By Lucía Seda
NEW YORK— When he ran his first marathon in 2006, Peter Kline never thought he would end up pushing disabled athletes in specialized wheelchairs to the finish line in subsequent races. But after a close friend who was diagnosed with brain cancer asked him to run the Boston Marathon as a fundraiser, he began to see the sport differently.
“There were those pieces that kind of went together in my brain and go, ‘Hey, maybe there’s somebody out there that can’t compete in a marathon, but would enjoy competing in a marathon, and I can be part of the mobility part of it,’” Kline said.
Athletes with disabilities are competing in mainstream running events thanks to individuals like Kline and nonprofit organizations like Achilles International and Athletes Serving Athletes. Their participation is part of a trend towards including disabled athletes in sporting events once restricted to able-bodied athletes.
John S. Plata is one of the runners who has benefitted from Achilles International, which pairs disabled athletes with able-bodied athletes to train for races. On a brisk Saturday morning, he ran 8 miles with Jacqui Saunders, his Achilles guide, and stopped for a break at Central Park in New York City, where the rest of the Achilles guides and athletes were preparing for their weekly run around the park.
“Running keeps you looking young, you wouldn’t believe it, right?” said Saunders as she pointed to herself and to John. “We’re over 50 here.”
“That’s my first New York City marathon,” interrupted Plata, as he showed the black-and-white photo that he saved as his iPhone wallpaper. “1982.”
“And he’s with the same girlfriend he was with. She won’t let him go!” said Saunders.
Plata, who is hearing impaired, has been with Achilles since 1993. He ran his first marathon in 1982 and finished in 4 hours and 14 minutes. Since then, Plata has completed 42 marathons, 29 of them in New York City. Saunders has helped him in four marathons, although they’ve known each other for more than 30 years.
“They’re troopers” Jackee Callender, an Achilles guide, said of Plata and Saunders. The three met at previous Achilles events and became close friends.
Community-building was one of the goals that Dick Traum had in mind when he founded Achilles Track Club, now Achilles International, in 1983. Traum, who lost his leg in an accident, became the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon, in 1976. After the experience, he continued to train and run and, years later, he made it possible for fellow disabled athletes to compete in mainstream races though Achilles. Although the network has grown to include 70 international chapters and has helped more than 10,000 athletes since its inception, Traum still likes to think of Achilles as a “non-elite running club” for disabled and non-disabled athletes to bond.
“The biggest thing we have to offer is community,” he said.
Other organizations, like Athletes Serving Athletes (ASA), also bring together able-bodied athletes and disabled athletes, the majority of whom have very limited mobility. Founded in Baltimore City in 2007, ASA has nine local communities along the Mid-Atlantic region and their athletes have competed in 10K races and marathons.
David Slomkoswki, executive director of ASA, said he was inspired by Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-and-son duo who pioneered athlete-assisted racing in the late 1970s. Rick, who was born with cerebral palsy and couldn’t take part in school athletics, convinced his father, Dick, to push his wheelchair during a 5K race. Since then, the Hoyts have competed in dozens of mainstream sporting events, including marathons and ironman triathlons.
“They are the godfathers of our style of racing,” Slomkowski said.
Both Achilles and ASA match disabled athletes with able-bodied volunteers. The process varies, but it relies on logistical factors such as distance and pace, as well as personal reasons like the rapport among athletes. For Achilles, volunteer outreach is key.
“Achilles would not be able to exist without our volunteers. Our volunteers are probably the best people in the city,” said Calinda McLaughlin, director of the New York City chapter of Achilles. The chapter counts 250 volunteers and, according to Traum, they still have more requests than they could possibly accommodate.
In the case of ASA, volunteers, who are called wingmen, build a team of two or four and take turns pushing the disabled athlete throughout the course of the race. The team is led by a captain who has worked with the organization in the past.
The objective is the same: to compete in mainstream running events.
Just last year, the Chicago Marathon opened a “duo team” division, which allowed Kline to push a disabled athlete from start to finish. This past April, the Boston Marathon welcomed athletes with disabilities to compete in one of six divisions, including a “duo team” division.
“I love the Special Olympics, but what we do is different,” said Slomkowski. He thinks that there is something unique about running that does not transfer to other sports, like basketball or soccer.
“There’s no other sport where you can stick someone with a disability next to a professional athlete,” he said.
Traum agrees. “Long-distance running is cheap. It’s easily accessible. It’s popular,” he said.
He joined hundreds of Achilles volunteers and guides at the 2016 New York City Marathon, the largest one in the world with more than 50,000 participants hailing from 132 countries. To mark the 40th anniversary of Traum’s first New York City marathon, the New York Road Runners Club (NYRR), which sponsors the marathon, inducted him into its “Hall of Fame” in a ceremony held at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan. On Nov. 3, Traum joined the ranks of elite runners and legendary honorees, among them Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Alberto Salazar.
That same Sunday, in Maryland, Slomkowski led a delegation of ASA athletes at the “Across the Bay” race, the fifth-largest 10K race in the United States. He says it’s one of “the most challenging races logistically,” yet he ultimately thinks that the race itself is a ‘special’ event for ASA athletes.
“We have 20 athletes with disabilities and about 60 wingmen as the sun is rising over the Chesapeake Bay,” he said. “It’s surreal.”