Olympic committee may provide him a stipend and pay for some of his travel. It won’t be much, Ms. Calderon said.

Money already has caused the couple enough trouble.

In October 2011 they were charged with fraud in Onondaga County for failing to list $23,500 from the U.S. Olympic Committee on a Medicaid application. County officials said the household received $19,873.91 to which it was not entitled.

The money was designated for training purposes only, and the couple fought back. The case against Ms. Calderon was dropped, while Mr. Perez continued to fight before succumbing to mounting legal costs. In the end, it was just cheaper to pay what the government asked, he said.

It’s a settlement that continues to bother Mr. Perez, who had never been forced to quit anything before.

According to Mr. Perez, instead of sitting at home, helpless, addicted to pain medication, he chose to go out and do something with his life to prove to everyone that “cancer does not have to define you.”

“I never would have gotten in trouble if I had just stayed home and been a drug addict,” he said.

Mr. Perez was diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time while fighting the case.

For now, this weekend’s 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., is the next giant boulder for him to move up the hill. It’s a task at which he is determined to excel, even after undergoing radiation treatment last week.

“Once an Olympian, always an Olympian. Once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient,” he said, laughing.

He will be racing not only for himself but also for a chance to earn more invitations for his teammates to compete in the 2014 Paralympic games in Sochi, Russia, which will take place two weeks after the regular Olympic games at the same venues.

The only difference, according to Mr. Perez, “is that they take the Ben-Gay away and bring in the WD-40.”

He said he hopes to break the top 15 there.

“You always race for first,” he said. “You go until you have no more energy, then wherever you fall, that’s where you fall.”

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