Special bond with disabled athletes

BOSTON -- It has been nearly 40 years since a young man named Bob Hall crossed the Boston Marathon finish line without the benefit of feet touching the ground, the first competitor to record an official time in a wheelchair. Since then, several thousand athletes with disabilities -- amputees, people with spinal cord injuries, the visually impaired -- have made their way along the undulating course from Hopkinton to Boylston Street.

They may never be as appreciated as they will be Monday.

For the past year, the country has followed the progress of the 16 people who lost limbs in the marathon bombings, raising the collective consciousness about the physical challenges of new amputees. There was a 7-year-old girl, a professional dancer, a mother and daughter, two brothers. None of them were athletes on that day, but the fact that they were injured celebrating a venerable road race has forever bonded them to the running community.

That resonance will be felt in many ways in the first marathon of the rest of Boston's civic life, and the tone will be set from the top. Defending wheelchair division champion Tatyana McFadden will wear the emblem of the Martin W. Richard Foundation established by the family of the sports-loving 8-year-old boy killed in the attack.

"As an elite athlete, it's up to me to reach out and help,'' said McFadden, who swept the four major marathons last year and won a silver medal in cross-country skiing at the recent Sochi Paralympics.

South African-born elite wheelchair racer Krige Schabort, a naturalized U.S. citizen and former Paralympian who has finished second in Boston seven times, said competing is a way to show new amputees they must be "willing to take the risk of failure'' -- something they will all deal with in their transition.

"Us guys who went through a trauma, you really need time to heal from the anger and the frustration and the 'why,' " said Schabort, who lost both legs in a bomb blast when he was serving in the South African military.

Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, the transitional home for all of the marathon amputee survivors adjusting to their new reality, will field its usual charity team in the race. This year, Dr. David Crandell, medical director for the amputee program at the hospital, will run Boston as a guide for a visually impaired athlete.

The very public nature of the bombing aftermath posed some special challenges for both Crandell and his patients, who faced unprecedented media requests and public yearning to hear positive messages. Some survivors embraced the opportunity to make public appearances and tell their stories. Others needed space and privacy.

"They have been given great support but also additional responsibility, which as a patient, you shouldn't have to carry." Crandell said. "We told them, 'Recover. Focus on yourself. If you're not up to it, let us know.' We had a lot of well-wishers -- their peers, amputees, and celebrities -- ask to visit, but we didn't assume they would want that level of attention.''

One talented athlete who parachuted in from the outside was Scott Rigsby, the first double amputee to complete the Ironman world championships in Hawaii. Rigsby, who lost both legs when he was hit by a truck at age 18 in 1986, competed in his second Boston Marathon last year but was unable to finish when a medical issue sent him to the hospital. Stricken by the news of the bombings, Rigsby had barely been discharged when he established a special fund to raise money for survivor support resources. His foundation made a $200,000 grant to Spaulding that will benefit those disabled by the blasts and others. He spoke to the marathon patients in June and is returning to Boston to run with four other disabled athletes, two of whom are also running for the Richard Foundation.

Rigsby suffered from years of depression and prescription drug abuse before he discovered his love for endurance events. But he's not trying to conscript all of his fellow amputees to race. "Not everyone who gets a prosthesis wants to run or bike,'' he said. "Maybe they just want to be able to walk, or garden, or go to the movies without using crutches. We want to create healthy individuals who pay it forward.''

Dave Estrada, the Boston Athletic Association's disability coordinator, said 62 wheelchair athletes qualified for the race this year. There are an additional 54 runners with various mobility impairments and 63 visually impaired athletes entered. He "absolutely" anticipates they'll get a warmer than usual response this year.

Estrada was paralyzed from the chest down in a motorcycle accident when he was a young police cadet in 1995. A husband and father, he still works in media relations for the Boston Police Department and coordinates research for the adaptive sport program at Spaulding in addition to his annual role with the BAA.

His lifestyle leaves him little time to train for the marathons he used to do -- he finished 12 -- but Estrada is a firm believer in sport as "a way of getting past the fact that you're different, but you're not alone. You're participating with and competing against your peers.''

The spotlight on survivors may start to fade now that the first anniversary has passed. Crandell said he doesn't expect that to affect his amputee patients one way or the other. The healing process for a city that was affected but whole is very different from the process for individuals.

"The reality is that even though the calendar has come around, their recovery and rehab is not over,'' he said.

But with every passing year, he thinks it's more likely that someone who paid a terrible price for attending the race will get on the other side of the metal barriers. "Some of these folks will run the marathon,'' Crandell said. "They will. I think somebody will.''