talking with . . . Virginia Tinley of the Challenged Athletes Foundation

This week’s “talking with” post is the first of what will be a monthly respite (for the most part) from my normal ravings. I’ll be doing a regular (read, monthly) interview of a person who plays a significant role in the limb loss/difference community. The first person gracious enough to submit to my stumbling interrogation is Virginia Tinley, the Executive Director of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

CAF is a California non-profit organization best known for hosting the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, which takes place every October. Virginia was the organization’s first employee, and has overseen its development from a small group of volunteers into a multi-million-dollar, privately-funded not-for-profit that provides a variety of athletic programs, training, and financial support for individuals of all disability types, including people with LL/D.

We talked about a variety of topics: CAF’s origins; the connection between CAF and the passage of Ghana’s disability rights act; its current programs; the role social networking doesn’t play in CAF’s success; and why the exploits of Challenged Athletes should matter to the “average” individual with LL/D. Let the questioning of Virginia Tinley begin!

Dave: Jim MacLaren recently passed away. Describe for those readers not familiar with CAF’s history how Jim’s second accident led to CAF’s creation. (Readers: Jim McClaren was a pioneer in the amputee sports world. After losing his left leg below the knee when his motorcycle was struck by a New York City bus, he completed the New York City Marathon and then the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, both in record times for an amputee. Eight years later, McClaren suffered an even more devastating second accident. While participating in a California triathlon, a van hit McClaren during the bike stage, leaving him a quadriplegic.)

Virginia: [Jim] had a whole group of supporters here in San Diego: Bob Babbitt with Competitor magazine; Rick Kozlowski who’s a local race director; and Jeffrey Essakow who was with Reebok at the time. A group of his friends got together here in San Diego and said, “What can we do to help Jim immediately?”

And they decided, “We’ve got connections in the sport of triathlon. There aren’t very many half-Ironman distance events. Let’s put on a first-class half-Ironman distance event here in La Jolla and raise money for Jim. And the goal will be to raise $49,000 so we can buy him a specially adapted van so at least he can get some independence back as soon as possible.”

It was a volunteer effort. That first triathlon was very successful in that it did raise $49,000.

But the thing that the organizers didn’t know was what a role model Jim had been to other amputee athletes, such as Paul Martin. There were several amputees who came to that first triathlon out of respect for Jim. And it was in talking with them that the founders realized that most amputees didn’t have access to that same [prosthetic] technology [that Jim did]. It was very expensive to try and get this special adaptive equipment and it wasn’t covered by insurance.

So the founders decided, “Well, you know what, this was a pretty successful fundraiser. Why don’t we go ahead and keep doing this fundraiser and we’ll just raise money for Jim and some other athletes too.” That was really the beginning of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge. It started out as a fundraiser for Jim MacLaren .

About year three, it went from strictly a volunteer effort to becoming a full-fledged non-profit organization with a mission to help people with physical disabilities get sports equipment, training, and competition expenses that they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own.

Dave: Jim was obviously a freakishly-gifted athlete. He played both football and lacrosse at a Division I college before his first accident and then became a world-class triathlete afterwards, regularly beating the majority of able-bodied participants. I would think that, like most great athletes, he was fiercely independent and self-sufficient. How did he feel about a group of his friends getting together and creating an event to help him? At one level, I would think that was absolutely galling to him.

Virginia: If you want a little insight into what Jim went through, because he went through a lot, maybe 8 or 9 years ago, GQ magazine did an article on Jim. Very extensive article, and you know, the woman who wrote that article is the lady who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. I can remember reading that article when it came out and Jim, in his own words, tells of the darkness that he went through. He didn’t put that forward to us and I feel uncomfortable talking about that, but he talks about it himself in that article. This was never an easy thing for him to live with.

Dave: Did Jim ever talk with you about how he felt about CAF?

Virginia: I think he was very proud of the fact that something good came out of his tragedy. But he was living with his tragedy.

Later, Virginia connected Jim’s story to that of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, a young man from Ghana born with a congenital limb difference. In a country where children with disabilities are often left in the woods to die because of ancient cultural beliefs, Emmanuel’s story stands out. Raised by a fiercely protective mother (who passed away when Emmanuel was approximately 12-13 years old), he obtained a rudimentary public education and eventually stumbled upon CAF’s website. He applied for a grant, requesting a trail bike so that he could ride across his homeland to change the commonly-held Ghanian perception that life with disability was a (literal) curse. CAF awarded him the grant, and his story was eventually captured in the acclaimed documentary, Emmanuel’s Gift. Virginia picks things up from there.

Virginia: Emmanuel really truly is dedicated to the bottom of his soul to change things for people with disabilities in Ghana. He fought to have a disability rights act passed in Congress there. Worked pretty hard. Eventually, because of his growing clout here in the United States – he met in the Oval Office with George Bush, he won the Casey Martin Award at Nike presented by Phil Knight – anyway, the politicians in Ghana paid attention, and the disability rights act did pass.

So from Jim’s tragedy a whole country was changed. From the ripples of Jim casting the first rock in the pond, eventually the ripple went out to in fact changing a whole country.

Dave: What is Emmanuel doing today?

Virginia: Emmanuel has set a goal of building a school in Ghana. A king has donated the land and he’s trying to raise money to build a school that will be open to disabled as well as able-bodied people.

Dave: Let’s talk now about some of CAF’s programs. The first, and I think most well known, is Access for Athletes. How does that work?

Virginia: We have an annual grant distribution. Our grant application is available online from September 1st through December 1st. Last year I think we got in 1200 grant applications. The demand always exceeds the number we can give.

It’s hard enough to turn down the few we have to turn down. Out of the 1200 last year we were able to grant 812 grants. The average grant we give is $2500 per person. And we’ve really evolved our grant distribution method over the years because this was overwhelming early on. How do you determine who gets one and who doesn’t? How do you determine how much you’re going to give? There’s a few things that kick you out right away. And one of them is if your disability doesn’t qualify.

Early on, learning the hard way – we all have a “disability.” Everyone can consider themselves a “challenged athlete.” We realized we had to put a definition to it. Because how do you tell a person with only one kidney that they’re not challenged? Or somebody with Crohn’s disease? Or somebody who has a metal rod in their arm? We decided that what we were going to use as our parameters is if your disability would qualify you to participate in the Paralympic games.

So your disability has to qualify, and you have to have a financial need. We’re not going to give a grant to a wealthy person. Those are the two things that are automatic kick outs.

Dave: You also have the Catch a Rising Star program. Talk to us about that.

Virginia: Catch A Rising Star is designed for people who have not yet taken the first step in being physically active. It’s a safe environment to come and try a new activity. So they’re really geared for beginners with expert coaches and with accomplished Challenged Athletes there to act as role models and for encouragement. We do several different types of clinics.

Partnering with Ossur, we’ve been doing running/mobility clinics. We do a swim clinic where we’ve got a Paralympic coach who’s experienced with people with spinal cord injuries and with amputations. We do a wheelchair triathlon clinic down at Lubbock Texas in conjunction with the Buffalo Springs Triathlon down there, which is where wheelchair athletes can qualify for Kona [i.e., the Hawaii Ironman]. And then we just did our first two-day tri-clinic for amputees here in San Diego. And again, had just top-level triathlon coaches leading the swim, the bike, the run, nutrition, everything that goes into it.

And then we just throw in some fun ones. We’ve done rock climbing which has been very popular. We’ve worked with Mark Wellman and we’ve worked with Steven Muse here in San Diego. They’re both wheelchair athletes. We’ve done a myriad of other sports clinics.

But really the idea is to introduce a sport to a person and get them over the hump, kind of ignite their excitement where they would like to pursue this on their own. It has also become a great networking opportunity where they exchange e-mails and phone numbers. It has really proven to be helpful to have that network to encourage you to get your questions answered. We’ve really had great success with that and great feedback from it.

Dave: A really intriguing and cool program that you’ve launched is Operation Rebound, which is targeted at soldiers who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. How did that come about?

Virginia: Captain Dave Rozelle [who lost his foot to an IED in Iraq] came back to Colorado Springs and got hooked on pain pills and was wallowing in depression and his wife was pregnant with their first child. One day he just had a wakeup call: “You know what, this isn’t how I want to live the rest of my life.” And on his own decided to get active. It was really through swimming and then triathlons that he was able to move forward in his life. And it was at that time we hooked up with Dave and told him about what we’d already been doing for the last, whatever it was, 12 years.

And he had said, “This is what we need to bring to the troops: we need to encourage all these newly-injured guys. It’s through sports that they can get their lives back on track.” So it was with Dave’s leadership and direction that Operation Rebound was formed. And he was and still is a huge advocate of the program. It has really grown and is well received.

We support the amputees who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting their athletic goals. It can be anything from martial arts to biathlon to whatever they’re interested in. We’ll help fund their physical fitness goals. In addition, we bring our Catch A Rising Star-type clinics to the different medical hospitals: Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical, and Balboa Naval Hospital. And we’ve also sent some of our Challenged Athletes spokespeople such as Rudy [Garcia-Tolson] and Sarah [Reinertsen] to encourage the guys. It’s very humbling.

Dave: I’m curious as to what kind of impact these Challenged Athletes and injured soldiers have on each other. I imagine that would be a pretty intense experience.

Virigina: Rudy and Sarah and little Cody McCasland have certainly inspired our permanently-injured military personnel and they’ve been credited with motivating some individuals into thinking “stop thinking what I can’t do and start thinking what I can do.”

Dave: Part of Operation Rebound is the support system that comes into play for these injured soldiers. Which leads to a broader question: how much of a role does social networking play in CAF’s current programs, and is it an important tool for you?

Virigina: We do the social networking, but I wouldn’t say it has a huge impact on what we’ve done at this point. I think one of the most meaningful things that we do is connect people and create communities. Before coming to a CAF program, many people have felt isolated or really do not have a group of people that can relate to what they go through or how they feel. Apparently, that is a very appreciated thing, to have a community of people that can relate to you. So it’s really more a one-on-one/face-to-face interaction versus the social media.

Dave: The concept of shared experience, of community, is an important one. And that leads to the following question. Have you ever felt compromised in any way by the fact that while you run an organization that provides services for people with physical challenges, you yourself are not a part of that community?

Virginia: Potentially [pause] – Put it this way. I am glad that I do have people on my staff who have physical challenges or have family members who have a physical challenge, because there is power when they speak. When I speak, it is second hand.

I can see the value in [having leadership that shares the member experience first-hand]. But I don’t think that every single person here has to have that. It’s important that the people we serve can vouch for us and tell their story and give credibility as to why we’re important. I do think it’s important to have physically challenged people as spokespeople.

But I don’t think I’ve ever felt compromised in my job because I wasn’t physically challenged. I’ve never felt like, “gee whiz, if I only had that, then I’m sure I could do so much more.” I’ve never felt that.

Dave: The San Diego Triathlon Challenge is coming up on October 24. You described how the event started at the beginning of our discussion. Give us some perspective on how much it has grown over the years.

Virigina: The San Diego Triathlon Challenge started out as a $49,000 fundraiser and it has grown to a $1 million fundraiser. I think we had 23 people at the very first event. We probably have 5,000 people down at the event now. It has grown from a triathlon to a weekend celebration. It kicks off on Thursday night and ends at the end of the day Sunday. There are things going on every day.

Dave: That’s an important point. There are lots of triathlons and half triathlons around the United States. But the SDTC is an Event, and it’s so much bigger than just the race. Why do you think that is?

Virigina: What our people tell us is that it’s the most meaningful day of the year for them, our fundraisers. They’re absolutely inspired by the Challenged Athletes they’re racing with. The other thing is that they feel like they really see where their money goes, because they see all the equipment. So it doesn’t feel like they’re raising money. Even though it’s wonderful that money gets raised for research [by other organizations], this seems to be really meaningful to see what you helped buy.

Dave: CAF is built around the concept of exercise and it has a team of unbelievable athletes with remarkable accomplishments. But interestingly, the people who are the face of CAF – Rudy, Scout, Sarah, Paul – are not the “average” person with LL/D. That person is typically an older, diabetic or dysvascular amputee. Explain to me why the San Diego Triathlon Challenge specifically, and why CAF generally, should matter to the older, less active person with LL/D, who at first glance has nothing in common with these Challenged Athletes.

Virginia: First off, it’s got to be empowering and self-affirming as an amputee to know that there are amputees out there who are role models, who are symbols of strength, of health. That the population you’re a part of isn’t only overweight, inactive people. I guess you can choose to remain overweight and sedentary, or maybe you can be inspired by seeing these other people. And think, “Gee, maybe I can take a stab at better health. Maybe I can walk around the block.”

Maybe just having role models and just seeing what other amputees can do, even though they’re younger, fit people – I mean, it would be a shame, wouldn’t it, to be a part of a group that had no positive role model? That would be pretty defeating.

Secondly, why I think San Diego Triathlon Challenge is important to those people, whether they know it or not, is because it raises $1 million to go towards grants for people with physical disabilities. And that’s people at any level of fitness, any age. It can be golf, it can be a gym membership, it can be swim lessons. There are things that people can do to enjoy life and be healthy. And to be able to be somewhat active would enhance, I think, everyone’s life. This is a source of funding for somebody who has the desire and sets the goal.

I’d like to thank Virginia for taking so much time out of her schedule to speak with me. For those of you who want to learn more about CAF, I’ve added their website to the “Blogroll” on the upper left side of less IS more. (“Blogroll” brings to mind many things. A list of links isn’t one of them.)

I hope everyone also realizes how much restraint it took for me to not do an immediate extended riff on Eat, Pray, Love, when Virginia mentioned it in the interview. Given the importance of what she was saying at the time, I tried to show a modicum of discretion by not “breaking the “narrative flow”.” With the interview now over, though, I’m under no such constraints.

While I am an avid reader, I have little interest in Ms. Gilbert’s wildly successful memoir because (a) it doesn’t appear to involve the kind of snarky, obnoxious commentary that dominates whatever I do choose to read, and (b) I fear it will lack the veritable junkyard of pop-culture references that I generally find amusing. And I don’t think any man in America has read the book yet. I don’t want to be the person who breaks that streak.

That being said, I have, based on Virginia’s wise counsel, read Ms. Gilbert’s 2002 article about Jim MacLaren in GQ, which I liked despite its absence of both snarky obnoxious commentary and pop-culture references. It’s an excellent piece. I encourage readers to click on the link in the post above and take the time to get a more complete picture of Jim MacLaren. In particular, Gilbert does a nice job of linking his thoughts about spiritualism to the prison of his own body and his conception of “who” one really is.

I also encourage anyone who hasn’t been to the CAF San Diego Triathlon Challenge to go. It’s a remarkable event. Again, the race is on October 24, but there will be numerous activities beginning on Thursday and running through the entire weekend.

2 thoughts on “talking with . . . Virginia Tinley of the Challenged Athletes Foundation

  1. Pingback: top 10 reasons to go to Philly in a month « less is more

  2. Pingback: a plea for support « less is more

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