Achilles chapter helps people with disabilities stay active in mainstream athletics
It's early on a Saturday morning in Schenley Park. The ground is still wet from an overnight downpour. There's the slightest chill in the air, and the occasional raindrop indicates the threat of more storms.
In the midst of this gloomy scene is a literal bright spot. Gathered in one corner near the track is a group of people in electric yellow T-shirts. One by one, they walk, jog, cycle or roll over to the spot until about 15 folks have come together, chatting, catching up and stretching. This is the Pittsburgh chapter of Achilles International, a group dedicated to helping people with a variety of disabilities and health problems participate in mainstream athletics.
“We primarily bike and ride with the wheelchairs, but we do have a group of runners that also work with those who wish to run,” said group organizer Monica Michna, 26, of Jefferson Hills. “Athletes typically develop and set their own goals, and their guides will help them to complete them.”
The group works with people living with a wide range of conditions, including diabetes, cancer recovery, stroke, amputations, behavioral and mental disabilities, vision impaired, hearing impaired, spinal cord injuries and more.
The Achilles Track Club, known now as Achilles International, was founded in 1983 by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York City Marathon. There now are more than 65 chapters nationally and internationally.
The nonprofit group started in Pittsburgh in February. Michna spearheaded efforts to organize the local chapter after her boyfriend, Marine Corps Sgt. Ron Strang, suffered a devastating injury to his left thigh from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Months of surgery and recovery later, Strang can walk and run and is getting more active every day.
During workouts, groups are divided up by speed capabilities and exercise goals. They try to have three volunteers for every athlete to walk or jog alongside them, motivating them and helping them navigate the track. Some athletes use wheelchairs. Others use hand cycles.
Bryan McCormick, 30, of Munhall, who has relied on a wheelchair since sustaining a spinal cord injury in 2001, said the group helps him get excited about exercising. On June 30, he and Michna will compete in the 5 Miler Hope & Possibility race in New York City, Achilles International's signature race.
“I thought it was a great idea,” McCormick said of the local group. “I'd never joined an exercise group before. I like meeting new people and doing new things. It's great to have the motivation to exercise.”
Jim Gold, 40, of Hopewell got involved as part of his lifestyle changes after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. He's on a mission to lose weight and said the group fits well with his “no more excuses” approach.
“It's great,” Gold said. “Not only do I get to get out and work on my own health issues, I get to help someone else.”
Dave Hassick, 62, of Bethel Park, a volunteer, said it's all about learning the athletes' idiosyncrasies.
“When you're trying to overcome a disability, you build on the little things,” he said. “Any challenge they overcome will carry over the affect other areas of their lives.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-320-7948 or firstname.lastname@example.org.