No Achilles heel here

Take the city of New York. Add 36 000 people. What do you get? The New York City Marathon (NYCM). Now take 300 of the 36 000 and what do you have?

You get the number of Achilles runners who participated in this year's NYCM. And of these 11 were from Achilles South Africa.

Achilles what you ask? Denis Tabakin explains, "Achilles is a non-profit organisation that works to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, to promote personal achievement, enhance self esteem and to lower barriers between people." Achilles is a worldwide organisation, represented in 60 countries and the NYCM is one of the major events it participates in every year.

Since 1992 Achilles SA has sent some 135 participants to the NYCM. "We have a 100 percent finish rate," says Denis proudly.

Denis has been the chairperson of Achilles SA since 1992. Able bodied himself he began working with disabled runners, mainly blind runners after, as he puts it, pretty much coming stone cold last in Comrades. But far from deterring him, he says, "It taught me that running at the back is actually rather fun.

One thing led to another and soon he found himself piloting a blind runner through Comrades. "The thrill of helping someone was great."

Since then Denis has piloted a number of blind runners through Comrades. So many in fact that Comrades honoured him with a platinum award for guiding blind runners. “The project snowballed and soon we had a whole organisation of volunteers piloting blind people through the Comrades. I would go to Coronation hospital and chat to the blind there and encourage them to take on the challenge to run.”

This is how Denis met Geoff Hilton-Barber, who became blind through a degenerative disease. Today Geoff is Achilles’ official fundraiser.

"Achilles was almost a natural progression from what we were doing. In 1992 I was approached to set up an Achilles branch in South Africa and to take some runners to participate in the NYCM. In the end we took three blind runners including Geoff Hilton-Barber. Ever since then we have been sending a team over. And today it is not just blind runners, but runners with any and every disability."

For a person with a disability participating in this marathon helps them to develop themselves and they take back the experience to their local communities, encouraging other people with disabilities to take up the running challenge.

"We are trying to teach people with disabilities that running can be a sport where they can compete on level terms with anyone else. It also breaks down the barriers between people who are disabled and so called able bodied people. We introduce people with disabilities into the mainstream by showing that disabled does not mean handicapped."

On the flight back from New York this year the winner of the NYCM marathon, Hendrik Ramaala, was on the same plane as the Achilles team. “He chatted with our athletes. He understands what we are doing. This is not the Paralympics. This is about being treated as a runner, not a person with a disability.

“It is about developing people through running. I see people get their medal at the finish line and their faces light up. I see them come home, encouraged and passing that on to others.”

This year the South African team were also honoured by the New York Road Runners as one of the best teams at the NYCM.

Fundraising is the main source of income for Achilles and pays for the team to travel and participate in the NYCM. “We try to raise funds to be able to send a team of six to 10 people.”

While in New York the team also visits specialists in an effort to either alleviate or cure their disability. “This often results in the person being made more comfortable because they are given better fitted equipment, such as a prosthesis or hearing aid. We also receive donations such as wheelchairs, wheel rims, hand cranks, crutches etc. We have even received some computers that we have set up in our Soweto SHAP (Self Help Association for Paraplegics) centre”.

In total since 1992 Achilles SA has received R1.5 m worth of goods. Achilles has set up shelters in Durban, Pietermaritzberg, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Lesotho through SHAP. It also strives to create jobs for its members.

“The training systems for disabilities may be different but you must still train and you must still take up the challenge. Running gives people with disabilities confidence. Achilles is the runners and the volunteers that pilot them. I am so proud of them.”

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Since 1992 Achilles (South Africa) has sent 135 competitors to the NYCM and they’ve achieved a 100% finish rate

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