On Saturday, Roderick Sewell became the first above-the-knee bilateral amputee to complete the famously grueling race on prosthetic legs
It’s been nearly 20 years since Roderick Sewell attended his first free adaptive sports clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Over the weekend in Hawaii, the 27-year-old San Diego native finally found a way to pay forward that gift of sports that changed his life.
On Saturday, Sewell became the first-ever above-the-knee double-amputee to complete the famously grueling Ironman World Championship on prosthetic legs. The race involved him completing a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-bike race using a kneeler-style handcycle provided by Challenged Athletes and a 26.2-mile marathon on running blades.
Sewell’s life hasn’t been easy. His legs were amputated before his second birthday because he was born without tibias, the larger bone in the lower leg. And when he was 8 years old, he and his single mom, Marian Jackson, became homeless, bouncing from one San Diego shelter to another for nearly four years. But it was also when Sewell was 8 years old that CAF entered his life. The organization has been supporting the former Paralympic swimmer ever since with training, equipment, race fees and travel grants.
“I think finishing Ironman is my way of giving back to CAF the best way that I can,” he said on Tuesday. “I want to let it be known that CAF has made a huge impact on my life and I want to show that this is what people can accomplish if they’re given the tools to try.”
Sewell moved to Brooklyn last year, where he now manages an endurance training fitness studio and trains triathletes. He’s also an ambassador for CAF, working to expand the organization’s presence in the Northeastern U.S. Founded in San Diego in 1994, CAF has raised more than $112 million to fulfill more than 26,000 funding requests for athletes with disabilities.
It was in New York last April when Sewell found out he was invited to compete in the Ironman World Championship as an Ironman Ambassador Athlete. To compete at World, participants must earn enough points at qualifying races. But each year, Ironman Foundation waives the requirements for a select few inspirational athletes like Sewell.
Hoping he’d be selected as an Ironman Ambassador, Sewell started training many months ahead. But it was still a herculean challenge. Before April, the biggest triathlon he’d ever done was the Ironman 70.3, which is a half-Ironman, in Oceanside. And he’d never run a full marathon before Saturday.
Fortunately, he had a strong support team in Hawaii to provide physical and emotional support. His main “handler” for the race was Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a fellow above-the-knee double-amputee who has been one of his closest friends since they met at Sewell’s first CAF clinic in 2000.
Garcia-Tolson, 31, is also a CAF Ambassador and a four-time Paralympic swimmer with two golds, two silvers and one bronze medal to his credit. Like Sewell, Garcia-Tolson attempted the Ironman World 10 years ago, but he wasn’t able to complete the handcycling segment in the allotted time. Assisting his buddy in achieving that goal, with support from CAF and Ironman, is a special memory.
“It speaks volumes to the work CAF and Ironman Foundation do and how it can take someone from the streets of San Diego to the finish line at Kona,” Garcia-Tolson said. “That’s our message, whether you’re able-bodied or disabled. It’s about looking at your situation and wanting better and then going for it and doing it.”
After discovering CAF at age 8, Sewell dived headfirst into a wide variety of athletic activities. Athletics were a consistent bright spot during the years he and his mom were on the move between shelters and apartments. He got his first pair of prosthetic blades from CAF at age 10, and entered his first running competition at age 12.
That same year, he and his mom relocated to Alabama, where he would later become the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public communication from the University of Northern Alabama.
While living for a decade in Alabama, Sewell started training as a swimmer. He had avoided the sport for years because of a deep-seated fear of the water. But with training from CAF adaptive swim instructors Alan and Allison Voisard, he became an elite swimmer and qualified for Team USA under coach Nathan Manley. In 2014, he earned gold and bronze medals in the Pacific Para Swimming Championships.
Sewell said athletics, particularly swimming, freed both his body and his mind.
“It’s about being active and able to enjoy being out and about,” he said. “I realized that I wasn’t just having a good time, I was also leading a more healthy lifestyle. I wasn’t restricted anymore. I had the tools to be active.”
At Saturday’s race, Sewell said he was confident about the opening swim portion of the race, and he felt he was well-trained and -prepared for the finale, which is the marathon. But he was worried about the rigors of the middle portion on his handcycle, particularly when winds on the course topped 50 miles an hour and blew several competitors off their bikes.
His fatigue caught up with him during the marathon, when he had stomach problems and was forced to walk portions of the last six miles. But Sewell said he pushed through and confidently crossed the finish line at 16 hours, 26 minutes and 59 seconds — well within the 17-hour time limit for official qualification.
There to greet him at the finish line were Sewell’s mom, Marian, as well as CAF co-founder Bob Babbitt.
“We have been working with Roderick at CAF since he was 8 years old and absolutely petrified of the water. To watch this young man become an Ironman World Championship finisher on Saturday night is one of the true highlights of my life,” Babbitt said.
On Tuesday, Sewell flew back to San Diego where he will participate Sunday in CAF’s major fundraiser, the 26th annual Aspen Medical Products San Diego Triathlon Challenge at La Jolla Cove.