What is a triathlete when he can’t run? Or ride a bike? Or move his legs at all?
In 2015 Rob Balucas decided he wanted to get serious about racing triathlon. He joined a tri club, signed up for a few races and started training. He finished a number of races his first season, including the Wildflower Triathlon. As he was building up the strength to take on his first Half Ironman in September the world served him an unexpected challenge. While descending a technical hill in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, Rob lost control of his bike and had a terrible crash on his back.
Laying in Marin General Hospital with a view of the road he crashed on outside his window, Rob discovered that he had fractured his spine and became paraplegic. Before he could process the reality of this news, his friends and teammates were knocking down the hospital doors to bring him food, offer to take care of his dog and help him along the road to recovery. Rob admitted that there were many dark days when he struggled with depression. But he refused to let his spinal cord injury define him.
“Even when I was at the hospital reeling from the fact that I couldn’t move my legs, I was dead set on doing a triathlon in a year.”
Rob spoke with us at the Strava office along with fellow triathlete Alan Shanken, who was born without the lower half of his right leg. Alan proudly calls himself a ‘blade runner,’ a term used to describe athletes who are aided by a prosthesis that resembles a blade in place of the lower leg. The two shared how their experiences adapting to compete in sports designed for normal bodied people have helped them to overcome limits outside of their athletic lives.
“Sport is really important. I will tell you, that as a disabled person it levels the playing field way beyond the scope of the activity,” Alan said. “It helps me have confidence in almost everything I do. If I can run semi-competitively, or swim or bike, it’s going to help me to have confidence in almost everything I do. I think being in shape does that.”
Both Rob and Alan live their lives in defiance of any limitations. Rob drew a connection between his drive to compete in triathlon and his courage in facing the road to recovery after his injury. “The most amazing thing that I got out of triathlon was knowing that it’s a long journey,” Rob told us. “The race is a long journey, training is a long journey. But if you keep with it, you get better and better. I joined the Dolphin Club [a group that swims in the San Francisco bay] and there were times when I would stop like a quarter of the way through the course. I’d be going so slow, but eventually, I was able to make it to the other end of the course without stopping. And after awhile I could do an entire lap without stopping.”
Behind these athletes’ resiliency is the communities that support them. “For me, community is everything,” Rob said. After his crash, the triathlon and cycling community came to his side. “I looked around my [hospital] room one night and was like, there are 11 people here.”
In just a year’s time, the community has helped Rob accomplish his goal of getting back into triathlon. “My friends and family basically paid about $20 grand to get the gear and enable me to do this stuff. It can’t be like one and done, I’ve gotta keep going. So I realized how much having that goal in my life can keep me motivated and keep you out of the doldrums that can come up when you’re dealing with this whole issue.”
The Challenged Athletes Foundation (or CAF) was another huge resource for Rob. “The first thing I’d say is look up CAF, in a heartbeat,” Rob said when we asked him what advice he’d give to disabled persons interested in getting into sport. “Their resources are insane. I got a scholarship to a triathlon camp and there were individuals with cerebral palsy, as well as visually impaired, amputees, quadriplegic and paraplegic athletes there. Some guys had been sailing before, some loved to ski. You can try anything.”
We’re proud to have athletes like Rob and Alan on Strava. They remind us the importance of sport and it’s ability to connect and empower us to do things we couldn’t do alone. At Strava, we’re constantly working to better support athletes of all ability and in this case disability. In the past, we haven’t provided a good way for adapted athletes to differentiate their activities from able-bodied individuals.
We’ve talked to a number of athletes who use wheelchairs and handcycles and realized that they are extremely tough to climb uphill with, but carry far more momentum downhill than an average bike causing an unfair advantage at times and disadvantage at others. Our new set of activity types is designed for athletes with a variety of disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy to paraplegic, quadriplegic, or athletes without the use of their limbs. The handcycle and wheelchair activity types give these athletes another option to tag their sports and to compare their efforts with others using the same equipment.
“I’d rather have my own leaderboard against other handcycles,” Rob said. “You just can’t crank out the same watts. I’d rather see how I do against an elite handcyclist than against an able-bodied person.”
If you use a wheelchair or handcycle, try tagging these new activity types the next time you upload. And however you move, follow Rob and Alan and join the Challenged Athletes Foundation Club on Strava.