Roderick Sewell competing in the men's 100-meter breaststroke SB6 at the Para Swimming World Championship Mexico City 2017 on Dec. 3, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Roderick Sewell was terrified to step into a pool as a kid. He had a fear of water, and he worried he might drown if he got too close to it.
Sewell couldn’t kick his legs like other kids learning to swim. He was born with a birth defect that required both his legs to be amputated above the knee before his second birthday.
Sewell was around 10 years old when he watched one of his friends, who was also a double amputee, swim. All of a sudden, the idea of splashing around in a YMCA pool in San Diego didn’t seem that frightening.
"Seeing him do it kind of reassured me that I could for sure do it, too,” Sewell said.
Seventeen years later, Sewell is looking forward to stepping into Kailua Bay off the coast of Hawaii on Saturday. He believes the first leg of this year’s IRONMAN World Championship — a 2.4-mile open water swim — could be “a breeze” and “a good way to start the day.”
The 27-year-old Sewell will attempt to become the first above-the-knee double amputee to complete the IRONMAN, which is considered one of the world’s toughest races. The grueling course requires triathletes to swim, run and bike 140.6 miles in one day across Hawaii’s Big Island.
Of course, Sewell has endured much bigger challenges in his life. He spent four years during his childhood bouncing from place to place and sleeping in homeless shelters as his mother, Marian Jackson, made sure he had expensive prosthetic legs.
“This is my way of life,” Sewell said Thursday from his hotel in Hawaii. “For me, putting on my prosthetics is like you putting on your shoes at this point in life.”
Sewell will take part in the IRONMAN’s 26.2-mile run on a pair of prosthetic legs. Rather than pedaling a traditional bicycle like other triathletes, he’ll cover the 102-mile ride on a handcycle that he got three months ago.
Sewell said he doesn’t care how long it takes him to complete the IRONMAN as long as he crosses the finish line in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
“It would be a big feat. There hasn’t been a double above-the-knee amputee to finish Kona,” he said. “So to be the first would be pretty remarkable.”
When Sewell was a kid, his mother quit her job and filed for unemployment to ensure he had full coverage for his prosthetic legs. However, it took a toll on the family financially. The problems started when he was 8 years old and continued for the next four years.
Sewell and his mother moved from a house to an apartment to eventually finding themselves at shelters. They left their home in San Diego for Alabama, where they were homeless for another six months before their situation stabilized.
“My mom was pretty straightforward with what we were going through,” Sewell said. “At a young age, I had to deal with very adult situations, I guess. So I knew what we were going through.”
As rough as the situation was for the family, Sewell admitted they “had a great time, too.” He was introduced to Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for people with physical challenges to play sports.
Sewell started running, playing basketball and taking up handcycling. CAF also gave him an outlet and something to talk about instead of just focusing on not having much as a kid.
“I never considered sports because of the prosthetics that I had,” Sewell said. “I didn’t know what was available to me, and then once I got exposed to CAF and the different possibilities in sports is when I did everything.”
Once afraid of water, Sewell has become an accomplished swimmer. He made his debut with the U.S. Para swimming team at the 2014 Pan Pacific Para Swimming Championships. He earned a gold medal in the 100-meter breaststroke and bronze in the 200-meter relay. He earned his first world championship medal in 2017 with a bronze in the 34-point 4x100-meter medley.
Sewell’s attempt to complete the IRONMAN has attracted national attention. But most importantly for Sewell, his mother arrived in Hawaii on Thursday to watch him take part in the grueling triathlon this weekend.
“I think she’s proud, but we’ll see once race day hits because that’s when she’ll really see the full effect of what IRONMAN is,” he said.
Sewell has tried to prepare his mother for the race. He has told her about the long distances it covers, the weather and water conditions he’ll face and all of the issues that could possibly go wrong for him.
“So once she sees other athletes out there, she’ll understand this isn’t for everyone,” Sewell said.
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.