Long-time runner and triathlete Dennis Vanderheiden knew he was through chasing personal bests in 2008 when he finished an Ironman triathlon in Louisville, Kentucky. He realized that his satisfaction came not from a fast finish but from experiencing the joy of others. He’d never quit training, competing and challenging himself, but he figured out that the journey was more important to him than the finish. And he knew the journey would be enhanced if he could share it with someone unable to do it on their own. That was the day Athletes in Tandem was born, inspired by Dick Hoyt who pushed and pulled his disabled son in numerous Hawaii Ironman races.
Athletes in Tandem recruits volunteers, supplies equipment and makes it possible for those with disabilities to participate in running, biking and swimming events. Participants have ranged in age from nine to 86.
“There’s a story behind every athlete,” Vanderheiden said. Many of the athletes cannot speak but sounds and gestures express their elation at feeling the wind in their hair, cool water on their bodies and kudos and camaraderie from their fellow athletes.
These days people from all over the country seek advice from Vanderheiden on how they can become involved, what equipment they need, and whether or not there is a similar organization in their area. The organization now has a presence in Syracuse, New York, Louisville, Kentucky and soon in Des Moines, Iowa. There are several similar organizations in New England, California, Maryland and other states.
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This summer a young man from Gainesville, Florida will raise money for Athletes in Tandem and Wounded Warriors by doing a half ironman in Florida, then running across the U.S. in May and June before completing his adventure with a full Ironman in Lake Tahoe, California in September. Vanderheiden will join him for the 70.3 mile Florida half with an athlete in tandem, preferably a Wounded Warrior or veteran. He’s on the lookout for a likely candidate.
Vanderheiden is supported in his work locally by individuals who serve on the board of directors and sponsors such as the Northern Colorado Triathlon Club, the CSU Tri Club and Green Events, LLC. He’s grateful to Raintree Athletic Club in Fort Collins and masseuse Sarah Hodapp who have kept him injury-free “What keeps me going is the love from parents, family members, caregivers, support organizations and friends old and new that I meet and interact with in person or on Facebook,” he said.
Joe Shaver can’t say enough good things about Dennis Vanderheiden and Athletes in Tandem. These days Joe and his son, Logan, 8, often train together on the country roads east of their home in the Meadows subdivision in Wellington. Logan is autistic but, unlike some disabled athletes, very mobile. He rides in a specially constructed stroller called a wike that fits on the back of a bike and converts easily into a running stroller.
A student at Rice Elementary, Logan is happiest when he’s out on the road. He makes noises and stomps his feet to express his pleasure. Joe says the longer the event, whether it be a training run or a race, the better Logan likes it. He’s a big fan of the water as well. In fact, when he’s pulled in a raft during the swim portion of a triathlon, it’s a challenge to keep him in the boat. He’s been known to maneuver himself overboard, causing some concern to his race partner, though it’s all fun for Logan.
“These activities are the way I can connect with Logan,” his dad said. “It’s not possible for us to share sports like wrestling, football or basketball. Vanderheiden has been a great inspiration for the Shaver family.”
“I had some hesitation at first,” his mom Jessica said. “Now I have great respect for what he does. The first time I saw Logan’s face light up during a run, I was hooked.”
Joe is grateful for the fact that he’s now in great physical shape because of the family’s involvement in the program. He ran a couple of 5ks solo just to make sure he could do it before signing up to push Logan. The father and son have done 5ks, 10ks and half-marathons together.
“Whenever there’s an event to benefit Athletes in Tandem we’re in,” Jessica said. They have participated in the Thanksgiving Day race in Windsor and the Pelican Fest and Lake to Lake triathlon in Loveland. In January they did the Sweaty Sweater 5k and the Polar Bear Plunge companion event at Horsetooth Reservoir west of Fort Collins.
Logan’s older sister, Destiny, 13, runs cross-country at Wellington Middle School and completed the school’s duathlon-(run-bike-run) event. The youngest Shaver, Ainsley, three-and-a-half, tags along waiting her turn to join in the fun.
If Jessica hadn’t become friendly with Katie Waechter in Wellington, they might never have hooked up with Athletes in Tandem. Katie and Jim are the parents of twins, James and Libby, 13, who were born at 29 weeks, each weighing about three pounds. Both have cerebral palsy and are unable to walk. Libby can speak. They are eighth graders at Wellington Middle School and have a younger brother, Max, age 7.
The Waechter family has been involved with Athletes in Tandem for five years, but these days are so busy with their own self-generated athletic activities that they seldom get to Vanderheiden’s events. He met the family through a Special Olympics basketball program when his organization was brand new. “Dennis was so inspiring to us that we got our own adaptive equipment and began doing events on our own,” Katie said. The twins have done three Horsetooth Half Marathons — one of which Katie and Jim trained for and completed. The twins also completed two Loveland triathlons and a Horsetooth Reservoir swim.
Vanderheiden was their stepping-stone according to Katie. Her kids really want to be athletes and are self-motivated to try most anything. They’ve learned to ski with adaptive equipment and this summer plan to waterski. They both play basketball on special teams and Libby trained for and completed a 5k course alone on her bike. “It was a huge feat,” Katie said. Libby’s cerebral palsy prevents her from walking and affects her motor skills, making tasks that require physical coordination extremely difficult.
Katie appreciates Athletes in Tandem because it provides the opportunity for her kids to be outdoors and totally engaged in having a good time. Much of their lives revolve around doctors’ appointments and various therapies, and all that can be forgotten on the road or in the water.
The Waechter family gets excited about the adaptive equipment that is available. They have a selection of walkers, a jogging stroller and a bike. They will have a special harness hung above the treadmill in their newly remodeled basement that will allow Libby and James to work out.
They haven’t deserted Athletes in Tandem, they’ve just been too busy to join races lately. Katie said they plan to be back—“when we can find time,” she promises.