It’s not always the grand gesture that’s meaningful when it comes to making life a little easier and fun for a handicapped person, said David Frei.
It can be a simple bridging of gaps that makes accessibility a reality for people like Frei. In St. Charles County, it literally involved building a small bridge at Bangert Island Park.
Frei wants to ride the trail at the park but he and his bicycling friends found that his three-wheeled trike-bike was too wide for crossing an existing bridge that spanned a slough on the River Link Trail at the entrance of the park. The park is along the Missouri River, just south of the Interstate 70 bridge.
Recently, St. Charles County Park employees teamed up with the local bicycle community and built a wider bridge that is providing better access to the trail. Steel beams were set, a bridge deck was assembled and more than 1,300 joints were welded together to create a 4-foot-wide bridge with a 20-foot span – twice the size of the old bridge.
“We have a wonderful relationship with the St. Charles County cycling community,” said Ryan Graham, director the county Parks Department. Graham said parks officials are glad that “it was brought to our attention that widening the bridge at the park would make it more accessible to all park visitors. Our goal is to ensure guests in all our parks have an enjoyable experience.”
Parks officials say the county strives to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards with its playgrounds, restrooms, parking lots, picnic tables and shelters.
Frei isn’t an expert on accessibility but he has the authority to speak about it. The 53-year-old Kirkwood resident has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis [ALS], a neurological condition that can limit muscle movement, often strikes quickly and has no known cure. It’s known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Two years ago, Frei was an adventurous mountain biker who was part of local bicycle club that, in 2009, was the top team in the country. The team finished second in both 2015 and 2016. Frei participated in events where he ran, paddled and biked.
“I was good at that because I like all events,” Frei said. “I was never the best biker but I was a very good one. I was never the best runner but I was a very good one. I wasn’t the best paddler … [but] you put them all together and not many people could do them all well.”
Frei first noticed a change two years ago when he found himself in the middle of a pack of racers during a sprint to a wooded area during a mountain bike event. In 2015, he was first. In 2016, he thought, “I’m doing everything the same, what’s the deal?” He was a year older but experiencing a huge difference. It was the first indication that something was amiss.
At the end of an adventure race, where participants walked a muddy creek bed, stepping in “shoe-sucking mud,” Frei said his muscles failed and he kept falling in the mud. Before, he had no problem picking his feet up out of mud. He was, after all, the strongest member of his team.
His ALS diagnosis came in 2016. Frei now uses a wheelchair. As often happens with the disease, he’s getting weaker, noticing physical decline every week now, he said. But he wanted to continue to ride trails.
He went from riding a standard mountain bike, to a pedal-assisted bike, to a trike-style, three-wheeled mountain bike. Bangert Island Park offered the best opportunity. The 160-acre park, which is just off the Katy Trail in St. Charles has nearly four miles of natural-surface trail available for hikers and bicyclists. The park’s terrain is relatively flat with soft soil conditions. The wood-lined path offers scenic views of the Missouri River. The park also has abundant wildlife and native flora.
“There’s a give and take and Bangert is a good middle ground. The dirt trails are not wheelchair friendly by any means but, if you have a really strong person with some bravery, you can do it. It just had that one bottleneck – the bridge,” Frei said. Now, it’s a bottleneck no more.
Frei said he doesn’t dwell on what he’s been dealt. “It’s a horrible disease, I try not to think about it too much. I research it about enough to make the decisions I have to make. You can’t beat it,” he said. Instead, he’s trying to ignore the disease and find new challenges.
That night, after the interview with Mid Rivers Newsmagazine, Frei was to be off with his buddies racing go-carts. Frei said he can’t work the gas and brake pedals well anymore so he keeps inventing new ways to keep driving and competing with his friends. His friends have to lift him into the go-cart and use a confusing array of bungee cords to strap his legs in. He said he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to race that night but he said he was going. “When in doubt, it’s worth it,” Frei said.