I first became aware of Roderick Sewell last month at the Ho’ala Ironman Training Swim, the open water race in Kona a week before the Ironman held over Ironman’s swim course. After the turnaround, about halfway back to shore, a set of muscular arms appeared on my left, pulling more water than my arms could.
Most Slowtwitchers know of Rudy Garcia Tolson. Roderick was born much as Rudy was; both are above-the-knee amputees. Roderick grew up with Rudy as a mentor, and last month achieved what no one has done: Be the first double above-the-knee amputee to complete the Hawaiian Ironman.
I spoke with Roderick a few weeks ago, catching him between coaching duties at Tailwind Endurance in New York City, where he works and where he is coached by Earl Watson and Brian Hammond.
Slowtwitch: Let us start with your most recent race. I believe you were the first to complete the Hawaiian Ironman, inside the requisite cut-off, among those who’ve raced in your class. Do I have that right? And can you tell us what that class is?
Roderick Sewell: You kind of had it right; but it’s not a class. We’ve never had a double-above-amputee run the course in Kona. The reason I say that is I used blades. They have the handcycle division. It's the kneelers, the recumbant handcycle and then they go to the wheelchair.
ST: You didn’t use a wheelchair.
RS: No, I used my running blades. That’s what it was. Showing that we can have a double-above-amputee, on running blades, finishing the course.
ST: Was it important to do that? to make a statement?
RS: Oh yeah.
ST: To stick one in the ground for people who are double above-the-knee amputees? In terms of your capacity? Because I found out what your capacity is in the swim. But just in general? Was this a statement you were making?
RS: It was definitely a statement. Obviously for amputees worldwide, but this is for anybody. Ten years ago Rudy tried this course. He was the first bilateral amputee to try this course. But unfortunately he didn’t do well on the bike. Because of that he made sure I was working hard to get that bike course finished. Once I made that cutoff, I was less worried.
ST: You use a handcycle when you ride?
RS: A kneeler handcycle, yes sir.
ST: So you did it pretty much the hardest way you could do it, every leg?
[Roderick laughed at this point. It should be noted he could’ve finished the bike course 2 hours earlier had he chosen a different tech.]
RS: Yeah, that’s what Bob [Babbitt] told me.
ST: How did that race go? Swim, bike and run? Can you take us through it?
RS: The swim was my favorite part. During the swim I didn’t realize I’d be alone – our group goes off 5min after the pro women. Swimming is kind of my forte, I was looking forward to it, I got in the zone, it took me a little longer. It took me an hour and 9 minutes.
ST: Obviously I know you can swim that fast. Or faster. Tell me about the bike.
RS: The bike was our main concern.
ST: What part does Rudy play?
RS: Rudy is my handler in more ways than one. He’s the guy I listen to during the race. If anybody has anything they say to me, they have to say it to him and he refers them to me. So we speak with one voice. Earl Walton, owner of Tailwind, would talk to Rudy, and then to me if I need to know it directly.
Getting me prepared for the bike was Brian Hammond. The bike was the shortest amount of time I had to train; the bike was all brand new. Brian had me doing 90-mile rides and 80-mile rides every weekend.
ST: Tell us how the bike ride went once you got out there.
RS: The first 30 miles were not that bad. It was very windy going up to Hawi, without a doubt. When I took my hand off to get a drink, that was the toughest part. I heard a lot of people got affected by the wind this year. The wind didn’t bother me until we got to Hawi, I couldn’t take my hand off. I could never stop pedaling, or I’d be full stop. I couldn’t get my food. Coming back from Hawi was better. I was ready to get to the run at that point.
ST: You were relieved when you got back and you knew the time?
RS: I knew the time, I knew where I was. Once I was almost in and I knew I had time, I stretched my back a little and focused on getting ready for the run.
ST: How did the run go?
RS: The run was good. The first few miles were a warmup, until mile-9. I was consistent. At mile-11 I started walking; I had to walk to get my stomach settled. To regroup. I didn’t walk long. I started walking at mile-11, and at 11.5 I started running again, until I got to mile-16 when I started walking. Enjoying the sights. Regrouped again. Got to mile-20. From there until 24 all I could do was walk.
ST: What about the finish? How was that?
RS: I felt like the last mile was so long. But it was good. Everybody’s cheering you on. Everything you went through is going out the window.
ST: What have been your achievements so far and what are your Olympic goals in both swimming and perhaps in multisport?
RS: I’ve been on 3 national teams, Pan Pacs, Pan Am Games, 2017 World Championships. My next goal is Tokyo. I’m looking at Swimming and possibly paracyling. Haven’t decided on paracyling yet.
ST: There’s no class that makes sense for you in triathlon? Pardon, I probably should know this.
RS: In triathlon, my class was taken out. They don’t have that class available in Paralympics. The way I ride my bike and run, it’s not a typical category.
ST: What do you see for yourself as you look into the future, both athletically, and in your business career?
RS: I definitely see myself being involved in health and wellness. I want to do more motivational speaking. And the small business we’re running out here, Tailwind Endurance. Hopefully make it a franchise. Lots of countries, especially in Europe, where it gets cold and people still want to train indoors. Hopefully see that take off. I want to do more with Challenged Athletes Foundation. Obviously they have a big big base in California. The West Coast. But not much of a big base out here. [Below is, from left, Bob Babbitt, Roderick Sewell, Rudy Garcia Tolson, and Earl Watson from Tailwind Endurance, at the finish of the Hawaiian Ironman.]
ST: And where are you right now?
RS: New York City.
ST: You and Rudy both are in New York City.
RS: Yes sir.
ST: What do you want others to know? Or to do? In broad strokes? And what I mean is, describe the fire in your belly. I don’t know that everyone has that fire, but I suspect you do. So, let fly Mr. Sewell.
RS: Funny, we just had our [CAF] triathlon in San Diego, over the weekend after Kona. One of the shirts that Nike was passing out was a shirt that said Equality. Being an African American, being a double amputee, equality has never been the most, the highest thing I wanted for anybody like me, or in my situation. It’s finally a chance to provide that platform – to get the word out about CAF, and about what others need to feel, or to be, to be equal.
ST: Is what animates you specifically people who have the similar physical challenges you’ve faced growing up or is it drilled down to African Americans who find themselves in this position, both the parents and the child?
RS: Not necessarily just my circumstance – my physical disability – they don’t have to be an amputee to understand my way of doing or wanting equality. It can be any disability. Those are who I’m standing up for. Just like I would stand up for anybody who was oppressed. Whoever it might be. You don’t have to abide by the rules society puts on you. You can set your own pace. Set your own rules. And see what happens.