A record group of 75 athletes with disabilities under the banner of Achilles International will participate in the ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon on Sunday, Jan. 27 in downtown Miami.
Achilles is a rehab sports program for people with disabilities, with focus on marathon achievement.
"They are all inspirations and each has an incredible story," says Achilles South Florida coordinator and Palm Beach resident ChrisHolcomb, himself a quadriplegic.
Achilles athletes have long had a presence in the ING Miami Marathon and Half Marathon, and the record group includes 15-20 international athletes from Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, France, Italy and Canada. The Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans will also have a team entered in the event.
While the majority of the Achilles athletes will be participating in the marathon, several will compete in the half marathon and in the Tropical 5K, Saturday's preliminary race from Watson Island to South Beach.
Ileana Rodriguez, Andre Hunt and Alex Lutin will be among the expected 35 Floridians that make up the Central Florida, Treasure Coast and South Florida Achilles teams.
Rodriguez, a 100-meter breaststroke finalist in the London Paralympics, is hoping her success translates from the pool to the pavement as she participates in her first marathon.
Hunt and Lutin were both paralyzed in motorcycle accidents, and have found hand cycling aids their life in staying active and fit.
The Cuban-born Rodriguez was paralyzed as a 13-year-old after the onset of an AVM spinal condition ( an abnormal tangle of blood vessels on, in or near the spinal cord). She moved to the United States two years later and was invited by a Palmetto High School coach to join the school's swim team.
"I remember the coach asking if I wanted to join the team," says Rodriguez, now 26 and a South Miami resident. "And I said 'I'm in a wheelchair.'
He replied 'I'm asking you to swim, not to walk.'"
Rodriguez became a three-year Panther letter winner in the 500-meter freestyle event.
After graduating from Florida International University, Rodriguez revisited the sport in 2008. She trained for two years, and then made the US Paralympic swimming team, spending nearly three years at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Now, Rodriguez is training for her first marathon.
"I always wanted to participate in a big event here in Miami," she says. "People are asking me why I don't start with the half marathon and work up to the marathon. I told them 'I don't do anything half.'"
Hunt, who celebrated his 50th birthday this month, saw his life change in a moment. Returning from a day at the beach 15 years ago, the newly-divorced father was on his way to pick up his son.
At the off ramp to State Road 441 from Interstate 595, Hunt hit a patch of sand. The guardrail took off his leg and when he landed, he was instantly a paraplegic. "Believe me, at any moment your life can change," says the Davie resident.
"Achilles welcomed me with open arms," he says of his introduction to hand cycling three years ago. "I love it. It was the first time I'd ever even seen a hand cycle. It really gave me a sense that I could do something. I feel really good about myself and it makes me feel 'normal' in a way."
Hunt finished second in December's Palm Beach Marathon, and has nearly 20 marathons under his belt.
The single dad is a field supervisor for event security company Elite Services. At Miami Dolphin and Miami Hurricanes football games at Sun Life Stadium, Hunt is the disabled ramp supervisor. During Panther hockey games and concerts at the BB& T Center, he is the plaza level supervisor.
"I get a lot of handshakes," he says. "I'm just trying to live."
The victim of a hit-and-run driver on the Florida Turnpike on July 9, 2004, Lutin was thrown from his motorcycle and run over by three vehicles. Only 26 at the time, it took a year for him to recover from his injuries - but he would never walk again.
"You appreciate life more and you don't take anything for granted," says the Coral Springs resident. "It was a positive change in my life. I focus on the things that matter now."
Two years after the injury, Lutin started the Spinal Cord Injuries Support Group, which continues to be the largest support group in South Florida.
His involvement with the disabled community parlayed into a career with a medical equipment company; in his job he advises and assists newly-injured patients and their families in securing the type of equipment and supplies they will need as they transition into a very different environment.
Lutin, 34, is also a peer mentor in the Brain & Spinal Cord Injury program administered by the Florida Department of Health, meeting with newly-injured individuals to guide them through obtaining the necessary services to return to a level of functionality in the community.
Lutin, who is married with two children, met Holcomb several years ago, and quickly connected with Achilles. He has already participated in more than 20 marathons.
"The number one thing is after you rehab following your injury, you go home and you tend to stay there," he says. "Achilles helps us to get out and get moving."