RIDGELAND, Miss.—When Tupelo resident Randy Lavender looks out over the water this Saturday and prepares to race in Ridgeland’s Heatwave Triathlon, he may feel a little more nervous than the other few hundred competitors.
Lavender, who lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident 16 years ago, will have to rely on his arms alone to pull him through the half-mile reservoir swim before he tags off to Josh Sharpe of Jackson who will ride a hand cycle over the 24.8 mile bike course.
Lavender, Sharpe and Carlos Ladner of Hattiesburg will make up a relay team of physically challenged athletes from Methodist Rehabilitation Center’s Therapeutic Recreation program. After receiving Sharpe’s tag, Ladner will race a wheelchair over the remaining 6.2 mile race course.
This will be the first time one of MRC’s triathlon teams has competed in the Ridgeland race, said program director Ginny Boydston. Other triathlon teams have competed at the Sardis Lake DragonFly triathlon over the past four years.
“And we’ve had up to four teams compete on one day,” she said. “We’ve always wanted to enter Heatwave because it’s so close to home. Our guys have been training all year.”
Lavender, 44, is an accomplished wheelchair racer and has competed around the southeast since 1990. When Boydston was looking for someone to swim on her triathlon team, Lavender was her man.
“Finding someone to swim was a real thorn in my side,” recalled Boydston. “But Randy just stepped up and said “I’ll do it.’”
A lot of triathletes say the swimming portion is their least favorite part of the event. It’s even harder when you can’t kick with your legs to help stay horizontal in the water.
“But I’ve always enjoyed swimming,” said Lavender. “It’s good therapy. It’s a tough workout and when I’m swimming a lot, it makes me feel stronger and more independent. I could tell after the first time I swam that I was getting stronger.”
Since most swim starts take place on wheelchair-unfriendly beaches and grassy areas, Lavender carries his gear to the starting area on an ATV. Boydston said her athletes have always gotten support from other athletes. “It’s amazing how aware and supportive the able-bodied triathletes are of what we do and what my guys go through. They’re always our biggest fans at the races.”
When Sharpe gets Lavender’s tag and heads out on the bike course, he’ll do so for the first time in a race. Sharpe, 26, injured his spinal cord in a 1994 car accident. Today, he is active with rock climbing, wheelchair tennis and as a student of naval aviation history. He has returned to work full time at the Social Security Administration. He first fell for hand cycling when he saw the strange machine in an issue of Sports ‘N Spokes, a magazine devoted to physically challenged athletes. Hand cycles have three wheels, a seat and a crank that looks just like a bicycle’s chain rings. Instead of using legs, the hand cyclist “pedals” with the arms.
“I loved to ride BMX bikes before my accident so this was just a natural fit for me,” Sharpe said. “I did a 65 mile ride in April for training. Lately, I’ve cut back to 20-25 miles each ride to get ready for the race.”
Like Lavender, Ladner is also an accomplished wheelchair racer. The 21 year-old has been racing for three years and finished second at the 2001 Gum Tree 10K in Tupelo, just ahead of Lavender.
Unlike Sharpe, Ladner said he wasn’t very active before his accident in 1997. “I used to hate walking a mile. I never thought I’d be doing something demanding like this,” he said.
He became interested in wheelchair racing while at MRC when four-time paralympian racer Wiley Clark of Moss Point talked to him about it. “Wiley was working at MRC and kept after me to try it and I got hooked,” Ladner recalled. “I wanted to build myself back up and get into shape.”
In training for Heatwave, Ladner said he’s averaging 10 miles each workout. He also rides a hand cycle and enters fishing tournaments. “Triathlon is a great challenge. I’m looking forward to Saturday.”
Each athlete has taken time to share with others who have disabilities. Lavender is involved with Living Independence For Everyone (LIFE) in Tupelo and holds support meetings once a month.
“We want to prove to others that there are a lot of activities you can do,” Lavender said. “That’s part of the fun of racing. I like showing them the proof. We go snow skiing, water skiing, rock climbing. We have a ball.”
Boydston said she plans to offer new challenges to her teams. “We’re going to branch out and keep doing new things and looking for new opportunities,” she said. “We have a ‘can do’ attitude about everything and it’s a lot of fun to bring together able-bodied and disabled athletes together for the same cause.
“And we’re always looking for new athletes.”