Double amputee struggles, succeeds

Published: October 22, 2007 | 6738th good news item since 2003

The Atlanta Ironman kept to his wheelchair this past week. The ends of his amputated legs were blistered, swollen and raw, and showing signs of infection. His muscles felt like they had been doing laps through a pasta maker. The gifts of completing one of the globe’s notorious endurance races just kept giving.

A week ago, on the big island of Hawaii, Scott Rigsby, 39, became the first below-the-knee double amputee to complete an Ironman triathlon. That meant swimming 2.4 miles without legs, then biking 112 miles and running a 26.2-mile marathon with prosthetics. He had 17 hours to complete the task. He made it in 16:42:46 — a little close, but that kind of history didn’t require much margin.

All this was set in motion when the teenaged Rigsby was injured in a south Georgia truck accident. He would begin exiting a long period of depression and pain through physical exertion. Nearly two years ago, he decided to test himself against some of the hardest races, vowing to compete and complete. He lined up sponsors. He began a foundation aimed at enabling physically challenged athletes. He rounded up the people and the technology to make an audacious idea possible.

One catch. He actually had to do this thing.

“We hate to say it,” said Scott Johnson, a friend who is helping organize the Rigsby Foundation, “but if he didn’t finish, he’d be just another person out there on prosthetics trying to do the unthinkable and not being able to do it.”

Rigsby had tried once and failed to complete an Ironman event in Idaho earlier this year when he crashed during the bike segment. He arrived in Hawaii weighed down by the need for credibility.

In the race program, he was heralded as “The Miracle.” Earlier in the week, a wounded veteran approached Rigsby after a practice swim and told him, “You have got to finish this race because you can change the world. Our military men and women need you.”

Those were among the thoughts in his head with about seven miles to go in the final, marathon leg as he was on pace to just miss the cut-off time.

“He’s not going to make it; he’s absolutely not going to make it,” Johnson fretted.

That simple prayer Rigsby offered before the event — “God, if you open up a door, I’ll run through it” — didn’t seem quite so simple now.

Rigsby sailed through the start in the ocean, save for being kicked once in the face. A strong headwind for the last third of the bike course depleted his strength and his wiggle room with the clock. And in the pitch darkness amid some lava fields, he was hitting the infamous “wall.” He struggled through that, picking up his pace.

The last three miles, he said, comprised the worst pain he has felt since he had begun competing.

“I started talking to myself: You have three miles to go; if you can just do three miles, you have an opportunity to really change the world. You can have an impact,” he said.

When he hit the finish, the sound from the crowd, he said, “was like the loudest SEC game you’ve ever heard.”

“I was thinking: I want to cross the finish line, I’m going to smile at everybody, I’m going to strike a pose, and I want to find the first stretcher I can,” Rigsby said.

The accomplishment was

in the bank, and in the what-now stage that follows, Rigsby and his friends are designing ways to draw interest. Rigsby will be featured in the NBC broadcast of the event, to air Dec. 1. In the meantime, he said, there is work to be done in positioning Rigsby, behind his foundation, as a spokesman for physically challenged competitors and the redefining of limits.

When able, Rigsby said he will resume training and plot a schedule of events in 2008.

“There is no beer and chicken wings in my future,” he said.

“The legacy of Scott is not whether he does another Ironman or 500 more,” said Mike Lenhart, Rigsby’s training partner and founder of another organization like his, Getting2Tri.

“[His legacy] is if there are a dozen or so other physically challenged individuals who do a 5K run or do an international distance triathlon or even an

Ironman, and say the reason they did this is because they saw Scott Rigsby do it.”

Published in Life
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