In 2013, Bernie Tretta found herself running next to a blind person and his guide during a marathon. They started a conversation and told her about Achilles International, a non-profit dedicated to helping people with disabilities participate in sports and stay active. "I asked how I could get more involved. There was not a local Houston chapter so they said, ‘Well then, start one,’" she says. Today Tretta is the director of Achilles Houston, one of 65 local chapters that make up the organization, as well as an active participant.
Achilles Houston has now grown to around 35 regular members, more than 20 of whom will line up at the start of the Chevron Houston Marathon in January. The group meets at Memorial Park every week to train as a team, along with volunteer guides who are paired with athletes to walk, run, or bike alongside them. Marine Corps veteran Jeff Chaffin says they’re like a big family.
“The people are welcoming and genuinely care for each other. When one is down, we do our best to lift them up and get them back on their feet,” he says.
Chaffin is one of several athletes who race using a handcycle, a three-wheeled vehicle powered by the arms rather than the legs. It serves as a bicycle alternative for people with lower-limb amputations or weakness. The Chevron Houston Marathon began allowing handcycle competitors in 2015, and the field has been growing ever since.
"[Finishing a race] means that we get to inspire the uninspired. For every person that sees us cross the finish line and gives them the slightest glimpse of hope, inspiration, or motivation then I am happy,” says Chaffin.
Fred Samuelson is an amputee and fellow handcyclist who in 2013 was struggling to walk even one block. After six months of support and training through Achilles, he completed his first 5K and has now ridden his handcycle in multiple marathons. He trains at least three or four times per week and says he's determined to continue racing as long as he is still able.
“Finishing the race is such a joy. It is a goal that I never thought that I would be able to achieve since I lost my leg,” he says.
Tretta emphasizes that because Achilles Houston caters to all levels of physical abilities, you don’t need to be a seasoned athlete to make an impact as a volunteer. “We want big hearts, big smiles and enthusiastic helpers! If you can walk or run or even ride a bike, you can be a guide.”
She says they also need help in other areas, such as unloading wheelchairs at races, or even administrative work and website design.
"Seeing the handcyclists cross the finish line at the Houston Marathon got me thinking that I didn’t have a reason or excuse not to. So I did it,” says Kari Falk.
Be sure to get out and cheer for the Achilles International athletes as they conquer 26.2 miles at the Chevron Houston Marathon on January 15, 2017!
To learn more or to sign up as a volunteer, email [email protected].