If Mike Reilly is the Voice of IRONMAN, Bob Babbitt's the Mayor of Triathlon. Babbitt's been involved with triathlon in a variety of roles over his decades in our sport, and was recently awarded the Lifetime Kudos -- Contributor honor by the Global Triathlon Awards. We caught up with Babbitt to talk about his work with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (and specifically, a program offering at Oceanside 70.3) and where you might hear the next round of Breakfasts with Bob.
Bob, you're the one usually asking people how they're doing on your shows. Time to flip the tables -- how the heck are you?
Thanks for asking, Ryan! Everything in our world is outstanding. We are in the midst of reading through our 2023 Challenged Athlete Foundation grant applications and the stories, as always are simply amazing. Last spring we sent out 3,256 grants totaling over $6.2 million dollars and there is no better feeling in the world than to give someone the gift of sport. We all know how being able to participate in sport makes us feel and the CAF team does such an awesome job of making sure our challenged athletes get the support they need to chase their dreams. What could be better than that?
On top of that, looking back at our 2022 Breakfast with Bob shows, we did 300 total interviews from Clash Miami, over Zoom on our Not Quite Kona Edition, the Ironman World Championship and Ironman 70.3 World Championship from St. George, Ironman World Championship in Kona, PTO Canadian Open and Clash Daytona. There is nothing better than being able to chat with some of the world’s greatest athletes as we lead into a huge event. Love that!
Let’s talk a little bit about the history of CAF. Can you bring us back to how it got started?
Jim MacLaren was a 300 pound offensive lineman at Yale who ended up losing his left leg below the knee back in 1985 when he was hit by a New York City Bus while on his motorcycle in New York City while going to an acting class. Jim ended up losing his left leg below the knee from the accident and then reinvented himself as an endurance athlete. On a walking prosthetic he changed perceptions of what an amputee could accomplish by running a 3:16 marathon and then coming to Kona and finishing the Ironman World Championship in 10:42, which was in the top 20% of everyone in the race. I was covering Jimmy at that time for my publication Competitor Magazine and he ended up with sponsorships from Bud Light, Profile by Design and the Tinley Company and was traveling the world as the one legged guy who could do anything.
Eight years after his first accident, Jim was racing in Mission Viejo at the Orange County Performing Arts Center Triathlon when a van went through a closed intersection, hit the back of Jim’s bike and propelled him head first into a lamp post. The guy who was already an amputee was now a quadriplegic. That is when myself, Jeffrey Essakow from the Tinley company and long-time race director Rick Kozlowski got together to create a fundraising triathlon for Jim at La Jolla Cove. The goal was to raise $25,000 but because of the generosity of the triathlon community we raised $49,000 that day. The goal was to raise enough to get Jimmy a van with hand controls to give him independence, which is something you lose when you become paralyzed. That day three amputee women who had raced as a team that day to support Jimmy told us after the event that when someone gets injured, their insurance covers a walking around leg or an everyday wheelchair but nothing having to do with sport is covered by insurance because it is considered a ‘luxury item’, which we thought was ridiculous. We then got our 501(c)(3) status and created the Challenged Athletes Foundation in 1993 so that if anyone who had been injured needed a piece of adaptive equipment or training, coaching or travel expenses to stay in the game of life through sport CAF would always be there. Going into our 30th year we have now raised $147 million dollars and sent out over 40,000 grants to challenged athletes in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and 73 countries!
And now you have Operation Rebound.
In 2004 we created Operation Rebound as part of CAF to first help with our military heroes coming back injured from Iraq and Afghanistan and then expanded the reach of Operation Rebound to include all military and first responders.
And Operation Rebound has really taken off at specific events — like Oceanside, right?
In 2007 CAF and Operation Rebound became the official charity of Ironman 70.3 Oceanside and, besides having our challenged athletes participate in the event alongside our fundraisers, we also put on an adaptive surf clinic in Oceanside the morning after the race in partnership with the Ironman Foundation and some of the legends of triathlon have joined us to help out including Dave Scott, Lionel Sanders and Ben Kanute.
I know you’re looking for some additional athletes to race Oceanside as part of Operation Rebound. What would you say makes that experience appealing?
My feeling is that the sport of triathlon can be considered somewhat selfish as we all try to get all of our training in every week. When you race alongside a challenged athlete or for a challenged athlete you understand that their goal is exactly the same as yours: to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, but our athletes might need a handcycle, racing chair or other adaptive equipment to accomplish the same goal. Over the years Mark Allen, Peter Reid, Kathleen McCartney and Julie Moss, Cam Wurf, Dave Scott, Chrissie Wellington, Sam Long, Laura Siddall and so many other top pros have joined us at our San Diego Triathlon Challenge to support our athletes and CAF.
You mention that triathlon is often a selfish endeavor. Have you seen any change in attitude from athletes over the last few years to be more or less selfish?
What I mean by that is if you just swim, bike, run, lift weights and do yoga and it’s all about you, I don’t think that is sustainable. That is why you see so many triathletes raising money for great charities like CAF, coaching their kids sports teams and donating their time to help support the most important people in our sport, their local race directors. Using the sport and your commitment to it to help others and to give back changes everything!
Being at Camp Pendleton and having our challenged athletes who were injured while serving their country is something that makes Ironman 70.3 Oceanside such a special event. Athletes who join us as part of Team Operation Rebound on April 1st will be in store for a life changing experience that they will never forget!
Can you give us one of your favorite stories over the years from working with CAF?
My favorite story that connects CAF so perfectly with the sport of triathlon is Lauren Parker. Lauren was on stage with Mike Reilly and I at the 2015 Ironman World Championship after taking second place as an age grouper in the 25-29 age division. She went pro in 2016 and was getting ready for her first Ironman as a pro at Ironman Australia when, on April 18, 2017, both tired flatted at the same time while Lauren was on a bike ride and she was thrown into a guard rail and paralyzed from the waist down. She was 28 years old. CAF brought her to our San Diego Triathlon Challenge in October of 2017 and she met hundreds of other challenged athletes and realized that her life was not over. We helped her get a handcycle and racing chair and less than a year after her accident Lauren took a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games in Paratriathlon. In 2019 she won the ITU World Championship, in 2021 she took a silver at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo and since then she has son another ITU World Championship, Ironman 70.3 Worlds in St. George and then, in 2022, she won both of the Ironman World Championships in St. George and Kona. In Kona she went 12:21 and took two hours off of the Kona course record!
Last one: when can we expect the next big round of Breakfast's with Bob?
I’m so glad you asked! We’ll be at Clash Miami in mid-March and we love what Bill Christy and his team have brought to triathlon. From there we’ll be doing Breakfast with Bob from Oceanside leading into the Ironman 70.3 event which always has a great field since it’s sort of the season opener for the sport.
1, 4: Challenged Athletes Foundation
2: Tim Mantoani for CAF
3: Rich Cruse / CAF