Athletes with disabilities competing at the IRONMAN: successes, failures, inclusion and accessibility

The IRONMAN triathlons are among the most physically and mentally demanding endurance challenges on the planet. Athletes from every corner of the world compete: many fail, others succeed. ABILITY Magazine spoke with Tricia Downing, Roderick Sewell, Minda Dentler and Carlos Moleda about their athletic achievements as paratriathletes. Additionally, Bob Babbitt, founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), talks about accessibility in sports and the many ways his organization supports athletes with disabilities across the world, and Beth Atnip, vice president of global operations at the IRONMAN, shares how her company tries to make their races inclusive, diverse and accessible.

The first IRONMAN triathlon took place in 1978, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the first athlete with a disability – Jon Franks, a paraplegic athlete from California – participated in one of the hardest triathlons in the world. He used a handcycle for the biking part of the race and a racing wheelchair for the marathon portion. Even though he didn’t finish the race, he kicked off a whole new era. Just three years later, John Maclean from Australia managed to finish the IRONMAN World Championship as the first athlete with a disability. And from then on, paratriathletes from all over the world began competing in the IRONMAN.

Carlos Moleda, a man with almost bold head and a superman shirt looks very strict with arms crossed in front of his chest.
Carlos Moleda, ex-Navy SEAL, now retired paratriathlete

Carlos Moleda 

Carlos Moleda grew up in Brazil and started his career as a professional skateboarder. When he was 16 years old, he visited the US for the first time to take part in a skateboard competition. “I went home to Brazil and told my mom, ‘When I turn 18, I want to live the US life: surfing and skateboarding’,” Carlos says. And he did come back to the US, just not as pro-skater: in his mid-20s, he joined the Navy. “I wanted to be a deep-sea diver. That’s when I found out more about the SEALs,” Carlos says. He took the test and failed. “I couldn’t swim. Imagine, I wanted to be a SEAL, and I didn’t know how to swim,” Carlos laughs. But he didn’t give up. He took the test again, this time completing it within the allotted time, and was one of eleven people out of 120 who finished the SEALs training. 

On a mission in Panama a few years later, Carlos found himself in the center of an ambush. He was shot in the back and leg and was immediately paralyzed in his lower body. “In the beginning, you think this is temporary. In my mind, it was like in a few months, I will go back to work. And then when you realize this is for the long-term, you really reassess your life. You go through adjustments; some will take a life long to fully understand,” Carlos says. At the time, he had few future prospects and didn’t even consider sports an option. But this quickly changed. When Carlos moved on to rehab, his physical therapist signed him up for a wheelchair race. “She was like: ‘Hey, I already signed you up for a 100-meter track race at the VA games,” Carlos explains. From that moment on, sports became Carlos’s life. By 1992, after only two years of recovery, Carlos was already a professional racer. “It just came naturally,” he says. 

Wheelchair racing was only the beginning. In 1998, Carlos didn’t only finish his first IRONMAN, but he did so by breaking John Maclean’s record by a full hour. “It wasn’t intentional. I just wanted to survive. I really had no expectations,” Carlos states. However, Carlos’s time at the IRONMAN is mostly remembered for his battle with his competitor and close friend David Bailey, an American motocross legend. For three consecutive years, the two athletes competed with each other at the IRONMAN. In 1998 and 1999, Carlos won. Then came 2000. “I was completely overconfident like, ‘I am going to kick his ass,’” Carlos states, but things didn’t go exactly as planned. Carlos passed David on his handcycle shortly after they exited the water. “David thought it was a moped passing him because I was so fast,” Carlos remembers. However, David soon caught up with Carlos. Then he was hit with bad luck: a flat tire. Intent on a fair race, Carlos waited for him at the transition to the marathon section. They were neck and neck through the final leg of the race. “People thought we were killing each other out there,” Carlos states. In the end, David passed Carlos and won the race. “I call that the best race I ever lost because it was completely fair; we pushed each other to the brink of collapse, and the best man won.” In total, Carlos finished all six IRONMANs he competed in. He was only able to do so by dedicating all of his time and energy into training. 

According to Carlos, the marathon and the swimming portion mostly depend on the proper technique, whereas the bike section is about endurance. Prior to all IRONMANs, he worked out twice a day and rode 200 miles on his bike during the weekends. “All the things that apply to an able-bodied athlete apply to us too, but we have to take additional things into consideration, like body temperature or the loss of feeling in the limbs. We can break legs getting in and out of the chair; if our bodies get too hot, they can’t cool off because of the spinal cord injury; our heart rate is higher from the start,” he says. 

Carlos retired from his racing career in 2015 at the age of 53, but sport is still a big part of his life, and he is always seeking a new challenge. In 2016, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his wife and son. With a specifically designed handcycle and some Navy friends, he made it up to Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s summit. In an article about this adventure, his son calls Carlos “an artery of drive and ambition.” When asked how he pushes his body to such extents, Carlos replies, “I don’t think, ‘Oh man, I really want to do that.’ I think in terms of, ‘How can I do that? Let’s figure it out.”

Besides finding out where his boundaries are, because “that’s where life happens,” Carlos trains a team of female handcyclists and is an ambassador for the CAF, an organization supporting athletes with disabilities.

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Supporting athletes with disabilities: The Challenged Athlete Foundation 

Historically, athletes with disabilities never received the same public attention as their non-disabled counterparts, largely due to a lack of accurate media representation. However, this has shifted slowly, which has been reflected in the number of athletes with disabilities competing in a variety of sports. The Challenged Athletes Foundation supports many of them. “We have been around for 27 years, have sent out over 30,000 grants and raised over 123 million dollars to help support athletes in 103 different sports in all 50 states and Puerto Rico,” Bob Babbitt, co-founder of CAF, says. CAF has also supported people in 73 different countries. Everything started with Jim MacLaren. Jim was an athlete who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and made history at the IRONMAN Hawaii by finishing the race in 10 hours and 42 minutes. A few years later, he had another accident and became a quadriplegic. Bob Babbitt and a few friends organized a fundraiser to buy an adaptive van for Jim, so he could still be independent, and CAF was born. “Sport is a huge part of our identity, of who we are. So it became our goal that if someone needed a piece of equipment, training, or travel, CAF would be there to help,” Bob says. 

“We are breaking down barriers every day.” Before 1994, there were no divisions for people with disabilities at the IRONMAN. “For a number of years, they were hesitant,” Bob says. But then Franks, Maclean, Moleda, and many after showed them that athletes with disabilities can indeed compete at the IRONMAN, just like anyone else. “The public’s opinion went from, ‘We don’t think they can finish it’ to ‘These guys are racing,’” Bob says.

Participating in sports as a person with a disability often depends on being able to afford the necessary adaptive equipment, which is exactly what CAF is focusing on. “Before CAF, if you had a small child who is an amputee and needs prosthetics, doctors would say, ‘You need to wait until the kid stops growing.’ But then he or she is going to be slower than their friends, and their self-esteem and comfort level disappears,” Bob says. CAF supports children of all ages and isn’t solely focused on sports. “Back in the day, if you met somebody my age who is an amputee, they covered up their prosthetic leg. It was something they were ashamed of. If you talk to our kids now, it makes them feel different in a good way,” Bob explains. They regain self-esteem and feel more content in their skin if they have access to the same activities as anyone else. “That’s the power of sports,” Bob adds. 

One of the children CAF supported from a very young age is professional paraswimmer and handcyclists Roderick Sewell. 

Roderick, a young man with short black hair and a black hat is smiling and holding his IRONMAN medal up proudly
Roderick Sewell, first bilateral above-knee blade runner to complete the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona

Roderick Sewell

Roderick grew up in San Diego, California, and was born without tibias, leading to amputations of both of his legs above his knees. When Roderick was 2 years old, his mom taught insurance coverage for his prosthetics, but she was turned down. She had to quit her job to get the costs covered, which allowed Roderick to learn how to walk. “I have been walking since, but it put us in a tough living situation where we were homeless for a few years,” Roderick explains. When he was 8 years old, CAF became aware of Roderick and introduced him to Rudy Garcia-Tolson, the first other double-above-knee amputee he had ever met. Rudy soon became his role model and best friend and showed Roderick what was possible in terms of sports. Today, the two athletes share an apartment in New York and compete at every opportunity they get. “Once I met Rudy, it was like an eye-opener. I didn’t know what I was capable of,” Roderick remembers.

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From that moment on, he naturally gravitated towards sports – besides swimming, because Roderick was afraid of water. “He was scared to death of swimming. Seriously, he was terrified to take a shower,” Bob Babbitt told me beforehand. However, Roderick overcame his fear, learned to swim, and has now been training for Paralympic swimming for 12 years. CAF sponsored Roderick’s first running blades when he was 10 years old, and since then, the triathlete has been unstoppable. In April 2019, Roderick participated in his first half-IRONMAN in Oceanside. “I ran my first half-marathon at 1 hour and 39 minutes. Bob and Rudy were shocked. That moment, I felt like I could do an IRONMAN,” Roderick remembers. But he didn’t have a bike. CAF stepped in again and gave him his first handcycle, while his friend Rudy, who had finished an IRONMAN before, helped him prepare for the triathlon. 

Then came race day: October 12, 2019; the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona. As a professional swimmer, Roderick easily managed the swim portion. “I came out an hour and nine minutes, which Rudy still makes fun of me for because it is kind of slow, according to him,” Roderick chuckles. He transitioned to the bike portion of the triathlon and managed to finish it in 8 hours and 51 minutes. “That was the part we were focused on because that’s what Rudy struggled with in the past. Between the bike and the run, the bike was the hardest part,” Roderick explains. Then came the marathon part – Roderick’s first full marathon. Exhausted from handcycling, he was fueled by the thought of everyone who supported him and the understanding that this event was bigger than just him. With only 6 miles left, Roderick stopped running and started walking. “I just remember freaking out and was like, ‘Where is the cross-line?’ Everybody keeps saying it’s close, but I felt like it gets just further away,” he says. Two miles later, he ran again and crossed the finishing line at 16 hours and 26 minutes as the first bilateral above-knee blade runner to complete the IRONMAN World Championship. “It’s midnight, and I am dead tired, angry, hungry, nasty, and sweaty. I just wanted to go home. When I came in to the finish line, I didn’t even stop or take it in. And I definitely tripped over the line. I am ready to go to bed. But the second I crossed, I see my mom in tears, Rudy is there, and they are so proud. Bob is there too, like a typical uncle. And I realized, it was a big night for a lot of people,” Roderick says. 

Some athletes cry when they finish an IRONMAN; others break down. Roderick celebrated in a different fashion. “Rudy gave me a water bottle full of beer. From start to finish, he knew exactly what I wanted.”

Right now, Roderick’s main focus is on his next Paralympics, especially on handcycling. “Swimming is secondary. Swimming definitely got me here, and it was why I did so well in Kona, but I am getting older, and I feel it,” says the 28-year-old. “I tell people, I am sure Kona took a few years of my life. That’s the beauty of IRONMAN. You are racing people of all ages and abilities, and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s always going to be hard. And that’s the metaphor of life.”

Beth, a woman on a triathlon bike is racing on IRONMAN. She is wearing a silver helmet with number 1703 printed on the front.
Beth Atnip, vice president of global operations at the IRONMAN

The IRONMAN divisions and rules

For the most part, athletes with disabilities follow the same rules as non-disabled athletes at the IRONMAN. However, in 1997, two divisions were explicitly designed to create inclusivity at their races: the physically challenged (PC) open division and the handcycle (HC) division. The PC open division applies to all athletes with a disability “that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” as stated by the IRONMAN rule book. Visually impaired triathletes also belong to this category. “Visually impaired athletes have certain standards to follow. For instance, one is that you have to be with a guide during the race. You have to be tethered to the guide during the swim. You have to ride a tandem for the bike portion. And you have to have a lead for the run,” Beth Atnip, vice president of global operations at the IRONMAN, says. 

Beth Atnip has worked with IRONMAN in some capacity since 2007. As an athlete herself, she has organized small local triathlons before following her dream of working for IRONMAN. In 2012, she started as director of athletes services for North America, then switched to director of global operations. Today, she is vice president, handling safety, rules, customer service, and works with the HC and PC divisions. She has also created the rules for what she calls the Special Teams, which is a two-people team starting together at the competition, consisting of a non-disabled athlete and a disabled athlete “who is incapable of propelling themselves on the course using their own muscle power in any or all of the disciplines.” One of the most popular teams in this category is ‘Team Hoyt:’ father Dick with son Rick, who lives with cerebral palsy. Together they took part in six IRONMAN races. And that’s not an easy undertaking because for the swimming part, Dick pulls Rick behind him in an inflatable boat connected via a bungee rope; they use a uniquely designed bike with a front seat for Rick for the biking part and a special racing chair that Dick pushes during the marathon. 

Most IRONMAN rules are created to keep the athletes safe. The Special Teams, for instance, will be accompanied by a safety guide during the swim. “The disabled athlete in the boat can’t be seen by the able-bodied athlete because they are down in the water. And so we have to have a safety person in case the disabled athlete has a medical emergency during the swim,” Beth explains. All other IRONMAN rules are mostly in line with the International Triathlon Union’s (ITU) guidelines. 

The most apparent difference between athletes with disabilities versus non-disabled ones lies in the equipment they use. For example, handcycles are required to fit specific measurements in terms of length and wheel size, as do racing wheelchairs. Other rules regarding equipment apply to all athletes. For instance, the usage of flotation devices and snorkels are prohibited during the swim.

However, the rules aren’t all set in stone. It’s a case-by-case decision, especially when it comes to the Special Teams. “We do take requests if they have certain adaptive equipment. Many of the Special Teams spend a lot of money on custom-built equipment. And we do review our rules every year,” Beth says.

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Nevertheless, all athletes have to meet specified time cut-offs for the single divisions. At the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, athletes need to finish the 2.4-mile swim in 2 hours and 20 minutes; the combined swim and 112-mile bike course in 10 hours and 30 minutes, and the entire race including the 26.2 miles marathon in 17 hours.

The swim and bike cut-off can be especially challenging for female handcyclists, says Tricia Downing, a world-class athlete.

Tricia, a woman with brown hair is sitting on a blanket outdoors and is smiling. She is wearing a medal around her neck and wears a blue triathlon outfit
Tricia Downing has competed in swimming, gymnastics, triathlons, rowing and shooting

Tricia Downing

Tricia, or Trish, was born an athlete. She started her career at the age of 4, swimming during the summer, gymnastics during the winter. At age 7, she competed in swimming; when she was 10, she participated in gymnastics competitions. She did so until she experienced a knee injury in high school and had to give up gymnastics – the first time Trish had to reinvent her athlete self. Every time an injury would get in the way of her sports career, she immediately found another activity she was good at. “This really has been the theme of my sporting career. Every sport has sort of ended before I was ready for it to end. But I carried that confidence of knowing I could make my body move in whatever ways somebody could teach me in order to do a new sport,” Trish says. 

Trish’s life has always centered around sports. Besides being an athlete, she studied sport management, during which she began competing in cycling. Besides taking part in races herself, she was also a tandem pilot for a visually impaired cyclist. “My cycling coach at the beginning of my career was a tandem pilot at the 1996 Atlanta games, and he introduced me to a camp at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. He found out that they were in need of a tandem pilot and called me up and said, ‘I really think you should do this,’” Trish says. And she did. “I was so in awe with the people that I met there. They were fun and interesting. They all had disabilities and different life experiences than I had had. It was a group of people I fit in with really well. I enjoyed being a tandem pilot, and I learned a lot,” Trish says.

During a training ride in September 2000, a car hit Trish, leaving her paralyzed from her chest down. Her physical limitations, however, didn’t diminish her competitive spirit. Six months after her injury, she was already participating in her first half-marathon – the only difference: now, she was a wheelchair-racer. She already understood the sport from her time working with disabled athletes. “The camp back then showed me that my life after the accident wasn’t over and that there is just a whole bunch of different options now. I feel really fortunate that I had that experience because it helped me get through my accident, as opposed to some people that are still emotionally processing. It was still mentally and emotionally difficult, but at least I had something as a go-to,” she says. Since then, she has been part of more than 100 races. 

With her history of swimming, biking, and racing professionally, the next logical step was doing triathlons. From 2004 to 2010, Trish continuously trained for IRONMANs. “You are going to get up, ride your bike, come home, eat, and go to bed, and that’s it. It takes a lot of time and patience and building endurance,” Trish explains. Overall, she did six IRONMANs and finished two of those, and she was the first female paraplegic completing an IRONMAN triathlon. 

While doing triathlons, Trish was recruited by the US rowing team. Following her life’s motto, “suck it up,” she pushed herself hard for her new passion and severely injured her back and hip, requiring four surgeries. “I am just the kind of person who tries not to complain, and ‘suck it up’ is the thing that always goes through my mind. Sometimes, that has served me well, and sometimes, it has not served me well,” Trish admits. Until today, she has had more than 20 surgeries. “I have had a lot of health issues and things that needed to be addressed because of my spinal cord injury. So I have had to fight that over the past 20 years.” It’s a delicate balance to be an athlete with Trish’s disability. Nevertheless, she has reinventing herself whenever she had to. 

When her rowing career abruptly ended, she got into professional shooting and is now working towards the Paralympics. The only group of sports Trish hasn’t explored are ball sports. She feels like her hand-eye-coordination required with ball sports is not that great. “Also, I have an internal scaring from playing dodge ball in gym class where I got slammed in the side of my face in elementary school,” Trish laughs. 

These days, Trish is mainly focusing on her shooting career. She only wants to take part in triathlons for fun in the future. Specifically, the IRONMAN has become a challenging subject for Trish. As a paraplegic wheelchair athlete, she was facing unique challenges throughout her races, which made her think rather critical about accessibility at the IRONMAN. “Female athletes like me are using only their arms. And that’s what you have to train for. You change up the muscles that you use and the way that you use them, but there is only so much going on above your waist. That’s one of the real disadvantages of being a female. It makes it difficult to see that men have the ability to bulk up a lot more and be a lot stronger, whereas the women just struggle,” Trish says. The athlete tried to advocate for a change of the cut-off times, specifically for female handcyclicsts at the IRONMAN, but without success. She didn’t feel heard at all. “What happens at the IRONMAN when you are abled-bodied is that the bike portion is short and your run takes up all the time. But when you are in a wheelchair, your bike lag is what takes up all the time, because as soon as we get into the racing chair, we can do the marathon in 2 hours, which is at least twice or even three times as fast as the able-bodied runners,” Trish explains. The problem she is referring to is the combined cut-off for the swim and bike portion, which, in her opinion, isn’t accommodating for athletes like her. “When you are female and on a handcycle – if you don’t have the most perfect day where everything lines up – you never will make that time cut. There is no taking any of it into account,” Trish criticizes. On top of it, she feels that there is a different standard for wheelchair athletes overall. “We are supposed to be this super gimp, to be amazing, to be inspirational. If you can’t be the best, you don’t count, which is a really damaging way to operating sports. If you are able-bodied, you have the privilege of being average or even below average, but in disabled sports, you don’t have that privilege.”

Accessibility at the IRONMAN

Beth Atnip explains that her staff is providing as much accessibility as safely possible. “We work with people with all kinds of conditions, for example, neurological problems, that don’t fit into any category. There is a definition for each division, but we try to be as accommodating as we can.” 

Nevertheless, some races are not inclusive for athletes with disabilities because they cannot be accessed either with handcycles or racing chairs. “This is normally due to either safety requirements from local authorities or there is some aspect that’s not safe for handcycle athletes because on the bike they have a much lower profile. It just depends on the race. But where we can, we try to accommodate all categories,” Beth says. One IRONMAN race has stairs in the transition area, making it hard for athletes with disabilities to switch from the bike to the racing chair. Technically, the rules only allow two people as ‘handlers’ for the athlete. “When we have circumstances like that, we work to accommodate the athletes and not let something like that prohibit someone from participating. So we would provide additional handlers. But if we accommodate one person, we make this accommodation for other people as well,” Beth states. She thinks about accessibility 24/7. “From my perspective, it is just as important as any other component. When we bring new races online, we always try to work with the team and make sure to accommodate as many as possible. It’s part of our vetting process.” 

And some athletes, specifically those belonging to the Special Teams, are also included in the development of new rules. “The Special Teams safety rules and guidelines are designed with some better known Special Teams that did multiple races. And then we take feedback from other races and review those rules annually,” Beth explains. 

Minda Dentler

Minda, a handcyclist from New York, has had mostly positive experiences regarding accessibility and accommodation for athletes with disabilities at the IRONMAN. “Usually, race directors and other athletes are supportive of athletes with disabilities like me,” Minda says. And Minda takes an exceptional place in the IRONMAN history because she was the first woman using a handcycle and racing chair to finish the World Championship in Kona in 2013. However, she wasn’t always a fan of sports. It took her until adulthood to find her love for racing. 

Minda was born in Bombay, India, and contracted polio at six months old, which paralyzed her from her hips down. Her birth mother left her in an orphanage, where she was later adopted by an American family. After moving to the US, Minda was finally able to access medical treatment for her condition, enabling her to walk with braces and crutches. “Because I contracted polio as a baby, I don’t have any memories of living without polio. My legs are paralyzed, so I have had to learn to navigate the world as a person with a physical disability, and it impacts how I get to places and how I perform everyday tasks,” Minda says. 

Minda first got in touch with sports when she was 28 years old. A racing club for people with disabilities taught her how to ride a handcycle, and two years later, she competed at the NYC triathlon. “I signed up for swimming lessons and won a grant from CAF to buy my first racing wheelchair.  I learned how to swim and run and completed the NYC triathlon,” Minda says. Crossing her first finish line motivated her to go further. She joined a triathlon club, hired a coach, and began to train for the IRONMAN.

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Her first attempt at the World Championship in Kona, however, failed. “I was prepared for the distance, but I wasn’t fully prepared for the conditions: the heat, humidity and crosswinds, so I got pulled off the course at mile 60 on the bike for being too slow,” Minda states. Ambitiously, she tried again a year later, and after a 5-year-journey of continuous training, she crossed the finishing line of the IRONMAN World Championship. “It was a realization of a dream and the culmination of all the hard work and dedication that I had put in over the years,” Minda shares. What she likes most about triathlons is that she is competing side-by-side with non-disabled athletes. “I also believe athletes with disabilities bring a positive aspect to the race experience for all competitors,” she says. Her ultimate future goal is to travel the world competing in triathlons. 

Besides being an athlete, Minda works full-time and has a 5-year-old daughter. Additionally, as a polio survivor, she writes articles and speaks publicly about the importance of vaccination. “I find when people hear a personal story, it takes it from being a debate to a more informed decision.” One highlight of her advocacy work was her travel to India for a national immunization drive. “It was personally rewarding to help administer the polio vaccine in the country that I contracted polio.”

By now, Minda has completed four IRONMAN distance triathlons, has vaccinated 23 children in India, and spoke in front of a 22,000 people audience. 

Undoubtedly, Carlos, Roderick, Tricia, and Minda are all extraordinary athletes – regardless of their disability. They share the same traits as all professional athletes: determination, motivation, discipline, competitiveness, and never-ending ambition to win or at least finish whatever race they start. Their disability doesn’t make them more or less inspirational than other athletes; their athletic achievements do. “What people should know about disabled athletes is: they are just athletes. They are the same. They have the same goals, the same hopes and dreams, and they just want to have a chance,” Bob Babbitt ends. 

By Karina Ulrike Sturm

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