WHEELING - Life has thrown JoNel Roth one curveball after another the past several years. But behind the wheel of her vintage raceboat, enveloped by spray and the roar of the engine, the disabled Army veteran and single mother of three can get lost for a while.
She can go to a place far removed from dodging bullets in Iraq, memories of agony so intense she could hardly sit up, and the heartache of losing both her parents in a span of about 18 months.
"It's been a struggle, and the boat has been one of the few things I look forward to," said Roth, a Cincinnati resident who will make her third trip to Wheeling this Labor Day weekend to participate in the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta. It will be her first trip as a boat owner.
JoNel Roth of Cincinnati, who is scheduled to participate in the Wheeling Vintage Raceboat Regatta this Labor Day weekend, is pictured driving her vintage hydroplane “Ike” during an event earlier this year.
On Aug. 31, visitors to Heritage Port will get the chance to mingle with Roth and the dozens of boat owners who come from all over the country to participate in the regatta, which is in its seventh year.
Among Roth's earliest memories are images of watching her father, Jerry Franken, tear up the water at various events, and as she grew toward adulthood she longed for the day when she would be able to pilot one of the speedy craft herself.
No matter how she begged, her father wouldn't hear of it - too dangerous, he said. Eventually, her frustration grew and her interest in the sport waned, and her father stopped racing after the American Powerboat Association mandated a new, encapsulated design for competitive events.
Roth, who has two daughters ages 18 and 11 and a 5-year-old son, said her military career began when she tired of working in the restaurant business and decided she needed a change.
"So I ended up joining the Army, which was really good for me. ... It got me back in shape, I got a decent income and insurance for the kids," she said, noting her first duty station was in Germany, somewhere she'd always wanted to go.
After two years on active duty, she joined the National Guard and within nine months was called to serve in Iraq, leaving in January 2005. One day that summer, her convoy came under enemy fire and she fell off her truck while attempting to take cover.
Afterward, her back hurt, but she didn't think much of it - soreness, after all, was nothing new for a supply sergeant accustomed to working 12- to 18-hour days making sure her division had adequate food and fuel. But it kept getting worse.
"I had crushed five discs and didn't know it. I just kept going for seven or eight months. ... One morning I woke up and I couldn't sit up on my own," she said. "That's when they decided to medevac me out. I did a lot of nerve damage."
Even after she returned home from Iraq as a combat veteran, her father, who had begun driving again on the vintage circuit, wouldn't budge from his refusal to let her drive the boat.
"I've been bombed and shot at, and everything else - and he still said no," Roth said.
Amid the difficulty of her injury and trying to raise three children with no income but disability, her father died in 2009. Less than a year and a half later, she lost her mother, as well.
Before he died, Franken sold his boat, "Rapid Fire," to Mark Lindsay of nearby Milford, Ohio. And during the 2010 regatta in Wheeling, Lindsay fulfilled a promise he made to Roth at Franken's funeral - he let her drive her father's boat.
She soon found a vintage hydroplane of her own - a sleek, silver craft named "Ike" - and, with the help of family and friends, began restoring it to running condition. She said the work, though slow at times, was a form of therapy, a welcome distraction as she continued to recover from her injuries and cope with the loss of her parents.
One of Roth's favorite things about the Wheeling regatta is the family-friendly atmosphere and variety of activities for children - an important factor for someone with a 5-year-old. She said the Sea Quest Kids program, which allows children to build their very own boats and take them for a ride on the river, is a great feature.
"My son's done that two years in a row, and he just thinks that's a blast," she said.