Butterfly effect: Krige Schabort tri-ing for 2016

By Doug Williams | Sept. 18, 2014, 2 p.m. (ET)
Krige Schabort
A South African and U.S. Paralympian in track and field, Krige Schabort won a paratriathlon title for Team USA in August. 

Krige Schabort has competed for 26 years across several continents in races of varying distances while representing two nations.

At 51, he’s been around the block a few times – at a very fast clip.

But after a long, successful career as an elite marathon wheelchair racer, Schabort was looking for new challenges. That search led him to triathlons. And his new sport has led him to a world championship and a chance to compete for a spot at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“It’s something that’s been really great for me,” said Schabort. “I’ve done so much wheelchair racing over the years and it’s not so much that it’s getting boring, but in a sense I felt I needed something else to keep me more motivated, to get the butterflies in the stomach again, and that’s what I feel in triathlons.”

Schabort recently won the world championship in his PT1 classification at the International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Grand Final and World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. He completed the 750-meter swim, 20.4k hand cycle and 5k wheelchair course in 1:06.05 to take the gold and improve on his bronze-medal performance at the 2013 worlds in London.

Schabort, who began dabbling in triathlons about 10 years ago with some local and short-course races, now is in position over the next two years to win a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in the Paralympic debut of triathlon in Rio.

The world title has further stirred up his butterflies.

“Of course I thought about the Rio Games, but I don’t want to project (too far ahead),” he said. “But now since I won the world championship I have a new goal, and that would be go to Rio.”

His classification is one that has been confirmed for Paralympic inclusion.

Tragedy to triumph

Schabort grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, as a passionate surfer. If the waves were breaking, he was in the ocean.

“It was my life objective,” he said, laughing.

But in 1987, Schabort found himself far from the waves, fighting as a corporal for the South African army in his nation’s border war with Angola. On Nov. 2 of that year, his unit came under air attack. A bomb exploded next to Schabort, and the injuries were devastating. He lost both his legs, but beat long odds to survive.

Within a year, Schabort was back swimming as part of his medical rehabilitation. The swimming led to competition against other disabled athletes, and that led him to discover wheelchair racing.

In 1992, he won a bronze medal for South Africa in the marathon at the Paralympic Games. At the 2000 Games, he won a silver medal in the event.

After moving to the U.S. in 1997 (originally just to train for the 2000 Games), Schabort and his wife decided to become permanent U.S. residents and raise three children in Cedartown, Georgia. After becoming a U.S. citizen, Schabort represented his new nation at the 2012 London Paralympics, finishing 10th in the marathon.

Over a long racing career, Schabort has won everything from 5k and 10k road races to the New York City and Los Angeles marathons. He also won a gold medal in the 10,000 meters at the 1998 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships and a silver in the marathon at the worlds four years later.

It was about 10 years ago that Schabort started doing some low-level triathlons. He’d always been a good swimmer, so he was comfortable with the races. Then about 2008 a friend was at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.

“He called me that same day while he was there to tell me, ‘Someone like you, with your background in swimming, you should do this,’ ” Schabort recalled. “And I always had it somewhere in the back of my mind, but never pursued it until I realized if I’m not going to do it now, I’m probably not ever doing it. So in 2009 I started training for it, then I qualified.”

His results were spectacular. Schabort won his division at Kailua-Kona twice, in 2010 and 2011, and set records both times, first with a 9:26.04 and then 9:24:35.

He said those victories rank among his greatest athletic highlights, along with his first Paralympic marathon medal in 1992.

“Winning Kona was the most amazing feeling,” he said. “You put so much time into it and so much effort and so much training. When I won Kona it felt like I was the king of the ocean and everything, until the next day.”

That’s when his entire body reeled from the ordeal. Laughing about it, he says the next day he felt like “old, burned toast.”

Gold for the USA

Schabort wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the ITU World Championships in Canada. The defending champion in his division, Bill Chaffey of Australia (a four-time winner), didn’t compete because of injuries, which Schabort said “opened the podium for us.”

“I was hoping for a podium, but triathlons are so … there are so many things that can go right or wrong, and I guess everything went right that day,” he said.

Schabort came out of the water in sixth place, surged to second in the bike leg and then pulled away on the final running portion of the race to beat Phil Hogg of Great Britain by 57 seconds.

Coming out of the transition into the running portion, a U.S. coach told Schabort that the leader had “15 to 20 seconds” on him. With his long history in wheelchair racing, Schabort knew he could quickly erase that gap.

“I knew 5k is short, but I should be able to run him down, even if he had a 30-second lead,” he recalled thinking.

Within the first 500 yards, Schabort had pushed into the lead, then continued to pull away.

“It was an amazing feeling to cross the finish line in first place,” he said. “It was my first gold medal for the United States at the international level, put it that way. It was a good moment for me.”

Now, he’s all in for working toward Rio. If he is fortunate to qualify for those Games, he can envision it being his farewell to triathlon and international competition. At 53, it would be time.

“I’ve been racing since 1988, and will go until 2016,” he said, noting it would be 28 years. “I’ll dig a big hole or something and take all of my racing stuff and dump it, because if I don’t dump it, I’ll probably never be able to leave it,” he adds, laughing. “It’s in my blood. If I can hold off until then, I’ll be blessed and fortunate, but there’s other things I want to pursue.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.