Victoria Jacobsen
The Bulletin

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To learn more about Athletes Without Limits, visit the organization’s website at www.athleteswithoutlimits.org. Those who would like to volunteer or find aid for a prospective athlete are welcome to contact info@athleteswithoutlimits.com or 202-544-0510.

When Sean O’Rourke called Barry Holman from Long Island last fall to say he intended to complete an Ironman triathlon, Holman wondered if O’Rourke was “having a midlife crisis — in the best possible way.”

Holman, founder of the nonprofit Athletes Without Limits, which works to give athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities opportunities to train and compete in high-level sports, met O’Rourke at a cross-country meet in New York in 2009. O’Rourke persuaded Holman on the spot to serve as his triathlon coach, and he has since completed several sprint-distance and half-Ironman triathlons. But as O’Rourke drew closer to his 40th birthday this past February, he felt that it was time to do something a little more momentous — cross off a “bucket list” item, as he put it during an interview in Bend last week. A full Ironman — a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and marathon run — seemed to be just the thing.

O’Rourke is currently in Bend visiting Holman for a weeklong “training camp” ahead of Ironman Lake Placid, which will take place July 23 in New York. If he finishes the race, it is believed he will be the first person with an intellectual disability to complete the grueling feat.

Ironman and other ultra-distance triathlon organizers do not typically ask entrants if they have an intellectual disability, but Holman said he has combed through newspaper reports and contacted numerous coaches who work with special needs athletes in the U.S. and abroad. So far, no one has reported an example of a triathlete with an intellectual disability who has completed an ultra-distance triathlon. If someone has, she or he apparently did so with little fanfare.

As a child, O’Rourke was exposed to lead paint, which led to a seizure disorder, difficulty staying focused and a learning disability, Holman said. O’Rourke said that as a kid, he thought he would never get to do many of the grown-up things that other people take for granted, like living on his own or getting married. If he ever did move out of his parents’ home on Long Island, he assumed it would be to live in a group home where advocates would regularly check in on him. He wanted to run track in high school, but he said the track coach refused to allow him to join the team because of his learning disability, a decision that still rankles — and motivates — O’Rourke to this day.

“So I went outside the box,” O’Rourke explained. He joined Rolling Thunder Special Needs Program, a Long Island-based running program that brings together runners and walkers of all ability levels. O’Rourke met the woman who would become his wife, Pavle, through the group, and together they have run the Boston, New York and Philadelphia marathons, as well as the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Florida.

“(There were) a bunch of things I wanted to accomplish in my life,” O’Rourke explained. “Getting married was one. Moving out of my parents’ house was another one. I went to Special Olympics World Games, and for years before I met Barry that was one of the biggest things (of my life). And now, Ironman.”

While Rolling Thunder is dedicated to inclusion and aiding special needs runners who want to compete in open races, the program has also produced athletes who compete at an elite level. One of O’Rourke’s teammates, 20-year-old Mikey Brannigan, from Huntington, New York, broke the 4-minute mile mark at the Sir Walter Miler meet last August with a time of 3 minutes, 57.58 seconds. A month later, Brannigan, who has autism spectrum disorder, won the Paralympic 1,500-meter run in Rio de Janeiro with a time of 3:51.73. But before the past decade, athletes like Brannigan and O’Rourke would have had few opportunities to compete on the world stage.

The International Federation for Intellectual Disability Sport (INAS) was founded in the Netherlands in 1986, but for many years the organization’s programs were mostly based in Europe, although individual American athletes would occasionally be invited to compete as guests.

In 2008, INAS invited an American cyclist named Syd Lea to the INAS cycling championships in Spain. Holman’s now-wife, Julie, had been Lea’s nanny for a year and the young cyclist was so close to the couple that he would be the best man at their wedding. When Lea and Holman traveled to Spain for the championships, the absence of an American member organization to help them soon became a problem.

“When we went there and did that competition, there was a little bit of drama because they didn’t expect Syd to be as good as he was, and he took second in the first race,” Holman recounted. “They said, we can’t give him a medal because he’s here as a guest, he’s not a member of the federation.”

As a response, Holman founded Athletes Without Limits in 2009, and the organization is now a member of INAS and US Paralympics. The all-volunteer group supports dozens of athletes in track and field, basketball, cycling, rowing, skiing, swimming, tennis and table tennis, and plans are in place to add an equestrian program this fall. In some cases, Athletes Without Limits will partner with existing groups, like Rolling Thunder, that focus on training opportunities for special needs athletes. But if such a group does not exist near an athlete, Athletes Without Limits will search for a local coach or training program that would welcome such a competitor.

Holman said such an organization is essential, because many individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities have the physical ability and desire to improve at their favorite sport, but not the opportunity. Some athletes, like O’Rourke, are not welcomed on their high school teams, and even those who do get the chance to compete in high school will probably not be able to move on to college. Many Athletes Without Limits athletes competed in Special Olympics activities as children, but most Special Olympics programs are seasonal and better suited to exposing athletes to new activities than to developing champion swimmers and skiers.

Holman has lived in Bend off and on since 2002, and in February he moved back to Bend, bringing Athletes Without Limits operations to Oregon with him.

INAS and Paralympic events require athletes to undergo extensive (and extremely expensive) IQ and adaptive behavior testing to qualify for events, and both the University of Miami’s medical school and Central Oregon Pediatric Associates have agreed to perform the necessary testing for free for Athletes Without Limits members. Holman said he hopes Bend could become a hub where athletes can come and combine the testing procedure with an informal training camp, much like the one O’Rourke is in the midst of now.

For the moment, O’Rourke is the only triathlete under the wing of Athletes Without Limits. Holman, who has completed several Ironman triathlons himself, is trying to mix in tips about eating and drinking during the race and bicycle maintenance with long rides and hourlong workouts in the pool at Bend’s Juniper Swim & Fitness Center.

Holman said he works a little differently with O’Rourke from he would the other triathletes he coaches. He and O’Rourke text or call nearly every day they are not together, and he has found that O’Rourke finds it easier to digest his workout plans if they are sent day by day, instead of in weekly or monthly chunks.

In addition to spending time with his wife and 2-year-old son, O’Rourke has a full-time job as a prep cook at an assisted living home, which means he cannot rely on open Saturdays and Sundays for long training sessions.

“I’m not a weekend warrior like regular people who get weekends off,” O’Rourke joked. “I work in the health care field, so I’ve got to work.”

But many of O’Rourke’s concerns are just the same as every other competitor who will join him at the starting line at Ironman Lake Placid. In such a demanding event, it is nearly impossible to predict how an athlete’s body will react to hours and hours of racing. Too little food — or too much — can throw off months of preparation.

“There have been some times in my training when I’ve told Barry, I’m getting a little nervous,” O’Rourke admitted. “And he goes, ‘I’d be worried if you weren’t.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen. I could feel good. I’m sure there’s going to be times when I’m going to want to quit, but I’m going to push through that. My biggest thing keeping me going is my family, my wife and my kid. Barry at the finish line. I’ll be thinking about all those things during the race.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0305, vjacobsen@bendbulletin.com

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