by Lindsay Miller
McCabe Park Community Center has been the home for Achilles International-Nashville athletes and guides since 2012. “We started in the spring with one of our blind athletes that is still with us today,” says Amy Harris, the Director of the Chapter here in town. “We are now the second largest in the world and the fastest growing, our headquarters being in New York City. Any given Wednesday night we have between 40 to 50 people come out to run.”
In 1976, Dick Traum became the first above-the-knee amputee to complete the New York City Marathon. In 1983, Traum founded the Achilles Track Club, and after six Achilles athletes completed the New York City Marathon together, they renamed the group, grew the charity, and became known as Achilles International.
Achilles pairs athletes with disabilities with able-bodied runners to serve as guides. Together these athletes and guides participate in mainstream running activities and events. The foundation promotes fitness without boundaries or limitations. They have a variety of athletes and guides that work together to reach individual goals at any level.
One of the athletes, Lizzy Harris uses a hand-cycle, a three wheeled bike that sits low to the ground. “I don’t need a guide,” she tells us and jokes with the group. But Olaf Wasternack, one of the many volunteers that knows Lizzy well, proclaims, “If Lizzy doesn’t have someone tell her when to slow down [for a turn] there will be carnage.” And although everyone laughs, Lizzy’s bike, which she named Razzy for its Raspberry color, can definitely pick up speed when she is in the driver’s seat.
“For me, as a blind athlete,” explains Ricky Jones, the Executive Director of the Tennessee Association of Blind Athletes and active participant in Achilles, “being a part of this group brought to light many things. The blind and visually impaired have one of the highest obesity rates in all the minority groups. There is a lack of resources and knowledge for adaptive sports.”
He continues, “There are kids in high school that sit around the gym rather than participate. Neither kids or teachers know how to adapt.” He states, “I was one of those students. The day I decided to participate, we played volleyball. Of course [the ball] hit me in the face and everyone laughed, but I still played sports. Although, after graduation, I thought sports were over for me.” Luckily, that wasn’t the case thanks to Amy and her team of volunteers.
“It’s so fun to be part of something that helps someone accomplish what they technically couldn’t do by themselves. But they do! And we get to be a part of that.” Wasternack says.
“I actually don’t even like running,” Jones chimes in and admittedly laughs, “I never thought I’d run a marathon either and now it’s something I can check off my bucket list.” Jones has completed the New York City Marathon twice. “Each level of fitness we challenge ourselves to get faster and go longer. Totally blind, I thought it wasn’t possible for me. But I formed real relationships with people at Achilles.”
“It definitely takes a lot of trust from both people, as well as communication,” says Annie Donnell, a blind runner who ran track all four years of high school. She says, “It’s different now because of the terrain. It’s not a flat surface. I have to rely heavily on my guide sometimes. So it’s as much about listening and trusting as it is navigating.”
Amy says most guides and athletes share a special bond because “you are responsible for another person,” which is not only a liability, but a huge honor. “Though, people make mistakes,” Amy assures, “you just have to have a sense of humor about it. We’ve definitely ran people into things,” the group laughs at the truth of the matter, and it would seem likely that mistakes happen, but it actually brings them closer as partners. Whether you lead or follow in life, there are lessons to learn.
“I’ve learned a lot as a guide,” Wasternack explains. “A lot of people exercise for selfish reasons, like they want to be fit or be competitive. But you learn so much more [as a guide]. Things I would have never thought about.”
“Like how a pine cone can completely disrupt someone’s world,” Brandon Bradford throws out as an example. “But really! These are things we as guides don’t think about.” Bradford and Jones share a close friendship as guide and athlete, most likely because they share the same sense of humor.
“It has definitely made me see things through different eyes,” continues Wasternack, who got involved with Achilles after witnessing a guided, blind athlete in the Boston Marathon and immediately felt inspired to learn more.
“We’ve become a family despite different life experiences,” Jones added. They each have a bond within the group, different from the other, but the same compassion.
In 2003, Achilles hosted the first Hope & Possibility 5-Mile Run, awarding both able-bodied runners and athletes and those in disability categories. The event was named after Trisha Meili’s book. Meili is a past Achilles Board Chair, an active Achilles member, and author of I Am the Central Park Jogger, A Story of Hope and Possibility.
Amy says, “I am so passionate about this group of athletes, volunteers, guides, and our community outreach. Everyone is welcome at weekly practices and our Hope & Possibility Run.”
Options are a 5K or a one mile run, which most athlete’s might normally refer to as a “fun run.” However, Lizzy points out, a one mile run is a big task for some and you never know just how challenging it is in someone else’s shoes. It is an amazing event to appreciate the life we have, change your perspective, magnify your gratitude and get involved with the Nashville fitness community in order to see firsthand the beauty of runners and walkers of all abilities coming together.
Visit achillesnashville.org for applications to volunteer or become an athlete. The site offers the weekly run schedule and registration for the Hope and Possibility Run.