Training for a marathon is tough. But add a physical or cognitive impairment to the mix and it can require significant additional support. That was a lesson Dick Traum learned after losing his right leg in the aftermath of a serious car accident when he was 24. Ten years after the accident, he became the first runner to complete a marathon with a prosthetic leg when he crossed the finish line at the 1976 New York City Marathon.
That first marathon finish for Traum was the result of many hours spent training with his own support system, or "micro community," which included able-bodied and disabled athletes. Traum says without it, he wouldn’t even have been able to run around the block.
The support he experienced inspired him to create a network where people with all types of disabilities can be enabled to participate in mainstream running event. Achilles International was founded in 1983 and has since grown to over 110 chapters in 41 countries.
Each chapter, led by a volunteer, gets together for weekly workouts to help members train for an upcoming race. Within Achilles International is the Freedom Team, which serves wounded military personnel and veterans; Achilles Kids includes an in-school program for children with disabilities, training, and race opportunities; and the Achilles Para-triathlon Team expands the running program to biking and swimming.
"Any disability that you’ve ever thought of or seen is probably represented by someone within the Achilles community," notes Traum.
The people of the Achilles community and the lessons learned in organizing and growing the organization is included in a new book called The Courage to Go Forward: The Power of Micro Communities. Traum co-authored the book along with David Cordani, who Traum says shares his same sense of "bleeding heart optimism."
"People, including myself, get more joy out of helping others than they do achieving themselves. And it's a very, very important concept that is just now becoming more visible," says Traum.
Traum notes that Achilles members will be with their athletes from the start, and in many cases, right from the hospital bed after a traumatic injury. He says it's important to be a support for others during a time when a lot may seem impossible.
"What we're doing is we are planting seeds, and we're also giving people an opportunity to achieve," says Traum. "I think that one of the greatest joys in the world is that of being able to achieve."
As the Achilles community continues to grow and partner with other organizations to tackle not just physical achievement but societal issues, Traum says that disabled athletes will soon not be considered an anomaly.
"We're basically following successes that have occurred with femles, with minority group members, in that we're coming back and we're becoming part of mainstream life," says Traum.