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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

Celebrating Heroes Triathlon puts focus on athletes with physical disabilities

The moving truck pulls around the loop next to the boat ramp of Centennial Lake, backing up to the water while trying to avoid wheelchairs and bikes. Eight men clamber out of the vehicle and quickly begin to set up metal barriers, tents and ramps underneath the sticky, June sun. They turn the grass in front of the water from an ordinary spot in a park into a large stage in less than an hour, a finish line looking down on the stage from about a hundred yards away.

They move under the watchful eye of Robert Vigorito, a 64-year old man who has been either talking or moving, or talking and moving, nonstop for the past two hours. The movers move quickly because Vigorito, the President of the Columbia Triathlon Association (CTA), doesn't know another way.

The crew is setting up for the Celebrating Heroes Triathlon, which takes place Sunday starting at 7 a.m. The third-year event — which features a 0.62-mile swim, followed by a 17.5-mile bike ride and a 3.4-mile run — is put on by Vigorito and the CTA, a company he founded in 1983 after watching the first televised Ironman race in 1982 with a bunch of running friends.

"We were thinking, 'An Ironman? Who the hell would do that? 140.6 miles in a day? Are you kidding me?'" Vigorito said. "But I said let's give it a shot, and that's how it started."

Undeterred by a 95-person turnout that first time around, Vigorito has turned CTA into an organization that puts on 10 or more races a year, as well as playing a big role in the rapid development in the sport of triathlons.

The sport debuted in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and the increased exposure blew up the sport back in the United States. When Vigorito was on the board for USA Triathlon — the sport's governing body — in the 1980s, there were 500 members and around 50 events a year. Today, there are 140,000 members and more than 3,500 events a year.

But the focus of the event Sunday is on more than just the race — para-athletes will be the focal point. Every triathlon that CTA puts on has a section for para-athletes, but the Celebrating Heroes race has a special focus on athletes that have physical disabilities.

"In the last ten years, there has been a big movement for people with physical disabilities all across the country and making things accessible," Vigorito said. "Well, sport is no different. Triathlon was one of the first sports that really embraced para-athletes."

Celebrating Heroes was spawned when CTA was approached by the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network — an organization that works on the rehabilitation of people with disabling injuries — to put a real focus on the para-triathlon side of its races.

Vigorito loved the idea, to the point where more than 1,000 athletes, both para and able-bodied, will be racing in just the third year of the event.

"I'm one of these people that believes an opportunity for physical fitness and athletics is great," Vigorito said. "I'm all about inspiration and for people setting an example or a bar for everyone else."

One of those athletes is Phillip Layton, a 42-year old volunteer fireman who is participating in the race for the first time. Layton lost his left leg below the knee because of synovial sarcoma — a rare form of cancer that forms near joints — when he was just 10 years old, back when the world of athletics looked much different for an amputee.

From age 10 until 18, Layton didn't go outside his house wearing shorts. He hid the leg under a pair of pants every day for eight years, getting his old walking cadence down to the point where a stranger couldn't tell there was a prosthesis lurking under the leg of his pants. Layton didn't want to deal with the staring, or the judgment, or anything that went with being a kid that grew up an amputee.

Now, Layton feels as comfortable with the prosthetic as he did with the real leg. Occasionally, curious kids will come up and ask him what happened to his leg. Layton has responded with everything from a shark attack to a bionic leg. In Layton's eyes, the world is starting to adjust to amputees — the athletic world included.

As recently as 20 years ago, Layton wouldn't have been able to fully participate in a triathlon even if the races had been available for para-athletes, which were few and far between.

The prosthetics that Layton grew up with were made out of balsa wood enclosed by a hard shell. As soon as the balsa wood in the leg went in the water, it would expand and deteriorate the leg. Swimming with a prosthetic just didn't happen.

"Now, they are basically high-quality tennis rackets," Layton said.

The advancement of these new, carbon fiber prosthetic legs have completely changed the athletic field for amputees like Layton, and made events like Celebrating Heroes become increasingly common. The emergence of triathlons in the Paralympics has helped push the level of interest up, as well.

But it also takes people like Vigorito, who participates in every triathlon the CTA puts on, to make these races possible.

Before founding the CTA, he was a neuroscientist in the University of Maryland's medical school, and did both up until four years ago when he turned to triathlons full time.

And, as he explained bluntly, "I know about death."

For a man who has finished the Ironman Kona in Hawaii six times, Vigorito still gets inspired every time he watches a CTA triathlon. Imagine how much that feeling swells when he stands on the stage of Celebrating Heroes, watching amputees and paraplegics and kids that have been in wheelchairs their entire life cross the finish line.

"As Ironman's theme is 'Anything is possible,' but it's only possible if you release and are disengaged from the baggage that you carry and you go forward," Vigorito said.

"I don't care if you are watching and you are 65, 70 years old. You see this kid in a wheelchair? What do you mean you can't do it? What is that? Where's can't?"

evcook@baltsun.com

twitter.com/everettcook

Celebrating Heroes Triathalon

Sunday, June 24th starting at 7 a.m.

Centennial Lake Park

Registration is closed

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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