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Bob Babbitt on the legend of Jim McLaren and the success of CAF

Bob Babbitt talks to Mark Allen about the inspiring work of Challenged Athletes Foundation

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For the latest episode of my ‘Mondays With Mark Allen’ series I had a very special guest – a certain Bob Babbitt. Bob of course is well known for ‘Breakfast With Bob’ in Kona but his Challenged Athletes Foundation is every bit as noteworthy. CAF has raised more than $134million in 28 years, and we talked recently about how it all started and the great work it does today.

Bob Babbitt and his Challenged Athletes Foundation have been an incredible force for good for almost three decades, but how did the story begin? Every story starts somewhere right? in this case it was the legend of Jim McLaren.

Bob told me how Jim’s journey, one which would be the lightning rod for the start of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, started way back in 1985.

The Jim McLaren story

“Jim McLaren was a football player at Yale – a 300lbs offensive lineman. Back in 1985 Jimmy was taking acting classes in New York, was on his motorcycle going to class, gets hit by a bus, thrown 90 feet in the air, dead on arrival.

“He ends up living but he loses his lower left leg. This is a guy who was dead on arrival – they chalked his body on the pavement, he was dead.”

Not only did McLaren live, he took his life on a new and very different path. One which would eventually lead to Kona and a first meeting with Babbitt.

“He lived, reinvented himself and on a walking leg – not a high-tech prosthetic leg like you see now – ran a 3:16 marathon. Then he comes over to Kona and goes 10:42 in the IRONMAN World Championship, which was where I met him because at that time we had Competitor magazine and we hadn’t started CAF yet.

“At that point Jimmy was travelling the world, and people knew him as the guy who was missing his leg – he was changing perceptions, sort of the Babe Ruth of amputee athletes. Sponsored by Budweiser, his life was different but it wasn’t necessarily worse. He was one of a kind.”

The link between Babbitt and McLaren was formed, but it was not until 1993 that it led to the start of CAF through another life-altering moment for Jim.

“Eight years later, he’s racing at Lake Mission Viejo, a van goes through a closed intersection, hits the back of his bike, propels him head first into a pole and a guy who’s already an amputee becomes a quadriplegic.

“At that point Rick Kozlowski, a local race director in San Diego, Jeffrey Essakow, who worked for the Tinley company – they had been providing liners, support for Jimmy’s prosthetic – the three of us got together and because we knew triathlon and the goal was ‘ hey let’s try to raise $25,000 and buy Jim a van with hand control’.

“Because I had covered a lot of wheelchair athletes and when I said ‘hey what’s the worst part about now that you’re paralysed?’ and invariably the answer was: ‘I’m 30 years old, here come Mom and Dad back in my life. I was an independent person and now I’m not’.

“So that’s how we came up with the idea – let’s get Jim a van with hand control so he has independence.”

The triathlon Bob, Rick and Jeffrey staged was a success – it reached the target goal. But more than that, it led to another watershed moment and the birth of CAF.

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The birth of CAF

“So the goal was to raise $25,000, we raised $49,000 and we thought ‘job done’. Then three amputee women come up to us and they say ‘Listen, we’re here to support Jimmy because Jimmy got us into endurance, but did you know if you get injured your health insurance covers a walking-around leg or an everyday wheelchair? Insurance considers sport a luxury item item and nothing connected to sport is covered by your insurance’. Which to be honest was total unadulterated bullshit.”

“So that’s when we got our 501 (c) (3) [a tax exemption for charitable purposes] and decided that if somebody needed equipment, training or travel to stay in the game of life through sport, for ever and a day CAF would be there.”

The rest, as they say, is history, or in this case history with many chapters still to be written. The results are quite incredible as Bob detailed. Jim McLaren sadly passed in 2010 at the age of 47, but through CAF his legend lives on.

“Now it’s been 28 years, we’ve raised $134million, we’ve sent out over 35,000 grants to athletes in 73 countries, in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and more importantly in 104 different sports.

“Who the hell knew there were 104 different sports? Everything from sled hockey to beep baseball – which is baseball for the blind, to handcycling to paratriathlon to Para Nordic Skiing, the Para Biathlon. It’s crazy, there’s so many different sports and so many athletes in need. It’s the coolest thing in the world, seeing what our athletes are accomplishing.”

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Lera Doederlein an inspiration

Bob talked at length about one very current storyline where CAF was able to make a huge difference – U.S. Paralympian Lera Doederlein. It’s a story which deserves to be told to a wider audience.

“Right now we’ve got the Winter Paralympics going on and Lera Doederlein, she was born in Russia and both legs were deformed. Her birth parents were told ‘you’ll never be able to afford the medical treatment your child needs, so you should put her up for adoption’.

“Let that sink in, ‘you can’t afford medical, so give your kid away’. And they did.

“A family from the United States, who eventually settled in Arizona, adopted Lera. She was on leg braces and arm crutches, just sort of levering her body around.

“At the age of 14 her doctor says ‘you know those legs are not getting any lighter, and they’re never gonna be functional. You’re putting a lot of stress on her shoulders, at some point you might want to think about amputating those legs’.

“Her adopted parents were like ‘we would never do that’. Lera was like ‘please, get rid of these things’.”

The decision to amputate quite literally changed Lera’s life, and she found sports.

Bob told me: “So they amputated her legs and she finds sled hockey. She becomes great at sled hockey and ends up being on the U.S. developmental team for sled hockey. Only one problem, there’s no women’s sled hockey in the Paralympics. They have a men’s team, they call it co-ed, but the coach is never gonna put a woman on the team, he’s gonna use all guys.”

This is where CAF became involved, and allowed Lera to eventually realise her Paralympic goal.

“We had a paratriathlon camp over at the CAF building and Carlos Moleda – five-time winner of the Ironman in the handcycling division – takes one look at Lera with her long arms and having both legs amputated above the knee and goes ‘this woman would be a great handcyclist’.

“So he builds a handcycle for her and now she’s 15 years old, she is on our women’s handcycling team, travelling the U.S., racing in Wisconsin and up in Boise. This is a woman who had no sport whatsoever until she got her legs amputated at the age of 14.”

Lera’s thirst for sport was by no means quenched, instead the fire in her was well and truly lit. The next twist came when handcycling team-mate Oksana Masters – now the most decorated Paralympian ever for the U.S. – told her to try Para Cross Country Skiing and Para Biathlon. That suggestion set her on the path which would lead her to Beijing and the 2022 Para Winter Olympics.

“A year-and-a-half later she is on the Paralympic team,” Bob explained.

“She’s on her way home now, she competed in four events – she was 9th in two of them, 14th in two others, she’s had her first Paralympic experience.

“Watching what sport does, making people feel confident and making you feel just comfortable in your own skin, it’s life-altering.

“Just seeing this young woman, we set up interviews for her. She’s 18 years old and it’s like she’s been doing this her whole life. The power of sport, you never want to underestimate the power of sport. It changes lives every single day.”

Speaking at length with Bob, I was blown away like I always am by what CAF does and by what it has achieved. You can watch/listen to our full conversation below – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Mark Allen
Written by
Mark Allen
Mark Allen has to be in any conversation about the greatest triathlete of all time. A six-time IRONMAN World Champion, he won every other title that mattered in the sport and dominated like few others

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