Paralympians Discuss Impact of Challenged Athletes Foundation on 25th Anniversary

By Melissa Zhang | Oct. 19, 2018, 12:31 p.m. (ET)

Athletes compete in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge.
Athletes compete in the San Diego Triathlon Challenge, organized by the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) will celebrate its 25th anniversary this weekend, but the impact of the foundation’s efforts will endure long after the festivities are over.

CAF was born in 1994 as an effort by Bob Babbitt, Rick Kozlowski, and Jeffrey Essakow to buy an adaptive van for an injured friend, Jim MacLaren, that slowly grew into a much larger cause. It has since made tremendous strides in providing athletes with physical disabilities with more access to sports and active lifestyles.

“I'm empowered and blown away by the athletes that I get to see this weekend,” said track and field Paralympian and CAF spokesperson, Scout Bassett. “These athletes represent power, they represent strength, they represent what's perceived as the seemingly impossible.”

Surrounded by the stunning oceanside views of La Jolla, San Diego, participants will take part in CAF’s San Diego Triathlon Challenge on the final day of a weekend that features many decorated Paralympians and athletes and filled with activities and sport clinics.

Over the last two decades, one of the familiar faces at the triathlon has been four-time Paralympian and five-time medalist, Rudy Garcia-Tolson. 

An eight-year-old Garcia-Tolson was one of the first children to ever work with CAF. The California native was born with multiple birth defects and went through 15 surgeries by the age of five before deciding to become a double leg amputee.

Garcia-Tolson attended the 1997 San Diego Triathlon Challenge as a spectator. After that, he would never watch from the sidelines again.

“I just fell in love with it. It was the first time I had seen someone else who was like myself,” Garcia-Tolson said. “The next year I came back and did the swim, and I've been back ever since for 22 years now. This weekend holds a lot of memories for me it's kind of like a big family reunion, really.”  

Winning his first Paralympic gold medal in swimming at 16 years old, Garcia-Tolson has since participated in every Games since 2004 and has medaled in each one. He is also the world’s first double above-the-knee amputee to ever complete an Ironman triathlon.

“It's really cool to see a lot of athletes grow over the years, similar to how people who've been involved with the foundation have watched me grow,” Garcia-Tolson said. “The roles have changed and now I'm a mentor and role model to these young kids, who wouldn't know what's possible for double amputees and people like myself.”

Garcia-Tolson will mentor many of the younger participants this weekend, helping to run the clinics and teach individuals how to surf, swim, run, and more.

Bassett will also be among the mentors in La Jolla.

The foundation gave Bassett a running prosthetic when she was 14 years old. Fifteen years later, Bassett won her first medal in international competition at the World Para Athletics Championships in 2017.

“It changed the course of my whole life…it was huge for me, not just from an athletic standpoint,” Bassett said, who became an above knee amputee after losing her right leg in a fire when she was an infant. “Up until that point, I was a girl who was lacking self-confidence, an identity and purpose. Just being able to run gave me so much confidence.”

 

After growing up in a Chinese orphanage, Bassett was adopted and brought to a small town in Michigan where she grew up unaware that adaptive sports existed. The running prosthetic changed everything.

 

“It just is really amazing that a single piece of equipment from CAF got me to where I am today,” Bassett said. “Before you're an elite athlete, before you're a Paralympian, CAF is that initial gateway.”

 

Bassett’s grant was just one of 23,000 individual grants that CAF has been able to award since its creation. The foundation has also raised a total of $100 million to provide athletes with physical disabilities with adaptive sports equipment, as well as covering training and competition expenses.

 

Both Paralympians stressed how mentoring the next generation of athletes was paramount to their efforts this weekend as ambassadors of the foundation.

 

“It’s great to be a Paralympian and to be a professional athlete, but it's even greater and more meaningful to be a mentor to young kids that now know what's possible,” Bassett said. “I love it, because it's this fearlessness they have. They know what the future can be if they want to pursue it.”

 

Garcia-Tolson has seen many fellow Team CAF members grow up over his 22 years of being involved in the foundation. He said aligning his passions with an organization like the CAF has enabled him to show his love for the sport and to leave a legacy beyond his athletic career.

 

“Being able to say that I've helped grow the Movement is really what I'm most proud of,” Garcia-Tolson said. “Gold medals are great, world records are fun, but that really doesn't last. What really lasts is your impact on the Movement and the sport.”