No. 37: Ryan Chalmers, Richard Whitehead push boundaries

The American Paralympian pushed 3,500 miles across his country, while the British Paralympian ran 40 marathons in 40 days. 25 Nov 2013
Ryan Chalmers

Ryan Chalmers pushes through Kayenta, Arizona during his 71-day Push Across America.

ⒸPhoto courtesy of Ryan Chalmers

“There’s actually not a single time that I thought in my head that I would give up or that it was too much. And that was solely based on the fact that I was doing it for something much bigger than myself.”

Two Paralympians, American wheelchair racer Ryan Chalmers and British double-amputee sprinter Richard Whitehead, completed epic treks across their respective countries in 2013 to raise awareness for the Paralympic Movement.

Both athletes showcased how the Paralympic Movement is more than just the Paralympic Games, as both set out to build a London 2012 legacy by pushing or running unthinkable distances.

‘Push Across America’

At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Chalmers was taken aback by the perception of Paralympic athletes in Europe and knew immediately he wanted to replicate that perception in America.

Thus, for 71 days in early 2013, Chalmers pushed 3,500 miles (or 5,600km) in his racing chair from Los Angeles to New York. The purpose of his “Push Across America” was to garner attention for people with an impairment in America and change people’s perceptions.

“It was just a life-changing experience for me,” Chalmers said. “I got to meet great people along the way that I’ll be friends with for a very, very long time. Along the way, I got to represent something much bigger than myself.

“For me, it was just about hearing from the people and being able to talk to the people that it impacted along the way.”

The event was run by Stay Focused, a non-profit organisation based in the Cayman Islands that offers young adults the opportunity to develop leadership and gain independence through scuba diving.

Chalmers pushed an average of 60 miles – or nearly two marathons – per day through all types of terrain and weather, finishing his journey in New York’s Central Park.

“I remember just this idea of what it was going to be,” Chalmers said. “Everybody has ideas and everybody has big brains, and it’s just amazing to me that I was able to do it, and I was able to do it exactly the dates I said I was going to do it.”

Chalmers said his day trek through Death Valley, which started at 5:30 and finished at 20:30, was by far the most physically and mentally challenging part of the push, but that it was completely worth it.

“You go through one day and think it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done and hardest thing you ever will do in your entire life, and then you go another day and it’s even harder,” Chalmers said.

“There’s actually not a single time that I thought in my head that I would give up or that it was too much. And that was solely based on the fact that I was doing it for something much bigger than myself.”

From John O’Groats to Land’s End

Whitehead, the 200m T42 Paralympic and world champion, completed a grueling 40 marathons in 40 days during the summer to raise money for British charities Sarcoma UK and Scope, as well as awareness for the Paralympic Movement.

“My journey was about being successful at London 2012, so I could go onto bigger journeys and sustain a Paralympic legacy,” Whitehead said. “As an athlete, it’s always important to keep pushing the boundaries athletically and commercially, which I think I’m doing, and I enjoy doing both.

“It made me think about how much I value success. If you believe in life, you will achieve.”

What made Whitehead’s journey so special was the amount of support he received from national organisations, media and the public.

During his 977-mile trek across Great Britain, several people ran 5K, 10K or even full marathons with Whitehead, who had a goal of getting more people involved in sport.

“It was about the fulfillment of a lifetime challenge, building up a journey with more people to encourage them to take on their own journeys,” Whitehead said.

“Their own journeys don’t necessarily have to be running a marathon or winning gold, but they could just mean challenging themselves in their own profession.”

Whitehead was joined by celebrities and fellow athletes, including British Paralympians Dan Greaves and Sarah Storey, as well as British Olympic swimmer Rebecca Adlington.

He even received an official letter from 10 Downing Street along the way, which carried a good luck message from British Prime Minister David Cameron, and he was joined by a host of Channel 4 personalities.

So, after a journey like that, what’s Whitehead’s next major challenge?

“I’m not sure about that,” he chuckled. “No comment.”

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