Friday, October 30, 2009
After losing his legs in an accident, Scott Rigsby forged new ground as a triathlete.
By John Perra
At mile 23 on the marathon portion of Hawaii's Ford Ironman World Championships in October, Scott Rigsby was in so much pain that he fantasized about falling onto a stretcher. He'd completed the 2.4-mile swim, the 112-mile bike, and most of the 26.2-mile run. The double amputee's residual limbs were blistered, swollen, and chafed raw, making each step feel like his skin was pressing into the hot coals of the surrounding lava fields. But when he saw 16:13 on his watch, he realized he had no time to waste feeling sorry for himself if he wanted to finish before the 17-hour cutoff. So he picked up the pace.
"That was the most pain I've inflicted on myself," says Rigsby, 39, who lives in Atlanta. "I started saying, 'This is what you've worked so hard for. If you can do this, you can change the world.'"
Indeed, Rigsby was after more than just bragging rights. He was out to defy expectations and redefine the potential of disabled athletes by becoming the first double amputee in the world to complete an Ironman.
Road to Kona
Rigsby was an 18-year-old high school football player in July 1986, when an accident changed the course of his life. Riding in the back of a trailer that was clipped from behind by an 18-wheeler, Rigsby was dragged 328 feet, and eventually pinned under the trailer he was riding in. His right leg was immediately amputated--the first of 17 surgeries he would endure over the next year. Doctors said it would be 18 months before he could walk again, never mind run. "I went through a denial stage, thinking it was going to grow back," Rigsby said. "It was a difficult time."
Five years later, Rigsby began classes at the University of Georgia, where he started swimming and biking. But he wanted to run. "If you tell me I can't do something," he says, "I'm going to find a way to do it." One day he hit the track, but on his fourth lap, his left foot, which had been reconstructed, couldn't withstand the force, and the seam between his skin graphs tore. The setback hit Rigsby hard. "I felt like a prisoner to my 'good' leg," he says.
In the ensuing seven years, Rigsby finished college, worked a variety of jobs in sales and construction, and sank into a depression, for which he was eventually treated. Finally, in 1998, he decided to have his left leg amputated below the knee. "With my new prosthesis, I could resign from being a professional patient," he says. "I finally had two good legs."
Inspiration came in December 2004, when Rigsby read a Runner's World story about Sarah Reinertsen, the first female above-the-knee amputee to attempt the Hawaii Ironman. "I had never even done a triathlon, but when I realized that no double amputee had done an Ironman," says Rigsby, "I decided I'd go for it."
Barriers fell one by one. In 2006, Rigsby became the first double amputee to finish an Olympic-distance triathlon and a half-Ironman. In March 2007, he became the first to finish 26.2 miles at the ING Georgia Marathon, in a time of 5:04. Three months later, Rigsby went for his ultimate goal at the Ford Ironman Coeur D'Alene triathlon in Idaho. He crashed on the bike, however, and neck and back pain forced him to call it a day halfway through the marathon.
Rigsby's next chance would be in Hawaii. On October 13, temperatures in Kona were in the mid 80s and the humidity was oppressive. Friends at the finish were getting antsy, unsure whether Rigsby would make it before time ran out. At last they saw him come down Alii Drive and cross the line. His final time on the clock: 16 hours, 42 minutes, and 46 seconds.
"Some people who go through an amputation end up being so inactive that they're at risk for obesity, depression, and diabetes," says Rigsby's training partner, Mike Lenhart, who runs the Getting2Tri Foundation. "Scott provides courage and inspiration to people and shows them their potential."
Realizing the impact he can have on others, in January 2007, Rigsby founded his own nonprofit organization to provide physically challenged athletes with coaching and mentoring support. "Once you accomplish something, it's easy to ride the wave of success and have your 15 minutes of fame," Rigsby says. "I want to stay the course and show people that you can take the life that God gave you and use it to do something extraordinary."
"Maybe other people--both able-bodied and amputees--can look at me and say, 'you know what? Life is tough, but if this guy can make it, then I can make it.'
Monday, October 12, 2009
By Morgan Stanfield
When Jarem Frye pushes off the chair lift and glides down a black-diamond slope, you can tell he's good. His knees bend rhythmically under a powerful set of quads in the unmistakable two-step of an expert telemark skier. He's measured and smooth, carving sprayless white tracks, bombing toward a ski jump below. He launches off it, cuts the air with a high backflip, lands in an explosion of powder, and disappears downhill. When you catch him at the bottom of the slope, he's taking a break. He pulls up the left cuff of his ski pants and twists off his left leg, dropping his boot, titanium calf, and self-invented left knee on the hardpack with a thunk. He looks up and grins.
Sixteen years ago, Frye was an 85-pound 14-year-old in a Utah Shriners Hospital, looking down at his natural left leg for the last time. He had osteosarcoma and had decided after spending more than a year in and out of hospitals that his best chance for an active life was amputation. His doctors told him that with a transfemoral amputation, he wouldn't be able to run, bike, ski, or rock climb. Snowboardinghis dreamwas out of the question. The hospital's poster-child for amputee athletic achievement was a boy who had walked just half a mile with his prosthetic leg. Frye would be given a four-bar knee and a SACH foot and supposedly go home to a life of similar achievements. He never swallowed that. He told The O&P EDGE , "The amputation didn't really change my plans for my life, and at the time, all I wanted to do was race mountain bikes." Immediately after the amputation, his parents bought him a new mountain bike, and using a clipless pedal, he rode more than 600 miles on it before receiving his prosthesis.
Frye says, "I understood that the doctors were telling me the current standards for what an above-knee amputee could do, but I also had the resourcefulness to find ways to do what everybody said I couldn't do. I had my own ideas about what I could do, or what I would be able to substitute doing." He soon discovered that with his simple prostheses, he could not only mountain bike, but runalbeit with a muscle-wrenching gait. Rock climbing was too dangerous to be worth it. Snowboarding was impossible, but thanks to the National Abilities Center, Park City, Utah, he learned to downhill ski and joined its three-track racing team. Frye showed his prosthetist what he could do and begged him to lobby Shriners for an energy-storing foot.
Photograph courtesy of Colin Botts.
Frye says, "At the time, it was ridiculous, like a 14-year-old asking for Paralympic-quality equipment. Meanwhile, I kept breaking everything that they had already bought me, so I was costing them a lot of money." Within three months, they sent the foot.
After high school, Frye started working at a ski resort. To his friends' scoffing, he decided to try telemarking. He realized that it was simply impossible to achieve its bent-knee stance without active lower-leg support .
Frye says, "To me, the only time that I was disabled was when I was unable to do something. When people said that I couldn't telemark, it became a quest to prove I could. I started analyzing my equipment to find out why it wasn't possible and to figure out how I could tweak things or completely reinvent them specifically for telemarking." He continues, "My Christmas presents from the time I was ten years old were things like grinders and forgesbuilding things was what I was most interested inso I didn't begin to think I couldn't build something."
With a year of continuous work, he created a Frankenstein's monster of an energy-storing knee, cobbling on parts, grinding it, and tuning it. Using the knee, Frye became the world's first person with a transtibial amputation to telemark. Deciding to reinvent the knee from scratch, he rigged another prosthesis frame with a shock-absorbing system made from cast-iron pipe and a car's valve spring. It worked better than the first one. He wore a second prototype of it through three ski seasons, doing his best to break it, and failing. His prosthetist, Lane Ferrin, CP, Northwest Orthotics and Prosthetics, Provo, Utah, said that before that time, Frye came in every six months to have his heavy-duty conventional prosthetic knee replaced or rebuilt.
At the resort, coworkers urged Frye to start a company to manufacture the knee. He pondered the number of amputees who would be interested in telemarking and dismissed the idea. However, he soon tried the knee in other sports, starting with rock climbing, and succeeded. "The next winter," he recalls, "I took it snowboarding, and that's when I realized there would be a market for it because I knew a lot of amputees who wanted to snowboard."
To begin, Frye spent the next six years learning machining, manufacturing, and engineering through a variety of jobs. He worked anywhere he could learn an essential new skill, and when he was done, he moved on. The energy-storing knee prototypes he produced were waterproof and practically indestructible. Using one, he became the first person with a transfemoral amputation to wakeboard and to competitively rock climb. At the 2006 Extremity Games, he took the overall rock-climbing championship.
One afternoon in the midst of his self-education, Frye was getting a haircut from a female friend when a beautiful red-haired woman dropped by to visit his barber. He remembers, "I started hitting on her, and she totally gave me the cold shoulder because she thought I was dating her friend and that I was a slimeball for flirting with her right in front of her friend." After straightening out the mix-up, they went out. Frye recalls with a laugh, "On our first date, we agreed that people in Utah get serious too fast and that you shouldn't get engaged without dating for a least a year. Five months later, we were married."
From left: Jarem, Jude, Ari, and Sara Frye. Photograph courtesy of Logan Ellis.
After he and Sara married, they moved to Oregon to work together for a commercial painting company. Within a month, they were laid off. Both deeply spiritual, they prayed for direction, and decided to start a business manufacturing Frye's knees. That business became Symbiotechs USA, Amity, manufacturer of the XT9 ESPK (energy-storing prosthetic knee). Around that time, they found out that they had started something elseSara was pregnant. Their son, Ari, was born in 2007, and just eight months later, another son was on the way. Their second son, Jude, is now five months old.
As their boys have grown, so have sales at Symbiotechs, though its ability to manufacture the knee is just beginning to meet the demand for it. Frye has turned the Symbiotechs website into a Generation-X marketing powerhouse that includes a social network for XT9 users, who share information about how to use the knee in various sports, including surfing, skateboarding, scuba, ice climbing, and motorcycle riding. It also features clips from the upcoming Symbiotechs-sponsored Xamped Film Festival, whose short films showcase unique athletes, "from blind climbers to double-amputee pro snowboarders, to paraplegics who do backflips in wheel chairs."
Sara says that Frye would like to grow the company to the point that it could help sponsor individual athletes and the Extremity Games. He'd also like to expand Symbiotechs' offerings for the customers whom he cares so much about. Frye's future looks as good as his telemarking formmeasured, determined, and with the grace that comes from healthy audacity.
Friday, October 2, 2009
By Tanya Mannes
2:00 a.m. May 25, 2009
Dedan Ireri of Kenya completed a training ride with his host, Chris Maund, in Encinitas. Ireri hopes to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. (Howard Lipin / Union-Tribune) -
A new leg for Dedan
Dedan Ireri lost his right leg in an accident when he was a child. Despite his disability, the Kenyan is a competitive cyclist who rides a bicycle with just one leg. Encinitas residents Chris Maund and Janet Alexander brought him to San Diego County for three months in 2009 to obtain a prosthetic leg. Video by Tanya Mannes.
More Videos Chris Maund helped Dedan Ireri with exercises to prepare him to use a new carbon-fiber and titanium leg. (Howard Lipin / Union-Tribune)
ENCINITAS — After losing his right leg in a childhood accident, Dedan Ireri thought he would never walk again.
Yet he was determined to keep moving. He learned to ride a beat-up bicycle with his one good leg, pumping the pedal and propelling himself past able-bodied riders on the dust-covered roads of his native Kenya.
“Riding bike makes me feel strong,” said Ireri, 28.
But off the bike, his crutches were a constant reminder of his disability, and his poverty.
That was until he met an Encinitas couple traveling in Africa. They struck up a friendship over their love of cycling, and vowed to help Ireri walk again.
Janet Alexander and Chris Maund are hosting Ireri on a three-month visit to San Diego County and have helped him obtain his first prosthetic leg.
Today, Ireri will return to his family in Nairobi, able to walk unassisted for the first time in 16 years.
“I am feeling very happy,” he said in a recent interview, speaking carefully because Swahili is his first language. “I am happy to be here.”
Alexander and Maund train athletes – including cyclists – at the C.H.E.K. Studio in Encinitas. They are using their expertise in musculoskeletal rehabilitation to help Ireri learn to use his new carbon-fiber and titanium leg, which has a hydraulic knee and a springy, energy-saving foot.
They also have bought him a new Roubaix Pro bicycle. Eventually, Ireri will be fitted with a special socket for attaching his stump to the prosthesis that will allow him to ride the bike with both legs. That probably will happen next year because he needs to adapt to the walking socket.
Maund and Alexander said they were inspired to help Ireri because they recognized his athletic prowess and felt he deserved a chance to excel. They count him as an equal among the elite athletes they have trained, such as Ironman world champion Heather Fuhr.
“If he had two legs he'd probably be good enough to be one of the top amateur athletes in the country,” Maund said. “I like encouraging people I know have potential.”
The couple said they were amazed by Ireri when they met him in 2007 during the Tour D'Afrique, a 7,400-mile group bike ride from Cairo, Egypt, to Cape Town, South Africa. In each country, local riders temporarily joined the tour.
“This guy appears in the group and he only has one leg,” Maund said. “And then we start dialing the pace up racing and he's still there. He's very, very strong with one leg.”
Ireri was obviously not a beginner.
“He had all the gear,” Maund said. “He's got the jersey, the shorts, the helmet, the gloves.”
The couple stayed in touch with Ireri and helped him obtain a visa to visit the United States. They also raised nearly $30,000 – half of it their own money – to pay for his trip to California, the prosthetic leg and the bike.
Ireri's days in San Diego County have included rides to Torrey Pines and Escondido, appointments with specialists, weight training and practice walking. He also is learning English, which will help his job prospects when he returns to Kenya.
Kel Bergmann, who fitted Ireri for his leg, said, “He learned to walk on that prosthesis as fast as anybody I've seen.”
Bergmann is the president of SCOPe Orthotics & Prosthetics Inc., the San Diego company that manufactured Ireri's leg. The first day that Ireri was to take home the prosthesis, “he basically handed Chris his crutches and refused to use them as he walked to the car,” Bergmann said.
Ireri grew up in the slums of Nairobi and for years lived on the street. As a child he supported himself through petty theft.
At age 12, he was hit by a bus and his leg was amputated at the upper thigh. After the accident, he survived by begging.
As a teenager, he met Ingrid Munro, a Swedish woman who heads JamiiBora, a charitable trust in Kenya that provides microfinance loans. Munro spent years trying to help Ireri start a small business or get a job.
Munro said Ireri was “a very charming boy with a big smile,” but it took time before he was ready to leave the street.
“The problem with beggars that have a big handicap is that they see that handicap as a fundraising asset,” Munro said in a telephone interview from Kenya. “In the very beginning we tried to help get some schooling but he snuck off all the time.”
Eventually, Ireri met Susan Wangui, who became his wife. The couple have three children: 2-year-old Benson, 5-year-old Peter and 9-year-old Lucy.
He joined a riding club, which helped him to increase his physical endurance with one leg. About four years ago, Ireri asked Munro if she would hire him as a bicycle messenger for JamiiBora.
His salary as a courier is now the main source of income for his family.
Munro said Ireri found a niche in the cycling community. In 2007, he competed in an international cycling competition in Colombia for people with physical disabilities. In the 15-kilometer race he placed 14th with an average speed of 35.9 kilometers per hour (22.3 mph). That time qualified him for the 2008 Paralympic Games in China, although his plans to go fell through.
“He has learned that there is nothing that is impossible,” Munro said.
These days, Ireri can't seem to stop smiling. And his eyes shine as he looks at his bicycle, with which he hopes to compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
“Good size, good weight,” he said. “I like it because in Africa many bike is steel. Now my bike is good bike, carbon fiber.”
Maund is optimistic about Ireri's future. “Once he learns to use the prosthetic leg properly, I really think it's possible he can win medals at Paralympics 2012,” Maund said.
Alexander and Maund are already planning to host him next year to continue his training.
Ireri said, “I looking for gold medal.”
“It is my dream,” he said. “One day I win a medal.”
Tanya Mannes: (619) 498-6639; firstname.lastname@example.org