These Angels Have Running Shoes Instead of Wings

 

Lisa Staples has been a wellness consultant with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for the past 25 years. The Grand Rapids resident began running to get back in shape after her last child was born 19 years ago. A running injury forced her to jump in the pool to keep up her conditioning while she was healing, which soon led to her competing in her first triathlon at the age of 45.

The relationships she built in the running community while staying so active led her to become a founding board member of myTEAM TRIUMPH, a program that helps people with disabilities participate in athletic endurance events, where she coordinates athlete registration as angels director.

I recently interviewed Staples about this organization to learn more about what they do, why they got started and how you can get involved.

A Healthier Michigan: Please tell me about MyTeam Triumph. How did it get started? Why did it get started? What is it exactly? What is the motivation behind it?

Lisa Staples: myTEAM TRIUMPH is an athletic ride-along program founded to enable children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities to participate in endurance events such as triathlons or road races.

In January 2008, a small group of Grand Rapids-area endurance athletes started meeting to explore the idea of creating an organization inspired by Team Hoyt – the father/son racing team. We all came from various business backgrounds, and by March of 2008 we had formed a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, were raising funds and researching, testing and purchasing equipment. We fielded two teams in our first race, the Tri del Sol, in July of that year!

We structured the organization to accommodate expansion nationally and currently have six other chapters across the U.S.

Our teams consist of a Captain (our participant with disabilities) who is pulled and pushed in special equipment by a team of Angels (the athletes).  Our Captains are the registered race participants, wear the racing bib and timing chip, and it’s their name that appears in the race results. The Angels’ role is to provide their Captain with the experience of a lifetime and cross a finish line never thought imaginable.

AHM: How do you find people to participate? Do Captains and Angels train together? Do they keep in touch after a race?

Staples: All of our board members are active endurance athletes who belong to various running and training clubs. Our original Angels were athletes we knew who were up for a new challenge. But after our first race, we had numerous athletes ask us how they could participate.

We recruited our first Captains from friends and neighbors. Since then, we have developed relationships with the Conductive Learning Center (which serves children with motor disorders related to complications of prematurity, cerebral palsy, spina bifida or brain injury) and Harbor House Ministies (which provides housing for adults with severe multiple impairments). We also have several families who now participate with us regularly — a brother running his Down’s syndrome sister through a 25k, dad and aunt taking a son with cerebral palsy through a triathlon, to name a couple.

Our network of Captains and Angels continues to grow simply through word of mouth, our visibility at area races and some nice media exposure we’ve received in recent years, both local and national.

AHM: Do you have any particular heartwarming or interesting stories about the participants? How do they feel about the experience? Have you been an Angel before and can you tell us about your experience?

Staples: Everyone who has participated with mTT — Captains, Angels, family members, volunteers — comes away touched in some way. Check out the video on www.mttwestmichigan.org (but have your tissues handy!).

As for sample stories:

  • We’ve had a volunteer who was inspired to start running after helping at a race (“I have two good legs — I ought to use them!”) and subsequently Angel-ed for us the following year.
  • I’ve seen parents let their disabled child out of their sight for the first time in his life and been overwhelmed by the joy that child expressed at the thrill of finishing a 15-mile bike ride in a triathlon.
  • We’ve had a 14 year-old Captain challenge his team of Angels to break the 2 hour mark at a 25k. (He now gets to wear the prestigious 2 Hour Club racing bib at that event.)
  • One family created a personalized photo book for each Angel who took their son through a triathlon — they were so grateful for the relationship their son developed with those men.
  • Tri del Sol allows our teams to start first. One mom commented that it was the first time her son was ever first for anything. Because he requires physical assistance, his “abled” classmates always go ahead of him — in line, getting on a bus for a field trip, etc. Going first was a really big deal that we didn’t anticipate.

In general, I’ve noticed that our Captains exude a new confidence following a race. Their families view them with renewed pride and respect. Our Angels are so touched by the experience that you’ll often see tears well up in their eyes (even the guys!). And our volunteers come away knowing they’ve helped make a difference in someone’s life.

Personally, I’ve had the privilege of being an Angel for a 14 year old girl with neurofibromatosis. And yes, pushing a jogger through a 25k (even with other Angels to trade off with) is a physical challenge. However, there is nothing more rewarding than giving a young girl a “rock star” experience for a day. The attention our Captains get from other race participants is so heartwarming. Our equipment is always labeled with the Captain’s names — so you’ll hear other racers call out “way to go, Captain Jen!” or “Nice job, Captain Mike!” And to see our Captain’s overwhelming joy in crossing a finish line and receiving a race medal makes it all worth while. It is also humbling to consider that we (Angels) have to stretch our physical abilities for just a few hours in order to provide a once-in-a-lifetime experience for someone who struggles physically 24/7.

AHM: How do you choose which races or events you participate in? What are the upcoming ones you are participating in?

Staples: Our board members are also active on numerous race committees in the Grand Rapids area. We first work with race directors who are willing to allow us to participate in their events (our teams and equipment take up quite a bit of room!) We’ve had great cooperation and support from Fifth Third Riverbank Run, Tri del Sol and the MetroHealth Grand Rapids Marathon among others. We’ve added races each year based on requests from Captains/Angels.

Our schedule for the 2012 racing season includes:

AHM: How does someone get involved in participating/working with (or donating to) My Team Triumph?

Staples: Interested Captains, Angels or donors can either email or register to participate with us at www.mttwestmichigan.org. Once registered, Captains/Angels can log in, go into our Events page and reserve a spot for the race(s) they’re interested in.

Because we are a 100% volunteer-run organization, donations help us purchase and replace our equipment (a running jogger costs $900). And because we strive to provide the experience of a lifetime not only for our Captains but their families as well, we provide hospitality/refreshments while family members wait out the race. We also provide post-race refreshments for our Angels as a small token of our appreciation.

A big thank you to Lisa for sharing her experiences and all the great things they are doing with myTeamTriumph.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of myTeamTriumph

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