CAF’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge

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By Pam Martin

Going the Distance for Disabled Athletes

Davidson

Peter Davidson, CPO, Great Plains Rehabilitation Services, Bismarck, North Dakota, describes the Challenged Athletes Foundation's (CAF) annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC) as the NASCAR of O&P. But for Davidson and athletes alike, it's not so much about finishing first and fastest as much as it's about performance. NASCAR is the place "where every part of your car was developed: the lightweight materials, the tires, the high performance oils...." But a "human life," he says, "is so much more valuable, and that's how I see this event. What we reap are very high-tech components that we can put on a patient or client and watch him or her take off."

Tara Butcher powers through the cycling leg. Photograph by Brightroom.

On race day, SDTC triathletes push themselves to achieve their own personal bests against challenges that all competitive triathletes must face: white caps and frigid waters, blinding dust and rain-slick roads, shin splints and tendinitis-all while doing battle with the 1.2-mile open-water swim, 56-mile road bike race, and 13.1-mile run. Race day is preceded by two days of training clinics and, all told, the event tests each competitor's mettle in an onslaught that Davidson characterizes as "Crazy...the pace is unbelievable." This year CAF's SDTC was held Sunday, October 24.

Instead of edging to outmaneuver and outdistance fellow competitors, SDTC racers shout encouragement and support, and offer up carbs, hydration, and advice. Everyone engages as though on one team, the same team. The pride athletes feel in their accomplishments is almost palpable. According to Tara Butcher, a CAF spokesperson who lost her left leg below the knee in a roadside accident in 2005, "It's a truly happy, high energy day." In the past, Butcher has participated in the Tour de Cove, a 4.5 hour stationary bike ride, but this year she toughed it out on the road course that travels between inland climbs and along a stretch of the Coast Highway. "You hear this over and over throughout the day that this isn't a race, it's a ride; you're not doing it for time, you're doing it to be a part of it," but adds that the race is "still very hard, very hilly, and very long." Butcher's goal was to finish, and she did.

Jake Frank comes out of the swim, assisted by CAF volunteers. Photograph by Rich Cruse, courtesy of CAF.

For Butcher, the SDTC allows her to spend much-needed time with fellow challenged athletes to talk about training and to share their stories. These connections inspire and invigorate her throughout the year. "It's a high," she says, that reminds her she's a "part of something. It gets me through." She first attended the event in 2006, at the urging of her prosthetist, Randy Mason, CP, SCOPe, San Diego, California. She was wowed by the strength of the other amputee athletes, who were "walking around, happy with their families, living normal lives." She wanted the same kind of life for herself. Since then, CAF grants have provided her with a running prosthesis and a triathlon bike, and she now serves the organization as a mentor to new members of the amputee community. "I tell them what they have to look forward to...what their possibilities are," she says about her role. "It gives them hope that they can do [what I do] too."

J.P. Theberge makes easy work of the running leg of the triathlon. Photograph by Brightroom, courtesy of CAF.

To date, CAF has sponsored more than 5,000 athletes, outfitting them with cutting-edge prostheses that help them run, ride, and race-equipment they couldn't necessarily afford on their own. CAF grantee turned sponsor, elite distance runner and paratriathlete J.P. Theberge, who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, participated in the running and cycling legs in what he says is one of his favorite events of the year. A member of the USA Paratriathlon National Team, Theberge pushes himself to greater and greater athletic extremes in order to send a message that "discapacidad no es incapacidad," or "disability is not inability," in the words of his friend, transfemoral amputee cyclist Israel Hilario.

"I train very hard so that I can be among the best in the disabled triathlon world, but also, I secretly enjoy beating the 'two-legged freaks' in the age group races," he says. "By being faster than most able-bodied competitors, I am sending a message to other disabled people: 'Hey, our limitations are as much mental as they are physical. Anything is possible if you want it.' It also lets able-bodied people know that just because I wear a prosthetic and walk a little funny doesn't mean I am to be pitied." Theberge has raised $13,000 this year for fellow CAF athletes, and hopes to double that figure by year's end.

Out on the road, the racers put their prostheses through their paces, and for Davidson, the event garners necessary feedback on problems with components and alignment. The athletes "have no qualms about hiking up their shorts and showing you [their] socket...and they'll say, 'this thing is...giving me blisters.'" Their comfort level, he says, is a testament to the sense of empowerment they have over their own bodies. Davidson says that because of that honesty, he learns more from the CAF athletes than he does at any of the conferences he attends throughout the year. " [They have] no vested interest; they're not selling you anything, so they tell you nothing but the truth."

Davidson is 12-year-old Jake Frank's prosthetist. Frank participates in the SDTC every year because, "It's fun to see friends from past years and to run around with amputees my age." Born without tibia bones, Frank got his first pair of running feet, Össur Flex-Runs, at the SDTC as a five-year-old in 2004. Frank also comes because he's curious about "how the world is evolving around amputees," like a few years ago, when his friend, Paralympian Rudy Garcia-Tolson, sported "a pair of prototypes that were demo legs." CAF support has helped Frank by "getting me a few of my legs and [sponsors] brought me out to quite a few events," he says. "They've also brought me to clinics and that's helped [teach me] some of the ways to use my prosthetics." This year Frank participated in the swimming leg of the triathlon.

His mom, Julie Frank, saw Garcia-Tolson's appearance on The Oprah Show in 2000 and videotaped it. Armed with the video, she showed up at Davidson's facility and told him, "This is what I want for my son." Until this point, she says, his caregivers "didn't have a vision for Jake." He was told that he would probably never run, probably never ride a bike, that he would most likely live in a wheelchair. When she brought the video to Davidson, he told her, "No problem. Rudy's prosthetist is my brother." Frank was awarded CAF's Rising Star award in 2006, and for him, "It meant a lot because now I could see that I could run, I could bike, I could do anything I wanted-and I had an organization that would back me up."

Davidson says the SDTC emboldens parents, patients, and healthcare professionals to challenge existing preconceptions about what constitutes proper care for people with amputations, particularly children. He reasons that at some point, insurance companies are going to have to admit that children's needs are different from adults: "Children really should run...as part of their normal development," he says. "Insurance companies have traditionally not wanted to pay for stubbies or for runners." Davidson has a picture of Frank when he was put into his first pair of runners. "[There he is with] both feet in a double-limb swing; there's not a part of that boy that is on the ground. He is literally flying." He says it's events like the SDTC that give parents the courage to walk through their provider's door, "and say, 'you need to get educated. You need to...learn what really is possible.'"

These possibilities are there for people with amputations who are still on the sidelines as well. To them, Theberge has this to say, "Never assume you can't do something until you've tried it...100 different ways. Don't give up.... If you tried and tried and then failed, well that's success in my book. You can do it."

Pam Martin can be reached at