Challenged Athletes Foundation: Out of the Flames

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By Morgan Stanfield
A fire burns a hillside as it moves west toward San Diego, California, October 23, 2007. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Thomas E. Coffman (Released).
A fire burns a hillside as it moves west toward San Diego, California, October 23, 2007. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Thomas E. Coffman (Released).

In their famously difficult and dangerous sport, triathletes come to know courage. They triumph over their own limitations. And they see firsthand that that there can be no victory, or even competition, without a supporting communityrace organizers, volunteers, fundraisers, and the people who line the course and cheer. The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), San Diego, California, may understand the power and meaning of the sport better than any other group. Since 1994, members have held the Annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC), a half-Ironman triathlon fundraiser that also hosts a sports expo, training workshops for people with physical disabilities, live entertainment, and even a family-fun carnival to raise millions of dollars toward grants for specialized sports equipment for athletes with physical disabilities. And in 2008, it triumphed over its own greatest challenge-a year of devastating fires, financial losses, and painful disappointment.

In 1993, Jim MacLaren, a record-smashing athlete with a unilateral transtibial amputation, was cycling in a triathlon when he was hit by a van and paralyzed from the chest down. Virginia Tinley, now the executive director of CAF, was one of a group of his friends, who in 1994 organized the first SDTC in his honor, raising $49,000 to buy a fully adapted van for him. The next year, they held the race again, raising even more money. In the process, they met many athletes with disabilities who had been inspired by MacLaren's triumphs. In Tinley's words, "the founders of this foundation realized that at the time, there weren't many sources out there-if any-for people with physical disabilities to get the equipment that they needed just to participate in sports. So after a couple of years of raising money solely for Jim, the founders decided that [the triathlon was] such a successful fundraiser that we really ought to keep it going as a...nonprofit and just raise the money for other people with physical challenges who can't afford special sports equipment." Thus, in 1997, CAF was born.

Susan Schwartz, PhD, trains with a therapist during a Bob Gailey, PhD, PT, mobility clinic.
Susan Schwartz, PhD, trains with a therapist during a Bob Gailey, PhD, PT, mobility clinic.

Ten years later, on the afternoon of September 22, 2007, volunteers and staff were preparing for the 14th annual CAF SDTC, which was just over a month away. In their new San Diego office building, they were finalizing plans and adding to CAF's immense store of donated auction items, sports equipment, and race materials. They knew what they were doing; through the triathlons and other fundraising efforts, the mostly volunteer organization had raised more than $10 million over the years and distributed nearly all of it as grants to individual athletes. Thousands of people, ages five to 69, had received the essential equipment to begin or continue their lives as competitive athletes. Handcycles, which cost about $2,000; running prostheses, which cost as much as $15,000; and training clinics with therapists, trainers, and elite coaches were just a few of the benefits that more than 2,500 athletes with physical disabilities had received, free of charge, from CAF.

Susan Schwartz, PhD, lost her left leg in a bicycling accident and has used CAF training clinics and races as an amputee-support group. She says, "In some support groups, people might sit around and say, 'Gee, why did this happen to me?' At Challenged Athletes, [I've had] an opportunity to be with people who take on a challenge, celebrate a challenge, support other individuals in that, and then give you an opportunity to be a positive influence for other individuals in your situation."

But that afternoon, something went wrong at the San Diego office. The fire may have started in the building's wiring or ductwork-the source was never found. It spread quickly, destroying much of the building and, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, caused an estimated $600,000 in damage. Most of the donated items, race materials, and sports equipment were destroyed.

CAF athlete J.P. Theberge finishes the Accenture Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Courtesy of Brightroom Photography.
CAF athlete J.P. Theberge finishes the Accenture Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Courtesy of Brightroom Photography.

Lauren Henne, CAF director of marketing, says, "It was pretty devastating.... A lot of blood, sweat, and tears go into raising the money and putting on the events that we do for the challenged athletes." However, with less than a month left before the race, the staff regrouped. Shea Homes donated office space, and Henne says, "A lot of our sponsors then re-donated items for the goodie bags; they gave us twice what we asked for. Nike donated double the amount of shoes. A lot of the small sponsors [re-donated] as well, as much as they could.... We raised over a million dollars for the triathlon."

Despite unthinkable odds, CAF was ready for the race on October 28-but San Diego wasn't. Starting on October 20, a series of accidents and arson combined with hot, dry winds to spark one of the most destructive wildfire seasons in Southern California history. Smoke and ash choked the San Diego air, evacuations ensued, and in total, more than 500,000 acres burned, including part of the Triathlon Challenge's cycling course. In what Henne calls "a really, really hard, emotional decision," CAF canceled the 2007 race. She says, "We had to look out for the safety of the athletes and their well-being, and the city of San Diego was just in chaos."

J.P. Theberge. Courtesy of Brightroom Photography.
J.P. Theberge. Courtesy of Brightroom Photography.

Though the SDTC is CAF's biggest fundraiser of the year, the financial losses weren't foremost on the minds of CAF staff members. Tinley says, "The huge thing was the disappointment of knowing we'd invited so many challenged athletes out to this event, so many children, and so many newly injured people and just knowing what a great experience it [would have been] for them-and how meaningful it [would be] for all of us to be able to make that happen."

J.P Theberge, the current world-champion triathlete in the men's unilateral-transtibial amputation class, first became interested in triathlons through CAF, and now races in the SDTC every year. He says, "The Triathlon Challenge is an extraordinary event.... Every time a newly disabled person goes, their eyes are opened to the possibilities. What are the possibilities? 'I don't have to sit; I don't have to be bummed out about my situation.... I'm not going to be stuck in this chair forever, or maybe I am, but I won't be relying on other people.... So it sends a whole new group of people out into the world with this positive attitude, and when the race is canceled, that's a year when all those people aren't getting that kind of push."

Tinley says, "It took a couple months for us to really get back into the groove. It almost was like a depression...and then we started looking forward." Using the funds raised before and after the fires, CAF distributed more than one million dollars worth of grants to athletes that year-635 individual grants, more than in any other year-and by February 2008, it was planning the 2008 SDTC. Tinley says, "We really just put it...behind us. And thank goodness our supporters have been behind us 100 percent of the way."

Jonathan Bik trains a fellow athlete at a CAF workshop.
Jonathan Bik trains a fellow athlete at a CAF workshop.

Donors and volunteers, including those at Aspen Medical Products, Irvine, California, were pivotal in CAF's recovery. According to President and CEO Dan Williamson, Aspen holds fundraisers, raffles, cookouts, and other events throughout the year to support CAF, and its employees volunteer to set up and take down race venues. Williamson estimates that Aspen has donated more than $100,000 since 2000. Giving less money after the canceled event never occurred to Williamson. He says they donate because of "what the foundation does for the athletes. It's clear that the money that [CAF gets] goes strictly toward helping people have a better life.... [Tinley] is just great to work with, and this is just a fantastic organization."

Has CAF fully recovered? "Absolutely," Tinley says. In the months since the fires, both the San Diego office and its first chapter office, CAF-Florida, have thrived. Through them, CAF has held its second New York City fundraiser, the Heroes, Heart, and Hope Gala, which raised more than $800,000 on June 18, and on October 26, the SDTC will be bigger and better for its 15th annual occurrence. A commemorative book for its anniversary will be distributed to participants and later be available for sale, special events will honor high-grossing fundraisers, and presentations will recognize standout athletes. And now, CAF is looking to the future. Between October 18 and 26, 100 volunteers who have raised $10,000 each will ride in CAF's Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge, a 600-mile cycle trip down the California coast. All proceeds will go toward building a permanent office building for CAF, which will include room for training clinics and a museum of sports and equipment for athletes with disabilities, including a "hall of champions."

Tinley says, "You know, we've come a long way. We've been able to grow through it and I think become stronger through it. There's been a lot of change, but all for the good." Like the athletes it serves, CAF has triumphed.

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at morgan@opedge.com