Last week we chatted with Funky Dude Bob Babbitt right after a very busy weekend in San Diego, and today we are continuing our interview with the man of many talents and passions. Enjoy part 2 of the conversation with Bob.
Slowtwitch: Do you ever get stumped?
Bob: I have watched Rudy grow up from the age of 7. When he finished Ironman Arizona on November 22nd, I couldn’t talk and I could hardly breath. That kid changes lives and he is the toughest person I know. This summer we were out training for Hawaii and we were riding 70 miles out in the east county of San Diego. This particular ride has about 4,000 feet of climbing in it and, because he’s missing both legs above the knee, he can’t get out of the saddle. All of a sudden, during the hilliest part of the ride, he couldn’t keep his prosthetics in his pedals. So he’d start to climb and the right leg would come free. He’d pedal with the other leg until that one would come loose. Then he would coast down the hill, clip in, and try it again. He was doing one legged hill climbs with just his glute muscles for the next 20 miles. He probably did 75 hill repeats that way and he never complained and whined. He just sucked it up and made lemonade. The kid is bulletproof. So he missed the cutoff time in Kona by eight minutes? Cool. I’ll go knock it out of the park in six weeks. Don’t ever question or doubt Rudy. He’ll prove you wrong. Also, don’t ever go and play paintball with him. I made that mistake about 13 or 14 years ago. Without his legs on, he’s 3 feet tall with a submachine gun. If he’s behind a coke can you can’t hit him and he’s busy spelling out his name across your butt. It’s a tad humbling.
ST: You were a co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and you are still very much a driving force. Tell us more about that passion of yours.
Bob: The passion is the same across the board. I like to see athletes have the opportunity to be athletes. Through CAF, we can get anyone and everyone the equipment they need to stay in the game of life. And I love that the phrase challenged athlete now has a whole different meaning than it did when we started CAF 16 years ago. Paul Martin, a single below knee amputee, was in Kona running the marathon a number of years ago. As he ran by two German athletes, one said to the other “Challenged Athlete My Ass!”
That to me is the ultimate compliment. Rudy swam 60 minutes at Ironman Arizona despite breaking his goggle strap right before the start. He passed over 100 people in the run. He has run a sub six-minute mile and set the world record for the 200 IM with a 2:35. Give that a try with no legs!
ST: What did you say to him in Kona when he wasn’t able to start the marathon?
Bob: I told him that he should be proud of his effort. Hey, just getting out there and giving it a shot after spending three weeks dealing with a leg infection was incredibly brave. He went as hard as he could for as long as he could and came up short. That’s why sport is so special. You don’t succeed one day and the next day it’s a brand new world and you can give it another shot. I learned that from Rudy. He spent the entire night at the finish line in Kona taking in the vibe and understanding how special it would be to finish that race. Rudy isn’t just racing for himself, he’s a role model for everyone out there with a disability. We knew fairly early that Rudy was simply dropped out of the sky, that he had that “it” factor to be a star.
I knew it when he was about 13 or so. We were at the San Diego Marathon and Rudy was signing posters. A dad was in line pushing his son in a wheelchair. The dad signaled me and asked me to come over. He told me that his son had just recently been confined to a wheelchair and was really depressed. I went back and told Rudy the story, but didn’t give him any clues as to what to write.
I’ll never forget this. Rudy wrote:
“Jimmy, I look forward to seeing you at the Paralympic Games in Athens.”
Jimmy took the poster, pushed off and then he and his dad both took a look at what Rudy had written, and then they embraced. Rudy exemplifies hope every second of every day. And because he has been on Oprah, Nightline, Dateline and the Disney Channel and now NBC, anyone and everyone recognizes him.
We were in a Hawaii a number of years ago at our Hawaii Revisited event where we go back to the original Ironman course for a CAF fundraiser. We had Rudy there teamed up with Dave Scott and One Arm Willie Stewart.
Rudy and Dave are going to swim together for the 2.4 miles and then Dave is going to ride 112 and Willie will do the run.
All week long, everywhere we went, people would run out of stores and want pictures with Rudy. They would hand their cameras to Dave Scott to take their photos with Rudy. They had no idea who Dave was…. We laughed and told Dave that he had just entered Rudyville, that now he was just another guy.
Then Dave went to the local tri shop to buy some PowerBars. The guy at the store didn’t recognize Dave and kept going on and on about how good an age group guy he was in the islands. All Dave wants to do is get his PowerBars and get out of the store. He goes to pay and there is a poster on the wall behind the cash register. It’s a signed poster of Rudy! Dave thought it was hilarious. Another day in Rudyville!
We all had a good laugh over that one.
ST: You finished the Hawaiian Ironman in 1980 under slightly different circumstances, so you are certainly qualified to give advice about becoming an Ironman.
Bob: Hey, I thought you did the thing in two days, that you swam 2.4, rode 56, camped out, rode 56 back the next day and ran the marathon. I had panniers and tent and sleeping bag on my bike, solid rubber tires because I had not idea how to change a flat tire, a fuzzy raccoon seat cover plus a Radio Shack radio on the handlebars.
The bike had been in a fire and I bought it for $75 at a police auction. I had a huge beard, did all of my swimming in a 120 length to the mile pool with Ned and did the bike ride in a long sleeve shirt packed with Hawaiian Sweet Bread plus beige shorts and I was the only guy in the history of the Ironman to actually wear a leather belt on race day. I am very proud of that.
If I could finish that race, anyone on the planet can. That has been the key to my long career. My job is to be the slow guy so that the fast guys actually look fast. Without me in the race, if it’s all fast guys, no one watching at home really knows how fast the fast guys go. Us slow people are definitely under appreciated.
ST: You still compete, correct?
Bob: Yep…still going slow. My philosophy comes from a 100 year old gentleman I interviewed after he won the masters swim world championship in his division. I asked him the key to his success:
“If you can’t beat ‘em, outlive ‘em!”
That’s my goal.
ST: How long have you been working with Mike Reilly in Kona?
Bob: I think we’ve been doing the carbo and awards dinners together since about 1990. We’ve also hosted our Competitor Awards together for 18 years now.
ST: When did the Elvis stunt start?
Bob: Stunt? Dude…..250 Elvi running Rock N Roll Las Vegas and 1600 folks coming to our Elvis Karaoke pasta party the night before the race. That ain’t no stunt….that’s a movement!
There is nothing better than running a race decked out head to toe in white lycra. We have people traveling from all over the world to join in on the fun.
ST: Do you follow any other sports?
Bob: Are there other sports? Yesterday Craig Alexander was over at the house and my wife was trying to watch football. I popped in a DVD I put together with highlights of every Dave Scott Ironman race from 1980 through 1994. I think Craig liked it as much as I did. I like sports where people endure, where they have to deal with their inner demons to get from point A to point B. To me that is the essence of sport.
ST: Can you share with us some of your food likes and dislikes?
Bob: Pop Tarts are the world’s most perfect food. They sit in your bike jersey pocket toasting up to perfection on a hot summer day and then they just energize the taste buds. I do have a suggestion, though. They should put frosting on both sides, don’t you think?
ST: What was the last book you read?
Bob: 30 Years of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. It’s riveting and the pictures are unbelievable. I forget the author’s name, but the guy is a genius.
ST: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Bob: Probably in the same transition area I was in 5,10, 15 and 20 years ago. I love to race and I love what I do. Every day is an opportunity to meet someone new and find out what makes them tick.
ST: Is there anything else we should know about you?
Bob: I have this huge picture right behind me from the start of the 1979 Ironman. To me, it is the ultimate image because in it is Gordon Haller, the first champion, Tom Warren, the second champion and the guy who really gave Ned and I the info we needed to even attempt the Ironman, Lyn Lemaire, the first woman to finish Ironman and Cowman, the first guy to get disqualified for impaling a fellow swimmer with his horns. Actually, I made that last part up.
But what I love about that shot is that everyone is poised on the beach to jump into the barely known since only 12 people had finished the year before. The palm trees are bent over so you know the wind is howling and this group of 15 is going to give this Ironman thing a go. Gordon Haller represents the past, Tom Warren and Lyn Lemaire represent the future and Cowman represents all of the Ironcharacters who would follow in his very large hoof prints. Completing Ironman was a defining moment in my life. It gave me a business card that let me know that when times get bad with family work or life, I can dig down and deal with it. Every time I walk into my office the first thing I see is that photo. It reminds me how blessed I am to be doing what I’m doing.