The Florida Chapter of the Challenged Athletes Foundation was started about four years ago and is based out of Tarpon Springs. Meeting them back at the Gasparilla in 2007, I was one of the first athletes in the area they came in contact with. It has been really cool to see how much the organization has grown in the four years that I have known them.
Giving a talk at the end of the clinic
One of CAF California’s biggest events every year is the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, which is the event around which the national organization started. Challenged athletes fly in from all over the country to participate in this triathlon weekend that also features several adaptive clinics, including one held by Bob Gailey every year focused on teaching amputees how to run and increasing mobility. These clinics are one of a kind and have an amazing impact on the people that are able to attend. Every year amputees come in just barely able to walk and with the proper training and motivation leave not only running but with an increased self confidence as well.
Kids stopping to pose for a photo at the SDTC
Exchanging the chip as part of a relay team
These clinics were held once a year in San Diego, but recently have expanded to Chicago, Durham, New York City, and right in our backyard here in St. Petersburg, Florida as part of our St. Anthony’s Triathlon weekend.
Photo from St. Anthony's two years ago
Bob Gailey has been a big inspiration of mine and I have been lucky to call him a mentor as well. He is a mad scientist when working with people and leaves every clinic almost losing his voice. He is able to bring out the best in everybody that works around him and I hope to be able to do the same in the future as well. I have been really fortunate to have assisted in five of his clinics now to date.
The man himself
This year was the second year that the event has been held here. The first year blew all expectations out of the water, with huge attendance from the local community totaling to right around 20 amputees. The clinic held this year set the bar even higher and doubled in size. People came from all over the state of Florida and our furthest came from South Carolina. It was amazing to see not only small kids learn how to run better for the first time but also people in their seventies as well! One man I came in touch with had not run since his amputation in 1997. Here, 14 years later, he ran for the first time as a below the knee amputee.
Running can be such a daunting task as an amputee, with the challenges being both mental and physical. Sometimes it is just gaining that extra trust in the prosthesis, and other times it is learning to physically push past your comfort zone. Even the most minor tweaks like working on the rotation of your hips, pulling back into the socket, and swinging your arms can make drastic differences. The biggest thing that people are able to overcome is their fear of the unknown and of falling.
The group was very diverse, with some aspiring to become accomplished athletes, while others just wanted to be able to run around with their kids or just do the local 5k on Thanksgiving. The mobility clinic caters to people of all ability levels, from kids, to people who need to work on the basics, to the advanced athletes looking to perfect their form. The best thing is the energy that is carried through the whole day. It is absolutely infectious and everybody leaves with a smile on their face riding the new high of their accomplishments. There is nothing like seeing everybody around you running and having an instructor believe you can run as well. Personal doubt soon turns into an “I can do this” attitude that can take people to new heights.
There has always been a really strong amputee community here in the Tampa Bay area and things seem to have come together perfectly with the addition of CAF Florida. I did my first Triathlon two years ago with only one other amputee doing the race as well. This year while doing the run I came across eight other people with disabilities competing as well. It is all because of the opportunities offered by the Challenged Athletes Foundation and other organizations that have given people with disabilities the possibility and encouragement to go out there and compete.
Me and Maria Katz after St. Anthony's 2008