Triathlon Challenge: Looking Past Disability

The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) recently wrapped up its annual triathlon event. The organization that was created to help one person has gone on to help so many.

The Triathlon

The first Triathlon was held in 1994 as a collaborative effort by Jeffrey Essakow, Bob Babbitt and Rick Kozlowski to raise funds for fellow triathlete Jim MacLaren, who had become a transfemoral amputee after a motorcycle accident, and then a quadriplegic after being hit by a car while racing in a triathlon. That first triathlon raised more than $40,000 to buy McLaren an adaptable van, and served as the starting point for CAF, which Essakow, Babbitt and Kozlowski founded in 1997.

This year, CAF celebrated the 15th anniversary of the Triathlon. Early on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 26, 136 challenged athletes, children and wounded warriors braved the fog at La Jolla Cove to kick off the event, after having braved so much more to get to that point.

Overall, Lauren Hinton, CAF’s director of marketing, said that this year’s events — including the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge, the Aspen Medical Products San Diego Triathlon Challenge, the Tour de Cove Spin-a-thon and the 2-mile Kaiser Permanente Thrive-K Fitness Walk — brought in more than $2.4 million for CAF. This money goes right back to the athletes, helping them to become active despite their challenges.

“We are proud of what the organization has been able to accomplish over the past 15 years,” Virginia Tinley, CAF’s executive director, said in a news release. “Reaching this milestone year has also proven that our cause can stand the test of time and, through our family of supporters, we can continue to reach our goals even through the most challenging of circumstances.”

Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon
All images reprinted with permission from the Challenged Athletes Foundation/Rich Cruse

Mutual growth

This 15th year of the Triathlon also marks Rudy Garcia-Tolson’s 12th year. He began taking part when he was just 8 years old, and has enjoyed watching the race grow over the years.

“The first year I went out there, I remember there were no other kids out there who had a disability like me,” he said. “Over the years many of them came out and now this year, there were a whole handful of kids with no legs or missing one leg, and it was awesome to see them out there. They are the future of Challenged Athletes.”

Although Garcia-Tolson, now 20, downplays his physical participation at this year’s event — he swam in just that one section of the Triathlon at “only 1.2 miles” — he acknowledges his mutually beneficial role as a spokesperson for CAF.

“They have supported me since that young age,” he told O&P Business News. “Now I give motivational [speeches] to schools or corporations. It’s a great honor, and a lot of fun.”

Fresh from his gold-and-bronze success at this year’s Paralympic Games in Beijing, Garcia-Tolson also spent a good deal of time signing autographs for spectators, along with his fellow Paralympions, swimmers Roy Perkins, Jr. and closing ceremonies flag bearer Melissa Stockwell, and handcyclist Oscar “Oz” Sanchez.

Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon

Notable highlights

With the Qualcomm Challenge — a 600-mile bike ride from San Francisco to San Diego — serving as the leadoff event, CAF continued the athletic excitement with the Challenged Athletes Kid’s Run, the Spin-a-thon and the Thrive-K Walk.

An emotional highlight of the event came when Tabi King, director of marketing and education for Ossur Americas, and Kelly Bruno, CAF mentor and Ironman World Championship finisher, surprised 9-year-old Hannah Messick with her first Ossur Flex-Run foot. Later in the day, Messick used her new foot to participate in the Kid’s Run.

Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon

CAF also hosted for the first time three mobility and triathlon clinics for challenged athletes: an Ossur mobility clinic for lower extremity amputees, a triathlon clinic for upper extremity amputees led by endurance athlete “One Arm” Willie Stewart, and a triathlon clinic for wheelchair athletes led by three-time Ironman World Champion Carlos Moleda.

Kristina Ripatti-Pearce, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer shot and paralyzed in the line of duty, attended the event to take part in Moleda’s wheelchair clinic. Instead, she found herself on stage, presented with a brand new Top End Force handcycle. Tricia Downing, a paraplegic Ironman athlete and CAF spokesperson, and Colleen Reilly and Heather LaCasse, Tour de Cove co-directors, presented the gift.

“I’m inspired by people like Tricia, so it was special that she could be there and present me with the handcycle,” Ripatti-Pearce told O&P Business News. “It was a big surprise.”

She said she finds inspiration in more than just Downing.

“My family and I were inspired by the efforts that we saw [at the Triathlon]. Everyone — from little kids to older adults — just going out and doing it,” Ripatti-Pearce said. “It didn’t matter if they had any limitations … they didn’t have limitations. Challenged Athletes helped them overcome any limitations they have.

“Challenged Athletes will show you that anything is possible.”

She did not participate in the Triathlon, naming this year’s Boston Marathon as the first on her list of activities, but she said she looks forward to CAF’s 2009 Triathlon.

Next year

Next year’s Triathlon will be held in San Diego on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, with registration opening Jan. 5.

Hinton offered four ways people can get involved with the event: make a general donation to CAF or in the name of an athlete; fundraise for the event; sponsor the event; and volunteer at the event.

Regardless of participation level, Garcia-Tolson encourages everyone to attend CAF’s Triathlon.

“Whether you’re just recently an amputee or some other type of challenge has come to your life and you’re looking for a jump-start, or if you’re looking for something that can get you motivated,” he said. “It is a great place to meet other challenged athletes and to be involved with it is a great thing.”

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Stephanie Z. Pavlou is a staff writer for O&P Business News.

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