“Is this the athlete?” the doctor at a Denver hospital asked when Zach Scott arrived by ambulance for open heart surgery this spring. Zach, 21, has severe cerebral palsy and neither walks nor talks, but thanks to Dennis Vanderheiden and Athletes in Tandem, the non-profit he founded, Zach is indeed an athlete. He’s done more than a dozen running races and several triathlons since 2008 when he and his family met Vanderheiden at the finish line of the Horsetooth Half Marathon. They finished before Vanderheiden did.
“Wow. You did super well.”
“We started 90 minutes before you,” Sandy Scott admitted, exhausted from pushing Zach’s running stroller 13.1 hilly miles.
On that day a relationship began that continues to grow in mutual trust and admiration. Vanderheiden had recently returned from Louisville, Kentucky where he’d completed an Ironman. Beyond tired and delighted to be at the end of his 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.6-mile run, Vanderheiden had an epiphany.
He knew that day that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Dick Hoyt who for years has pulled, pushed and pedaled his disabled son through the grueling Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. Vanderheiden was through chasing personal bests. Instead, he realized, his satisfaction came not from a fast finish, but from experiencing the joy of others. He’d never be through with training, competing, and challenging himself, but his purpose became different.
“I don’t experience the euphoria some people do at the end of an event. It’s the journey I love,” Vanderheiden explains. And he knew that journey would be enhanced if he could share it with someone unable to do it on their own.
Back in Fort Collins, he went about founding Athletes in Tandem to provide mentally and physically challenged people of all ages an opportunity to participate in triathlons and running races. He wasn’t sure where to start, but he knew he needed to find willing disabled and non-disabled athletes and obtain the equipment necessary to make it possible to swim, bike, and run in tandem.
Zach Scott and his family became the catalyst. They trusted Vanderheiden enough to send Zach off to the Boulder Sprint Triathlon in the fall of 2008. “We had problems with the bike tipping backward so we skipped that segment of the event, but it didn’t matter,” Vanderheiden says. Thus began a partnership between the two that has grown to include Susan Strong who has also formed a bond racing with Zach. Last month, recovered from his surgery, Zach’s doctors cleared him to race again.
There’s a story behind each athlete, from the nine-year-old to the 86 year-old who have participated in Athletes in Tandem. Many cannot speak, but sounds and gestures express their elation at feeling the wind in their hair, cool water on their bodies, and camaraderie and kudos from their fellow athletes. And when they return to compete in another event, it’s because they want that thrill again.
Vanderheiden says it’s about helping disabled athletes enjoy the stimulation of movement , and feeling their joy as well as your own in their accomplishments.
I agree. I was privileged to push 7-year-old Logan in the Firekraker Five inCity Park, Fort Collins, this year.