Achilles International Brings Much-Needed Virtual Programs to Athletes Around the Globe

An Achilles athlete crosses a race finish line surrounded by friends and volunteers

Achilles International is a global organization that uses athletic programs and social connection to transform the lives of people with disabilities. They promote personal achievement in an effort to enhance self-esteem and lower barriers to living a fulfilled life. Achilles has served over 150,000 athletes in over 70 chapters around the world, in the U.S. and 24 other countries, since 1983.

“We are trying to work toward and advocate for a more inclusive, accessible world,” says Achilles International President and CEO, Emily Glasser. “We believe very firmly in the power of every life experience, regardless of where that person has come from, where they are living, who they are loving. We believe very firmly in embracing difference, and promoting an inclusive accessible diverse world. We’re committed to seeing that through.”

And with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Glasser knew that the athletes they work with would also be the most at-risk for isolation and negative physical and mental health outcomes.

So, quickly, the staff put together virtual programs for program participants around the world. They looked for accessible content, created some of their own, and made it available online. Staff also created a calendar of virtual hangouts for chapters and programs to keep athletes connected.

“If there's anything I have learned from our athletes, it’s that they are the stewards of resilience and grit,” Glasser says. The past few months have made that even clearer.

We sat down with two Achilles International athletes via Skype to talk about their stories and share more about how you can get involved with the organization now.

Theresa Khayyam

Theresa Khayyam (55) of Nashville, TN, is certainly resilient. At the age of 45, Khayyam went blind unexpectedly from a viral infection.

“It was pretty scary, but I decided early on I wouldn't let it get me depressed. And that’s really when I decided I wanted to run. I wanted to get outdoors. It made me feel alive and free. I was determined not to wither up like a raisin in the sun.”

Khayyam was not a runner before she lost her sight, but she used to watch the Country Music Marathon where she lived in Nashville, and had always wanted to run it. “I decided even though I had a loss of vision, I’m going to run that marathon anyway,” she says.

Not knowing where to begin, she joined a gym and eventually connected to Sarah Hart, who happened to be starting an Achilles chapter in Nashville. Hart called Khayyam and asked her if she would be the first Achilles Nashville athlete. Khayyam accepted.

Four smiling athletes from Achilles Nashville

“In practice they asked how many races I had run. I said none. They probably were thinking, she has never run a race and wants to run a marathon? This girl must be crazy! But they worked with me anyway and I’m really thankful for that.”

Khayyam has since completed five marathons and 13 half marathons, along with many other races. She runs with a guide, typically holding a tether between them. She says that the Achilles community has also brought a sense of inclusivity she didn’t have elsewhere in her life.

“I live alone, so I didn't have a lot of people around me who were disabled. People who are sighted didn’t understand me like the Achilles community does. We’re alike, kindred spirits.”

The community, Khayyam says, is very welcoming. “No one made us feel ashamed of our disabilities. I was always impressed with the numbers of volunteers that showed up each week to guide us and help us achieve our goals. They made me feel good.”

Sarah Hart, who started the Nashville chapter, says that running with Khayyam in Nashville is like running with a celebrity everyone wants to cheer for. “Everyone knows her. She’s waving her hand in the parade wave. It’s beautiful.”

Hart adds that even in the Nashville heat, she has never heard Khayyam complain. “I want to thank you,” she says to Khayyam. “I have learned more from [Khayyam] and Achilles, probably, than you have learned. I am so grateful for you.”

Lupita Hernandez

Lupita Hernandez organized a new chapter of Achilles in 2019 where she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Hernandez, who was born blind, recalls what it felt like to be left out growing up. “I would listen to the other kids playing sports I wasn’t able to participate in. And I vowed that I would be in sports when I got older. I said to myself, you’re going to do all the things you didn’t get to do in middle school and all throughout high school.”

And she did. As a college student, Hernandez bought a tandem bike and started cycling. “I did Tour de Tucson Mountains and many other rides and really enjoyed myself. It was a lot of fun. I wanted to try to do something different so I got into running.” She sought out guides to run with, and transitioned to completing triathlons.

Hernandez says it was important to create the Tucson chapter because she wanted to expand that community.

“I think that’s why I like Achilles as much as I do. It’s including other people who might not be able to do the sport. For me, walking on a treadmill is great, but going out and getting the fresh air and the smells and talking to somebody as I am running makes the sport so much more fun. I always have somebody by my side. I like that.”

The regular structure of Achilles is helpful for athletes like Hernandez and her crew. With an organized group of disabled athletes and volunteers coming together, runners who need guides have regular, dependable access to the sport. “For me if I’m having a difficult time finding a guide, I might say, well, I’m just not going to do that. I didn’t want others to feel down and feel hopeless.”

An Achilles athlete crosses a race finish line surrounded by friends and volunteers

Hernandez says that COVID-19 has posed a huge challenge for her group because they can’t get together to exercise. But it has also had a surprising silver lining. “We were meeting once a week on Saturday mornings. Now we hold conference calls to check in with each other weekly and make sure everyone is doing OK.”

While they can’t work out together, the group is bonding in a number of new ways. “We are doing cooking classes, a book club, crafting, Bible study, game night, yoga, virtual workouts, and playing music. We want to make sure we’re still OK. We still have each other.”

Join Achilles (Virtually) for the Hope and Possibility Virtual 5K or 10-Mile Event

You can support Achilles International programs while still maintaining safe social distancing by joining the Hope and Possibility Virtual 5K or 10 mile event on July 18 to 26, 2020.

“I think that movement is so critical for every individual and human being. And making that movement accessible and inclusive is so important,” says Glasser. “I know it’s made a difference in my life and I see everyday how it makes a difference in our athletes’ lives.”

There is a wide variety of ways to participate in this event. Participants can walk, run, wheel, handcycle, ride a tandem, ride a regular bike or a spin bike.

The event, which is typically an in-person four-mile race, celebrates the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.

ADA is important legislation that brought to people’s attention the institutional socialized discrimination that happenes toward people with disabilities. Glasser says there are many built-in hurdles that people with disabilities have to overcome in order to live their lives everyday that most people don’t realize, whether it’s the lack of accessibility for public transportation or even getting onto the curb of a sidewalk.

This anniversary acknowledges the work that has been done, but also signals the work yet to be done.

Join us to celebrate, spread awareness and get moving together. Sign up here.

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