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Wheeling for warriors

Physical therapist rollerblades from Jackson to Salt Lake City to support recovery program for veterans with physical, mental injuries

Dusty Campbell begins his 285-mile rollerblade trek to Salt Lake City on Friday, July 2, 2021, in front of the veterans monument on the Town Square in Jackson, Wyo. Campbell's 47-hour trek was a way to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. (Ryan Dorgan/Jackson Hole News & Guide via AP)

JACKSON, Wyo. — After rolling triumphantly into Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park waving an American flag on Independence Day, Dusty Campbell promptly collapsed onto the grass.

There, the 31-year-old physical therapist was met by a small crowd and a barrage of puppy kisses from his German and Dutch Shepherd, Koa., the Jackson Hole News & Guide reported.

Campbell completed the 285-mile circuit from Jackson to Salt Lake City in just 47 hours and raised $15,200 for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps veterans recover from mental and physical injuries. With those service members in mind, Campbell rollerbladed through two nights, resting only for three 30-minute naps.

He was still on his wheels at 4:20 a.m. on July 4, with about 50 miles left to go.

When he first set off from Town Square in Jackson, there wasn’t much fanfare. The stagecoach driver gave him a tip of the hat, and some tourists vaguely noted the size of his wheels.

The symbolism of the location was noted, though, in Instagram live videos that showed the rollerblader in front of the veteran memorial in the center of the square.

“In my mind there’s no greater cause,” Campbell said.

A few people familiar with the mission gave rallying honks as he rolled out of town on Highway 89. But once he passed Smith’s Food and Drug, he was on his own.

In gold wireless earbuds, he listened to audiobooks to pass the time. His girlfriend, father and stepmom trailed closely behind in a support van stocked with snacks and spare wheels.

The strategy was to swap into a pair of beat-up hockey skates on treacherous downhill descents; the idea being the added friction and smaller wheels would slow him down.

“But it was still sketch,” the rollerblader said.

Luckily, they didn’t need to bring out the climbing harness, a dramatic last-resort option with questionable logistics. That turned out to be a non-option anyway since Campbell forgot to bring the tow ropes.

After Alpine, there were two grueling ascents of about 1,000 vertical feet, and his feet were already hurting. Despite rocking some of the best wheels from Inline Warehouse, the sheer distance was getting the best of him.

“None of the prep seemed to prepare me for the real deal,” he wrote to fans on Instagram.

Campbell completed over 100 miles on the first day, working into the morning hours of Saturday before catching some sleep in the van.

Day two was rough, but he was able to avoid some key concerns — lace bite, chafing, dehydration — thanks to some clutch preventative measures.

While he was gearing up near the square, he stuffed saturated sponges under the lip of his blades. He wrapped gel pads into his socks to ward off the worst blisters.

As a physical therapist, Campbell is well-connected to a community of athletes in Salt Lake City, but most of them thought he was crazy. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, he’s not exactly built for endurance.

He also didn’t have many direct sounding boards. While Rollerblade trains a marathon team each year, the level of endurance needed for 285 miles of near-continuous blading didn’t have much of a precedent.

But what he lacked in experience, he made up for in grit.

Now that he’s completed the feat, Campbell has one key piece of advice for similarly-minded athletes: “You gotta have your ‘why.’ “

For him, the Wounded Warrior Project was personal. After multiple friends and family members served in the armed forces, it was Dusty Campbell who talked them off “PTSD ledges” when they returned.

Campbell said mental illness is still “grossly under-appreciated,” and he hoped spreading awareness for the nonprofit would also bring more attention to the mental impact of war.

He still remembers one of his college friends doubled over in the back room of a party, sobbing uncontrollably. He felt he should be with his troop, not safe in the States.

In that moment, Campbell felt a profound helplessness. But he’s since realized his own potential for impact.

Reflecting on the journey as his friends played paddleball in the Salt Lake sun, Campbell said he was satisfied with the fundraising success, even though there were a few large donors who didn’t come through.

That fundraiser is still going, and can be found at TinyURL.com/wheelin4warriors.

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