(L-R) Roderick Townsend and Tynita Butts-Townsend competing at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships, respectively.
The email arrived at 5 o’clock on a September morning in Louisville, Kentucky, as Roderick Townsend was on his way to work.
He immediately called his wife, Ty Butts-Townsend, who happened to be on a treatment table in Minsk, Belarus, where she was competing in a meet called “The Match.”
“I’m like, ‘Guess who’s going to worlds?’” Townsend said. “She thought I was talking about myself, but I was talking about her.”
Townsend – who got the email because he is registered as his wife’s coach – already knew he was bound for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which begin today and run through Nov. 15.
He won gold medals in the high jump and long jump at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 in the T46/F46 classification and is the defending world champion in the high jump. Townsend is also aiming to regain the top step of the podium in the long jump after placing fourth at the 2017 worlds.
However, Butts-Townsend, whose full name is Tynita, was on the bubble for the IAAF World Championships. She placed third at nationals in the women’s high jump, but despite jumping a personal best did not meet the qualifying standard. On that September day, Butts-Townsend was invited to compete in the biggest event of her career in Doha, Qatar, based on her world ranking.
In the same city four years earlier, Townsend competed in his first Para world championships, winning gold in the high jump and three silver medals: long jump, triple jump and 4x100-meter.
“It’s really cool to be back here and to have my wife experience this,’” he told TeamUSA.org in Doha in September. “It’s been one heck of a journey and I’m super appreciative that my wife is an able-bodied athlete, and that I get to be on this side of the fence supporting her as an athlete, as opposed to being here getting ready to compete myself.”
And so with her husband cheering from the stands, Butts-Townsend placed eighth with a personal best of 1.93 meters (6 feet, 4 inches, which is 6 inches above her head).
Married With MedalsRoderick Townsend-Roberts celebrates breaking a Paralympic record following the men's long jump T47 final at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 14, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
They are the only track and field couple to compete in their respective track and field world championships this year for Team USA.
And while there have been Olympic couples and Paralympic couples from various nations, Townsend and Butts-Townsend could be the only Team USA husband-and-wife with a competitor in each Games in Tokyo.
They have been together since early 2016 and were married on July 2, 2018.
“It’s everything,” Butts-Townsend said of having a husband who is also a world-class competitor. “He truly understands. He’s experienced in it. We don’t have any jealousy when we’re traveling. There’s no jealousy with my schedule, there’s no questioning my goals and my drive and what I’m doing or how serious I am.
“There’s no comparing ourselves to each other because we do the same thing and we’re going after the same goals. He’s definitely a go-getter, so it’s nice to be with someone who pushes me and challenges me.”
She said she was so nervous in Doha that she was sick to her stomach and Townsend calmed her down. He also has a good eye as a coach, helping before the arrival of Jeff Petersmeyer of the University of Louisville, who coaches them both.
They had hoped Butts-Townsend could return the favor in Dubai, but Townsend said the trip is too short.
“Although it’d be great to have her there, I feel like it’s almost a waste of her time,” he said. “She doesn’t feel that way, but I do.”
“But I understand where he’s coming from,” said Butts-Townsend, who stayed home with their 8-month-old puppy, a miniature long-haired dachshund named Winnie.
Added her husband, “We have Tokyo to look forward to next year.”
Butts-Townsend did help him get ready, though. “It’s nice to have a wife who’s a massage therapist just in case anything does come up,” he said.
Finding The Paralympic PathRoderick Townsend-Roberts competes in the men's high jump T47 final at the IPC World ParaAthletics Championships 2017 on July 16, 2017 in London.
At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, Townsend looked like he could be one of the athletes participating at able-bodied worlds in Doha, not merely a husband supporting his wife.
Townsend, 27, did compete strictly against able-bodied athletes for most of his career, not realizing that an injury at birth made him eligible for Paralympic competition.
His mother gave birth to him when she was 15 years old and, he said, “I’m not sure if you can tell or not, but I was not a small baby.”
The doctor expected him to be around 7 pounds, but he was almost 11 pounds. “I was breached and the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck so the doctor had to break my collarbone and dislocate my shoulder,” Townsend said. “In doing so, he damaged all the nerves in my brachial plexus.”
He does not have full range of motion or strength in his right arm. He said he didn’t move his arm at all the first few months of his life. “One day my mom said I threw a temper tantrum and I moved it,” Townsend said. “We weren’t in a position to get healthcare or physical therapy for it.”
He writes with his right hand, but has to throw with his left.
“In a sport where it’s all about symmetry, my right arm does not straighten,” Townsend said.
He competes against other athletes with arm disabilities, which includes those who are missing a hand, but can put their arm behind their head, something he can’t do.
“One of the amazing things about Paralympics is the diversity of the disabilities that we overcome and deal with,” Townsend said. “There are aspects of my disability that makes life easier to deal with, just from having another hand. But there are other aspects of my disability that make it tougher.
“What I live my life by is just making sure that I’m always appreciative of the opportunities that I have and I always try to keep in the front of my mind that even my worst day, even the things I may complain about, are somebody else’s prayers and wishes.”
Track And Field To The RescueTynita Butts competes in the women's high jump final at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Sept. 30, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
The Stockton, California, native played defensive end on a community college football team. Bummed out after a loss, he joined his first track team, where he became good enough in the decathlon to earn a full scholarship to Boise State University.
However, following a change in the coaching staff and an injury to his back, he lost his scholarship. “I decided that college track wasn’t for me anymore,” he said.
But he was determined to finish out the year, which turned his life around.
Townsend was high jumping in the 2015 Sun Angel Classic in Tempe, Arizona, when he was spotted by Paralympic legend Jeff Skiba, an amputee born without a fibula in his left leg.
“He said he was talking to Jeremy Fisher, who is his coach, and he was like, ‘Look at that guy’s arm. I think it’s kind of jacked up. I think he might be a Paralympian.’” Townsend said.
“And the next week or two, I get a call from U.S. Paralympics and they say, ‘Hey, you should check out Paralympics.’ And the first thing I think is ‘Dude, I’ve got both my legs. What are you talking about?’ And from that moment forward, I was part of the Paralympic movement.
“Fast forward a few years and my coach and I were looking through a bunch of film trying to find athletes as we’re recruiting to Louisville and my coach says, ‘Look at this dude’s arm, I think it’s kind of like yours.’”
Townsend said Dallas Wise had the same injury at birth that he did and is also a high jumper and long jumper. He is a freshman at Coastal Carolina University.
“When I reached out to the people at U.S. Paralympics,” Townsend said, “I said, ‘I think I found the silver medalist for the Tokyo Games.’”
He believes the gold medal, of course, has his name on it. Townsend holds the world record in the high jump in his classification at 2.14 meters (7-0 ¼) set April 20 in Torrance, California, although he has actually jumped 2.21 (7-3) in a meet that was not sanctioned as a Paralympic event.
But he’s looking forward to eventual competition from Wise. “To find somebody who I see so much of myself in with even more talent is just extremely rewarding to see,” Townsend said. “When I spoke to him, he’d never met anybody with his disability before. He’d never thought that there was a silver lining to what his situation was.”
Townsend believes that if he’d never discovered track and field, he would never have found his wife or his career.
Instagram IntroductionTynita Butts celebrates after the women's high jump finalat the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships on Sept. 30, 2019 in Doha, Qatar.
He met Butts-Townsend in February 2016 through Instagram. “She’s beautiful and I saw she was an athlete as well,” he said.
Butts-Townsend, 29, was living in Florida at the time and he was living in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I didn’t know what to say, so I sent her a picture of a pizza,” Townsend said. (It was a pepperoni pizza, by the way.)
“I thought it was dorky,” said Butts-Townsend, “but it did look like a good pizza. And that broke the ice. We were FaceTiming on our phones every night until the sun came up.”
Townsend bought a plane ticket and within a week they were on their first date at Walt Disney World.
Butts-Townsend joined him at Northern Arizona University, where he was coaching. “I immediately had an assistant coach in her, because she knows so much about the events,” Townsend said.
Last summer after a honeymoon at Universal Studios in Orlando – “We’re big kids, we figured our first date was at Disney World so we might as well keep the tradition rolling,” Townsend said – they moved to Louisville to join Petersmeyer.
“I’m still young and I wanted to make sure I gave myself a chance to see what my true athletic potential was,” Townsend said, “so I decided it would be best for me to put coaching in the back seat for a while, focus on being an athlete.”
He is a volunteer coach at Louisville and has two other part-time jobs. With a master’s degree in education, Townsend works as a substitute teacher, primarily in language arts and math. He also works at American Airlines as a pushback operator at the Louisville airport.
Butts-Townsend works part-time as a licensed massage therapist. She grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and attended T.C. Williams High School (a few years before 200-meter world champion Noah Lyles) before going on to East Carolina University. She was also a long jumper earlier in her career before focusing on the high jump.
Butts-Townsend placed second at the 2019 U.S. indoor championships, where her husband, competing against able-bodied athletes, tied for eighth.
They expect to both compete next April in the Mt. SAC Relays. They have even mapped out their future through Tokyo and 2021 where the World Athletics Championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon, and the World Para Athletics Championships will be in Kobe, Japan.
“We plan on having a family in 2022,” said Butts-Townsend. “We’re going to make some jumpers of our own.”