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MMC Alum Uses Comeback from Life-Altering Accident to Inspire Others

Five years ago, Roman “Rome” Leykin ’09 was headed to work as a web developer when his world changed in an instant: While waiting on a subway platform in Brooklyn, he suffered an epileptic seizure that sent him into the path of an oncoming train. Leykin, 36, lost both legs in the accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. However, in the years of recovery that followed, he not only resumed his life but found new purpose, emerging as a competitive para-athlete determined to inspire others.

Leykin drew national attention last fall as he prepared to compete in the TCS New York City Marathon as a hand cyclist, appearing on Tamron Hall, CBS News, and more. This year, he’s training for a Berlin marathon in September; his ultimate goal is to finish the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a collection of high-profile marathons around the globe.

As March—which also serves as Brain Injury Awareness Month—comes to a close, we spoke with Leykin about his life and how far resolve and a positive outlook can take you.

 

After the accident, how did you get your start in athletic competitions?
Achilles International, which provides training and race opportunities for athletes with disabilities, had a hand-cycling clinic at the facility where I did my post-accident recovery. The guy who led it, Dominic Romano, is an above-the-knee amputee like me, and he would tell us, ‘Hey, you don’t need legs to do this.’ The first time I took a hand-bike around the track, I instantly fell in love because it meant I could move fast just using my upper body strength. I remember it was cold that day, and I was with my dad. Dom made this joke—he said, ‘Well, we know Rome’s legs won’t get cold, so don’t worry about it!’—and we had a huge laugh. That was a big moment because my dad and I hadn’t laughed like that in a while.

I started racing with a local Achilles chapter. Later on, the Challenged Athletes Foundation gave me a grant so that I could get my very own hand bike. Once that happened, I was able to compete all over the place, and that’s what I do! I like that I have my own time to beat and that these races draw a lot of people so I can show others, especially amputees and people with disabilities, what’s possible.

You’ve got quite a following on TikTok. What made you decide to share your journey there?
One of my initial posts documented the first time I tried using my tech legs (high-tech prosthetics). You don’t get the hang of them overnight and I was hoping to get feedback from people who were already very fluent in walking with them. And then the video blew up—it got 21 million views. So, I kept posting and used it as an avenue to show my progress. After a couple of months, I got better with my prosthetic legs and realized that the videos weren’t just about me anymore. They stopped being about asking for help and became more about inspiring others.

Living with a TBI is less visible in many ways than living as an amputee. How has the TBI affected you?
You never fully recover from a TBI, so I’ll be dealing with it for the rest of my life. If I didn’t tell you I had it, you probably would have never guessed, but it changes you. I was struck in the frontal lobe, and because of that, I was liable to have these very negative reactions to very small things. I mean, crazy outbursts. That happened a lot, especially right after the accident, when I was struggling to learn everything again—how to read, write, and communicate. I was always worried about reacting correctly with and around people.

My doctor eventually put me on an antidepressant that helped level me out. It’s changed my entire thinking about psychiatric medications. I used to think of them as something you kept secret and hid from others, but now I want people to know how helpful they’ve been. For me, they’ve been life-changing.

You’ve said that life is better after your accident, which may surprise some people. What do you mean by that?
In a way, I’m much more active now than I was before the accident and much more outgoing. Back then, my mentality was I’m a web developer, I don’t necessarily have to engage others. But by participating in all these adaptive sports competitions, I’ve met the coolest people in the world. It has really opened my eyes. I’m also in the best shape I’ve ever been. So, I kind of see the accident as bringing out who I really should have been—it just took me losing a couple of legs and getting a brain injury to do it.

You have a very positive outlook. How did you cultivate that?
At some point, I realized that I could go from problem to problem and sink deep into a hole and isolate myself, or I could get up and look at the positives. And then you build some momentum. You learn something you didn’t know before, and though you might have a little setback, you get up again. So for me, it’s more or less this relentless positive, forward momentum. My attitude is, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s go.’

Published: March 27, 2023