In the Beginning ...
Achilles International had humble beginnings in the early 1980’s. I participated in Terry Fox races in September 1981. For those unfamiliar with Terry, he was the Canadian high school athlete who lost his leg to bone cancer in 1977 and soon after decided to run across Canada to raise money to fight the disease that took his leg and shortly later, his life. In the fall of 1982, I returned to Toronto to participate in additional Terry Fox races. There were many people with disabilities involved as participants, spectators, and volunteers. People with disabilities were treated very well. There was no sense of having to hide one’s disability, and there was no patronizing.
Returning from Canada, I wondered why we couldn’t have that kind of mainstreaming of athletes with disabilities in New York City. With the support of Fred Lebow, then-president of the New York Road Runners Club, we sent out eleven hundred flyers to members in health-related businesses, and introduced an eight-week training program for people with disabilities who were interested in long distance running. The initial program was not successful, but following the eight-week experience it morphed into the Achilles Track Club.
Achilles was born on January 9, 1983 in Central Park after a five-mile race by its first six members. Recruiting was very difficult and done one-on-one with the aggression of an insurance salesman. By the fall, six of us completed the New York City Marathon. Wow.
We began to receive media attention. One interview was with Meredith Viera, who asked me how it felt to run around in Central Park in short pants. My reaction was that it was similar to a woman walking about Central Park without a bra. People would look once or twice and then not really pay much attention. The same became true of our Achilles athletes in Central Park. At the beginning, people would notice an individual in a wheelchair or someone who was blind or on a prosthetic leg. Years later, such people ran unnoticed.
One of my favorite stories concerned watching the marathon at 90th Street and Fifth Avenue. Someone passed using a wheelchair. A blind runner was tied to his guide by a rope. A third person passed using crutches. A mother, standing next to her teenaged son and watching observed, “My goodness, this must be a dangerous sport.”
During the next few years Achilles greatly expanded its numbers, added cities and even countries. By 1985, we had twenty-five members completing the marathon. At the time, I thought we might run out of people with disabilities! We had a number of stars with a great range of achievement, which I will share with you in this and future blogs.
One achiever is Linda Down, who has Cerebral Palsy and runs on crutches. In a particular race, she ran with her twin sister, Laura, who was also on crutches. Linda was much faster than Laura. The Down twins started thirty minutes earlier than the general field of runners. When the first pack of athletes passed Laura and then a few minutes later, her twin sister, they turned back and asked Linda: “Didn’t I just pass you?” For many years, Linda and I ran marathons together. We really enjoyed each other’s company. Linda became a founding board member of Achilles. Unfortunately, some years later, she left New York for North Carolina and our days of running together ended.
Sandy Davidson, while in his forties had a stroke and used a cane. Years later, he started an Achilles Chapter in Scotland. We visited him at his home in Inverness. A reporter interviewing us, asked me about the range of disabilities at Achilles. With tongue in cheek, I explained that our club was inclusive of all people with disabilities “from A to Z”; phonetically using “Alzheimer’s to Zits” as a way to emphasize my point with a bit of humor. Apparently my flippancy didn’t translate well, and the reporter wrote that Achilles’ members comprised people with all disabilities from “Alzheimer’s to skin disorders”.
More to come ...