One of my favorite chapters in Still Running is the “Diversities and Determination” chapter that tells the story of how Athletes in Tandem came to be. It happened because, after completing an Ironman Triathlon in Louisville, Kentucky in 2008, Dennis Vanderheiden decided he was through chasing personal bests. He realized that satisfaction for him came from experiencing the joy of others as they completed an event. For him, the thrill was in the journey, not in the finish.
He knew also that his joy would be enhanced if he could share the journey with someone unable to do it on their own. Inspired by Dick Hoyt who pushed and pulled his disabled son Rick through an amazing 72 marathons and 255 triathalons, six of them Ironman distances, over 37 years of competing, Vanderhein founded Athletes in Tandem.
His non-profit recruits volunteers and supplies equipment to make it possible for those with disabilities to participate in running, biking and swimming events. Vanderheiden says there’s a story behind every athlete. They may not be able to speak, but their sounds and gestures express their elation at feeling the wind in their hair, cool water on their bodies and kudos and camaraderie from fellow athletes.
AIT now has a presence in locations from New York to California and people from all over the country seek Vanderheiden’s advice.
Last Monday night I was lucky enough to attend a showing of Lessons from Zachary, a film presented by Athletes in Action that documents an epic multi-day bike ride in the Colorado mountains which Vanderheiden and Zachary Scott, who cannot walk or speak, completed together. It sounds kind of lame to say it was inspirational, but that’s just what it was.