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Human Potential at Work Podcast Show Flyer for Episode #76: How Achilles International Empowers Persons With Disabilities
Human Potential at Work Podcast Show Flyer for Episode #76: How Achilles International Empowers Persons With Disabilities

Guest: Dick Traum       Guest Title: Founder

Date: October 4, 2017            Guest Company: Achilles International    


[Intro Music] 


Debra:                     Hello, everyone. This is Debra Ruh, and you are watching or listening to Human Potential at Work. My guest today has such an amazing legacy. I think you’re going to be as excited about this man, if you don’t know about him, as I am. He has just such an amazing story to tell, and I’m just so proud to have him on the program. So Dick Traum, welcome to the program today. We are just so stoked to have you.

Dick:                         Well, thank you, and it’s really a great pleasure to be here.

Debra:                     Yes. So Dick, you have such an interesting story, and I’m not going to even try to tell it. I want you to tell it, but before we start, why don’t you just tell the audience a little bit about who you are and about this organization you created? I think a lot of people actually know about your work, but they might not have connected the dots, because I’ve known about the work for a long time. But I sort of didn’t connect the dots until one of my customers, MassMutual, told me about the work you were doing with the New York City Marathon. And I immediately jumped on the email and said, “Please, please, please, please, may I interview you?” So I’m just so appreciative that you allowed me to do that.

Dick:                         Well, I am responsible for Achilles International, and what we do is we encourage people with all kinds of disabilities to participate in long distance running. And the idea that I’m particularly interested in is mainstreaming. In other words, I believe that people with disabilities should participate with others who are not necessarily disabled.

Debra:                     Yes.

Dick:                         We have a goal of running a marathon, and we literally have had thousands of people with disabilities over many years complete a marathon. We have several different activities. One of them is called the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, okay? And this is a group that has had over a thousand disabled veterans involved that competes in sports, typically long distance running, typically with hand cycles. And most of them have accomplished a marathon.

                                    We have a second program, and it’s called Achilles Kids. These are children with disabilities, typically in schools and working with their adaptive physical education teachers. And their goal is to run laps in the school during the school year, and those who accomplish a total of 26.2 miles, which is the New York City Marathon, win a pair of running shoes.

Debra:                     Wow.

Dick:                         And there are lots of games along the way. Well, what we’re doing is we’re introducing these kids to achieving, to having goals. We have a third program. It’s called the Hope and Possibility run, and this was named after a board member and board chair founder, Trisha Meili’s book. It came out about 15 years ago. It is called I am the Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility. And this past June, we had signed up 7,500 people. It sold out three weeks before the race, and it included approximately 700 people with disabilities competing with others who were not disabled. And then, finally, we have a program nationally and internationally where we have many, many chapters. We actually have presence in over 70 countries.

Debra:                     Wow, that’s amazing.

Dick:                         Now, that’s a good summary of what we do.

Debra:                     Yeah, so Dick, tell us why. Tell us why you do … Well, I mean, why’d you start this? Tell us your story.

Dick:                         Well, there’s a short story and there’s a long story. The short one is basically, I ran the 1976 New York City Marathon on my artificial leg. I became the first amputee to complete the distance, and I continued the run, and I continued coming dead last. And I figured if I could find some other people that would come out there who had disabilities, I would stop coming in last.

Debra:                     That’s … yeah.

Dick:                         Okay. A different version-

Debra:                     And at last, at least, you did it. I remember, I ran a-

Dick:                         I’m not coming last anymore. The difference is, I ran my first marathon in 1967, there was a young man in Canada by the name of Terry Fox and he was about to lose his leg in the spring of 1977. And his basketball coach gave him a picture of me running the marathon. So here’s this young kid, he looks at the picture and he says if that old guy can run a marathon, I could run one every day. And I got that from his mother, okay? And he had the amputation, started to get back into shape and he started running and eventually he ran a marathon a day over several months in Canada, going from one end of Canada to the other to raise money for cancer research. And that had been very, very successful.

                                    When he passed, they had a series of Terry Fox races, I was invited to participate I guess in about five of them over 1981, 1982 and I realized that there was a huge number of people with disabilities who are participating in these events. And I thought we could bring it back to New York. I was on the board of the New York Road Runners Club, the people who put on the New York City Marathon. And I said hey, let’s get a program like this started and we did.

                                    And we started it in the beginning of 1983 and by the end of ’83 we had six Achilles members who were doing a New York City Marathon. And no where else in the world had so many people with disabilities participated in the sport. And it grew.

Debra:                     Now, it grew because it is amazing. And I remember when I was, once again, my client MassMutual, had told me about your work and they were saying something, they said we want to be sure that when we’re talking about this that we’re using racers, not runners, because not everybody’s running. And I said no, no, no, no, it is perfectly fine to call people, do you agree Dick? It’s perfectly fine to say running. Because people can identify as runners whether their using a wheelchair or things like that. Or whether they are running so, I think sometimes we get a little caught up in language in the United States. And we almost sometimes create barriers but, what do you say? Are we runners? Are we racers?

Dick:                         We’re runners. I fully agree. Now, I used to run on my artificial leg and I guess technically you could say I wasn’t a runner, I was a hopper. Running is fine.

Debra:                     Yes, and I think, I know that somebody one time said to me well, you should never use the word see when you’re talking to somebody that is a person that is blind. Well as soon as I say, for example, whatever you do Dick, do not think of the word polar bear. While I know what you just did. I know what you just did. That immediately came into your mind so, people with disabilities are people and we talk about that a lot on this program. And I do think that there are people with disabilities that are heroes, like you Dick, because the lives that you’ve changed and sports and exercise can change our lives in powerful ways that, like you said, team building skills. Just believing in your own power of who you are. I just think the work you’re doing, it’s really making the world a better place. Where you’re not just talking about it, you’re actually doing it. So, Dick, give us some examples of the types of disabilities that the runners that are part of Achilles’s International have. Excuse my bad syntax there.

Dick:                         Okay, it’s a whole range. Now I was quoted one time, when we started a chapter in Scotland, I was trying to make a joke and I explained the disabilities are from A to Z. And I started saying that we start with Alzheimer’s and we go to zits. And it was quoted in the newspaper as Alzheimer’s to people with skin issues. But, basically we have a huge number of people who are visually impaired. We have paraplegics, we have amputees like myself. In our kids program we have literally thousands of children who are on the spectrum, Autism. And I think this is one of the great, big surprises that if you are on the spectrum and you run that you will just do wonderfully. You will improve obviously physically, but you also improve cognitively, and socially, okay?

Debra:                     Great.

Dick:                         It’s any, we have people with issues like multiple sclerosis, we have people that have issues with heart, there’s different heart problems. We have people who are depressed. In other words you pick a disability and there are probably a number of folks who have it. Now, it was one year when we had people who had heart transplants, who got kidney transplants, we had liver transplants and they were out there doing marathons.

Debra:                     Yes, it’s incredible. Because when we exercise it’s good for our brains. And I know, with my ADHD and sometimes severe depression exercise, I used to run and now I do Zumba. But it makes me feel normal. It just makes me feel better I should say.

Dick:                         Well there’s some feeling that the exercise or the running is better than any medication that’s out there.

Debra:                     I agree. Yup, I agree. And I think I’ve talked a little bit on the program about Alzheimer’s because my husband is walking a path right now with beginning dementia. And I’ve been doing everything I can to learn more about dementia and Alzheimer’s. There’s some very interesting things happening, awakening from Alzheimer’s and there’s just some really interesting things happening, but exercise, eating right, all the things that we know, that keep our human body’s healthy, really can be very powerful allies in fighting diseases or conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Dick:                         Fully agree.

Debra:                     Yeah so, I think there’s a lot to be hopeful for. I always am finding a silver lining. Tell us more about where you are participating. I know that you’re going to once again be part of the New York Marathon. But that’s not the only place where you are. Tell us more about the races that Achilles International is a part of.

Dick:                         Okay, this is our high season. And starting a week from now we have a team competing in the Chicago Marathon. And then a week later we have a very large team competing in the Detroit Marathon. Okay, I think we have about 40 folks that are typically recently wounded veterans. And I’ll be competing there with them. My joy is about the little speech the night before the event and I’ll ask the folks there, “How many of you were born with a-”

Debra:                     With a disability.

Dick:                         How many of you are 26 years old or younger. And I have a lot of people raise their hand and I will give each one of them a 50 year handicap. Okay, so we get out there, we do Detroit then two weeks later we have probably about 65 who are running in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. And then on November 5th we have the New York City Marathon, we’ll have about 250 people that come from probably 30 plus countries and maybe 100 different chapters. And then we go on to do the Disney Marathon and half marathon. We have a marathon in Palm Beach and then we get into Boston and others.

Debra:                     Wow, it started with just you saying I know I can do it. Everybody get out of my way, let me show you what I can do?

Dick:                         When I ran the 1976 marathon, there was this thing, it was said at the 20 mile mark there’s a wall.

Debra:                     Right.

Dick:                         And I was very, very nervous about it and I didn’t know if I would be going out there running twenty miles and then would just not have anything left. So I was very, I didn’t know if I could make it or not. So it was a game.

Debra:                     Right, right. And I think a lot of people that only young people can run marathons.

Dick:                         Well, when I ran in 1976, there was a fellow by the name of Ted Corbitt who had been running marathons, he was an Olympic marathoner representing the United States. And he was somewhere around 60 years old. And we couldn’t imagine that someone that was that old could run the marathon. Now I’m going to be running New York, I’ll be 76, and there’ll probably be 100 people out there among the 50,000 who will be older than I am.

Debra:                     Wow, I love that as a person that’s older too. I love that. I just think we don’t even know what these amazing bodies and brains can do. And that’s why I’m always talking about do not under estimate. Do not under estimate who we are as we age. As Doug has said in the chat window, it’s really redefining aging really. Redefining what a person can do. 76 year old man that is an amputee, he definitely can run marathons. I just think that your work is very powerful because we need to understand that even though, I think I mentioned to you Dick, I have a daughter that was born with Downs Syndrome and she’s 30 years old now. And she was born with her disability. That’s who she’s always been. Most people acquire disabilities, over 80% of the numbers acquire disabilities as we live our lives. Because sometimes these human body’s are fragile. Doesn’t mean we don’t have things to add. Doesn’t mean that you can’t go out, run a marathon and then change the lives of thousands and millions of people, like you’ve done with the work at Achilles International. I think it’s very exciting.

Dick:                         Well people ask me how I feel after the marathon and as an amputee I explain I feel like I have one leg in the grave. We have a chapter in Cuba and I ran a marathon in Havana and coming back, going through customs at JFK and the questions is what country, I said Cuba. Next question is what were you doing there, I said the Havana Marathon. So the customs’ agent looks at me on crutches, he looks at my protruding stomach and he says sir, we don’t make jokes here.

Debra:                     He didn’t realize that he was speaking to a legend, just in my words. So, tell me, if you don’t mind, tell me a little bit about how people run the race. And what I mean by that is I know that people are running it, the amputees and they’ve got different, I don’t even … I’ve seen all the different pictures of the different, the wheelchairs and the scooters and, tell us more about how people are supporting their bodies to run these marathons, sometimes in different ways than other runners.

Dick:                         Okay. The visually impaired and blind runners typically hold a piece of rope, or it could even be a t-shirt, they hold a tether and they run together in that manner. There are people who use wheelchairs who are not talented athletes, who do the marathon, they have someone accompanying them. We have one person for example, actually a few people, who have cerebral palsy and because they can not use their arms they kick backwards. And they do the marathon in a wheelchair by kicking backwards.

Debra:                     Wow, amazing.

Dick:                         And then you have amputees that will run on their artificial leg or artificial legs, we have a number of, particularly the Freedom team members, who will run the 26 miles on two artificial legs. And they typically will be accompanied by someone. Then we have a large number of people, and I’m included in this category, of people who use hand cycles. I hand cycle is like a pushing wheelchair except you use your arms to use a bike like attachment. So it’s like you’re using a bicycle except you’re using your hands to propel it rather than your feet.

                                    So one year when I wasn’t running the marathon I was at 90th Street and 5th Avenue, which was around the 24 mile mark, and I was standing next to a mother and son. And they were watching this and they didn’t know too much about it and they saw someone pass in a wheelchair and they saw a blind athlete passing with a tether and they saw someone with an artificial leg and the mother turns to her son and says see, this must be a very dangerous sport.

Debra:                     How about service animals? Do we have anybody running with service animals?

Dick:                         That has happened occasionally. It’s not good for the service animal.

Debra:                     That’s what I would think, yeah.

Dick:                         The service animals who have done this and it was a mistake, finished and their paws were bloody because they weren’t designed for that distance.

Debra:                     Yeah, yeah. It is, of course they’re game. They’re going to be game to be part of it, but we don’t want them to accidentally get hurt. And that’s what I love about what you’re doing, it’s the innovation. You’re, everybody is learning together and instead of deciding oh no, that person couldn’t do it because … You’re breaking all the barriers. I love the innovation.

                                    I want to sort of move to a different angle only because I love the work so much. I know that a lot of people believe in the work that you’re doing, but tell us more about sponsors and tell us how you’re growing this and how are you, you know you’re in 70 countries, so how do you, how can others support what you’re trying to do?

Dick:                         Well it’s typically, what we’re doing is we’re counter punching. In other words, someone will call in and will write in, and by the way if they’re interested in calling the phone number is 212-354-0300. Or the younger folks will look us up on the internet and it’s Okay, or they just Google Achilles they’ll find us. And the success is really someone knowing of us and recommending it to someone else. We’re not as sophisticated as you might think in terms of reaching out, but we’ve grown very, very nicely in terms of people seeing what we’re doing and saying gee, this is terrific, I’d love to do it some place else.

Debra:                     So is it something that if a country is not in your network, and they wanted to get involved, I mean, do they just go to the website?

Dick:                         Yes. They go to the website, and there are a few things [inaudible 00:21:58]. First of all, when a country or a city is interested in starting this, it’s not like well you need to come up with x dollars, it’s not, we don’t make it complicated. Now, we have countries in some pretty unusual places and the way we’ve been able to get it started is that we offer, I guess you could call it a tree or a bribe, but if someone in a country can get the Achilles program started, we invite people from that country to participate in the New York City Marathon. So imagine, for example, that you’re a person with disability in Mongolia. And say if you can get this cooking, come and run in the New York City Marathon. And most people in Mongolia have never thought of running the New York City Marathon.

Debra:                     Now that’s very exciting. I mean it’s exciting to see that’s where you started. You started by running the New York Marathon and it’s coming up here in just a little while. So that’s very exciting. And so if I’m an individual with a disability that wants to get involved, whether I want to be a runner or I want to make sure I have a program in my city, or in my country, or I want to volunteer. I assume once again, go to the website, but what else, what other else do you have-

Dick:                         Go to the website and contact us. Now if you’re in a city where we do not have a program, and we’re not, we don’t have programs in every major city in the United States, what you do is you contact us and we can tie you in with someone or we can basically work with you by email. So that here you are, you’re out in a small city someplace and you just work out yourself and you contact us and we will work something out to make sure that you become involved. The best way to do this is to join a local running club. And I believe that you have local running clubs in almost every city in the United States.

Debra:                     Right. I know that Richmond, where I live, has a marathon and one thing I was wondering is if we’re involved. And I go to take a look to see if we’re involved. But I think it’s very exciting how easy it is to get involved. So, I’d like to talk a little bit about your book, Dick. I know that you wrote a book because you kindly shared chapters with me, and it is a really good book. So, tell us more about that.

Dick:                         Which one?

Debra:                     Ah, so there’s multiple ones. So tell us about all of them.

Dick:                         Well, I guess the first one I wrote was published in 1993, so that was like 25 years ago. The book, we started Achilles in 1983. So this was ten years later. And I had assumed at that point that we had done everything that could possibly be done and here’s a summary of what happened. And looking back, it was a particularly nice book because what we did is we took a few of our great athletes and we focused on them. And just told many delightful stories. Now some 15, 20 years later we did a book that is really a picture book, the latest version of which has about 300 pages. And what we did in this book is we describe all of our programs. So we have, like the marathon, we talk about marathons. We have the international. We talk about all those different chapters throughout the world. We have the Achilles Kids. We have the story about how Achilles began. And I’m very proud of it.

Debra:                     And you know you really should be proud of it. And I love that you have taken this to the children. I really like that because I know that we, and I think things are trying to change in the United States but, I’m in my late 50’s and physical education was something you just pushed through when I was in school. And then I think we went almost away from it in the United States. And that’s probably one contributor to the obesity epidemic, which ties to so many other health issues. But I like how you’ve tied it back to the children and I like to think that we’re realizing as societies all over the world, how important it is to exercise and be healthy. And like you said earlier Dick, this is not just about goin out and running, this is about learning to set goals. And doing the right thing by your body. And making sure that we’re staying healthy. And every aspect of it, including our mind and helping others. There’s so many wonderful benefits that you get out of participating in something like this. Do you want to address that a little?

Dick:                         Well I mentioned books, I’m currently working on a book and you do not have the choice of title, the publisher does, but if the publisher did agree the title would be “Addiction to Achievement”. And what we’re doing is we are giving people an opportunity to achieve. And the theory is that if someone does something that is remarkably successful, such as a person like myself running a marathon on one leg, the next thing that happens is the person says what is my next goal?

Debra:                     Right.

Dick:                         Okay, so that what’s happening here is that you’re giving people an opportunity to achieve, they feel good about themselves and they go on to do other things. But equally important is that the individual has a halo. For example, when I go into a meeting someone doesn’t see me as an over age fat guy. That they see me as someone who has achieved something and I’m treated differently. So I can show you, this is my halo.

Debra:                     Oh, I love that halo.

Dick:                         Yes.

Debra:                     I’m partial to gentlemen who have bald heads. I’ve been married to one for 35 years.

Dick:                         Okay. SO it’s very helpful to go into a situation where, when you meet others, they see you with a halo. So the person comes in, they do something that’s remarkable, they say well if I can do this, what else can I do? And then they’re treated differently. So this is the concept of Addiction to Achievement. And what we’re doing, particularly with the kids, so the kids go out there, they do the 26 miles, they win a pair of running shoes and they show these shoes to a hundred people. They say look, I won these shoes by running 26 miles. And people see them differently.

Debra:                     Right, absolutely. [crosstalk 00:29:25]

Dick:                         And that’s something that’s very, very important. And I’m very proud of that.

Debra:                     I am very brand conscious because I work with so many large corporations and I’m always talking about branding and actually branding to the community of people with disabilities. The running shoes, is it the same brand? Or is it different brands? Are you having brands donate?

Dick:                         These are donated by Adidas.

Debra:                     Go Adidas.

Dick:                         Adidas donated 5,000 pairs of running shoes to us. And they do not make a big thing of it. They really want to donate it from the heart, not as a business contribution. So I did not mention the name previously. But they, but imagine 5,000 pair of running shoes being donated, it’s a big thing.

Debra:                     And I am also an author and I’m writing a book called “Inclusion Branding” which is hopefully coming out in October. And what I’m telling brands like Adidas, we as the community of people with disabilities, we want to know that you are really taking care of our community. So I know it seems like you would be bragging about yourself, but if we don’t know about brands like Adidas that are trying to really make a difference in their community’s, we don’t know to support you. We don’t know to choose your brand over another. So, I’m glad that we were able to share a little for Adidas because 5,000 pairs of shoes, it is really a big deal.

Dick:                         Well another major corporation that supports us is Cigna. Cigna Health Care and what they do is they help us do marathons but they also bring in a number of their clients. People who have a disability, they encourage them to get involved walking and running. And many of them for example will compete with me in the Disney Marathon in January.

Debra:                     Wow, that’s powerful.

Dick:                         And then you also have General Motors. And General Motors is very supportive of our Freedom Team of wounded veterans. They provide them with all kinds of support. But they also provide special discounts to soldiers.

Debra:                     Wow, and I will tell you, I am a customer of Cigna, and I didn’t know that Cigna was doing things to include people with disabilities and that makes me proud as one of their clients. So, these brands are making a difference and we want to do a shout out for these brands that are really making their communities a better place by making sure we’re all included. Go ahead, Dick.

Dick:                         But it’s also more than that. For example, the CEO of Cigna, his name is David Cordani, and he is an IRONMAN triathlete, but he has run a number of marathons as an Achilles guide. So you may see him out there, as he has done in the past, with a soldier that is a double amputee and he is running with this soldier and you do the 26.2 miles together. And he’s not, he’s doing it from the heart.

Debra:                     Right, he’s doing it from his humanness.

Dick:                         Yes. The other thing that he’s done is developed friendships with a number of these people. And he has helped them with their careers, which is just really, really tremendous.

Debra:                     I think things like this are happening all over the world, these really powerful stories, and we need to talk about them. I was going to ask you, and I know that I’ve kept you more than the 30 minutes, but I could probably talk to you for a really long time. But, and you already sort of answered this question, but I know the individuals that don’t have disabilities that are running the marathons are also benefiting from what Achilles International is doing. And you just gave a wonderful example, by the Cigna CEO. About the Cigna CEO. Any other comments about that?

Dick:                         Well there is a concept of giving. And if you give it’s not just a matter of a donation, but it’s also something that makes you feel very good about yourself. So it’s sort of like a double whammy, you are helping someone but you also feel better for it.

Debra:                     I agree. I agree. I’ve always read and believe that if you want something, give that to something else. So if you’re depressed, and you want to feel a little happier, you try to make somebody else’s life happier. And it comes right back to you. I’m a firm believer of that and obviously that’s your legacy Dick. And we just are so grateful to you and Achilles International and I tell you, I’ve always wanted to run a marathon. I ran a half marathon in Jacksonville, Florida and then went home and took a 15 hour nap. But, you make me want to go do it.

Dick:                         Well, I have some bad news for you. The bad news that if you can do a half marathon, you can do a marathon.

Debra:                     I know. And I want to do it. I want to do it. So now you’ve motivated me. Because I want to shout your story from the rooftops. I want to make sure everybody knows about what you’re doing and knows how they can come out and support you and support the athletes and really get involved. So, we are really honored Dick.

Dick:                         Talk with me about doing a marathon, I will help. But, I just want you to understand that you’re probably not going to win any prize money.

Debra:                     No, I feel very confident. As a matter of fact, when you were talking about being the last one, I remember when I was running the Jacksonville Marathon, they started to pick up the cones, and I’m like no, don’t pick up the cones yet. I’m running a little faster, but the last part was a hill. Which I thought was mean, but anyway. So I understand being the back of the pack. But there was a lot of people that weren’t running, so I was running. Or walking.

Dick:                         I tell some of our slower runners that they shouldn’t worry because the next day, like Monday morning, it’s usually a marathon on a Sunday, the sanitation department comes by and cleans up and they can always get a lift from the sanitation department.

Debra:                     That’s true. Well, thank you for the work you are doing. I want to make sure, we are listened to in over 74 countries. Probably more now. I want people to know about the amazing work that you and your organization is doing. And I want us all to come out and support the work of these amazing athletes. So Dick, thank you so much for being on the program today.

Dick:                         It is my pleasure and maybe we can do this again.

Debra:                     Yes, I agree. Especially when the new book comes out.

Dick:                         You’re on.

Debra:                     Okay, great. Well thank you everybody, and Dick, thank you, thank you for being on the program and for your life’s work. It’s really amazing.


[Outro Music]


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