Faces of Public Health: Richard Traum

Aug 3, 2012, 2:37 PM

Non-profit Achilles International connects physically and mentally disabled individuals with able-bodied amateur athletes to help build physical strength and confidence through their sense of accomplishment, which often impacts other parts of their lives. Since its start in the 1970′s, Achilles has also added training programs for children and disabled veterans. Achilles Kids provides training, racing opportunities, and an in-school program for children with disabilities; the Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans program brings running programs and marathon opportunities to disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Richard Traum, Achilles’ founder, says sports are simply the tool for accomplishing the group’s main objective: to bring hope, inspiration and the joys of achievement to people with disabilities.

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Richard Traum about the organization and its accomplishments over the years.

NewPublicHealth:  How did Achilles get started?

Richard Traum:  In 1976, as an above the knee amputee, I ran in the New York City Marathon on my artificial leg. I didn’t know it at that time, but I became the first amputee to run that kind of a distance. In 1982 we started the Achilles Track Club, which was an eight week course to encourage people with disabilities to participate in long distance running and after the eight week program was over, the question was what do we do next? And the thought was move it from a course to a track club and that’s how Achilles got started, which was in January of 1983.

NPH: Tell us a bit about the mission.

Richard Traum: Well, the mission is really to help people with all types of disabilities to participate in sports with a particular focus on running in the mainstream environment. What we do most is have disabled people participate in marathons. I’ve always felt that it was very important for people with disabilities to integrate with people who aren’t disabled. One reason is that if you are disabled, it makes you feel more comfortable in the able-bodied community, but it also works in the other direction—people who are not disabled increase their comfort level by seeing folks who are disabled competing with them in a sport.

NPH: What are some of the successes?

Richard Traum: Well, one is Donald Arthur. Donald had a heart transplant and he joined us shortly thereafter. He started to work out and he built up to doing a marathon and as he progressed, he would send the t-shirts to his doctor who would then send them to the family of the heart donor. He eventually did the marathon, sent his medal to the family and told them that their son’s heart had just done a marathon. The next year, Donald ran with a brother of the donor and during the last several years, Donald has done several marathons a year in different states; to focus awareness on organ donation.

NPH: And tell me about some of the returning veterans who have participated with Achilles.

Richard Traum: This is really my favorite group. We go to the military hospital in D.C. and introduce ourselves. We’re saying hey, we want you to get into sports and they love it and they’re also talented. Often, the soldiers pick up our sport much faster than most people and they have this joy of achievement. So, think of a situation where you’ve lost a couple of legs and you’re going through 25 to 35 operations and you contact your medical doctor and you say, sir, I need to postpone my next surgery by a week so I can do the Boston Marathon. Isn’t that a wonderful way to go through rehabilitation?

NPH: It certainly is! You have created some partnerships, tell us about that.

Richard Traum: We have three major partnerships, with General Motors, Cigna and U-Haul. U-Haul and General Motors contribute funds for the soldiers to participate in marathons and other races, including our Hope and Possibility Five-Miler. That’s a five mile race in Central Park in New York City and this year we have about 4,000 finishers. But the great beauty of the race is that of the 4,000 finishers, about 400 were people with disabilities.  Nowhere in the history of the world have you had so many disabled people participating in a mainstream event.

NPH: What’s next?

Richard Traum: We have a presence in over 70 countries internationally, but in the United States we have many, many people in different cities, so  one of the goals is to focus on building significant chapters in each of the major cities. Other developments to build on include a very large children’s program for disabled kids called Achilles’ Kids. This June we sent out over 3,000 pairs of running shoes to each of the Achilles’ Kids who during the school year ran a total of 26.2 miles or more—in their school gym, or around their homes or city trails. They might walk, or use a walker or a bike, or run, or do any combination that gets them moving. And by sending out the running shoes, we hope we’re  helping to teach the kids to have a goal. When they reach it,they  don’t get a medal around their neck—it’s on their feet. And as they’re walking around in their brand new shoes, they can say, “I have these shoes because I ran 26.2 miles.”

One of the things that are profoundly exciting about Achilles’ Kids is that we have a large number of autistic children. Autism is not a disabling issue when you run and the kids love it. And they become comparable to able-bodied peers and they’re happy and their sense of doing other things improves.

NPH: Are you still doing marathons?

Richard Traum: Yes, I’m still competitive in our Hope and Possibility race, which had 47 wheelchairs. I came in fifth. So at age 71, I’m still spry.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.