After Ironman went public in August at the Nasdaq headquarters in New York City, there was still big news to be shared that day. Amidst a chaotic schedule, the Ironman team had a short window to act and make another announcement.
With the group was Roderick Sewell, a double amputee who had made a name for himself on Team USA as a swimmer and dabbled in other endurance sports, including his first half Ironman in April. After speaking at other Ironman events before, he was invited to come out as Ironman was in his city, but he never expected what came next.
Ironman CEO Andrew Messick stood over Sewell, praising him for all he had done to inspire people in his life, and at the end, he had one question for Sewell, who had both legs amputated before his second birthday due to severe deformities: “Would you like to come race with us?”
The race Messick was referring to was Kona—the most prestigious Ironman event on the planet—and also the annual world championship. Competitors typically have to qualify at events throughout the year, but a few get the opportunity via invite.
Sewell was one of them, and as he shook Messick’s hand to accept the offer, another thought came to his mind.
“I was thinking, I got to get on a bike,” Sewell told Runner’s World. “I wasn’t expecting it at all, but when he told me I was going to be there, I was so excited and knew I wanted to start training immediately.”
The bike is Sewell’s weakness out of the trio of events needed to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run. The strength to cover that distance on a handcycle was not a muscle group he used often, but he had one thing in his favor: endurance. That’s been his specialty since he first got running blades as a 10-year-old while growing up in San Diego in 2002.
The blades came with a high price tag, though. A single blade cost $50,000 at the time, and his mother raised him alone. For a son who needed a blade for each leg, the price was well out of reach. His mother filed for unemployment just to be able to get his prosthetics. In the process, though, he and his mom became homeless, living in and out of shelters from ages 8 to 12.
But Sewell didn’t let that stop him. With his running blades, he took the opportunity to try every athletic endeavor that he could, from wheelchair basketball to getting in the pool when he was 10.
“I was terrified of the water,” Sewell said. “When I got into that, though, that’s when I realized I was a distance guy. I started late at 16, but I had a lot of fun in the water.”
The pool is where Sewell thrived the most. When he moved to Alabama and ended up going to the University of North Alabama, Sewell joined various recreational leagues, and in a few years, he found himself on Team USA competing at the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Swim Trials and 2017 world championships.
With impeccable endurance, Sewell found interest in others sports, including running, and he was always looking for that next challenge. That’s when he found this past April, which he finished in around 5 hours, 6 minutes.
Though impressive, that is barely half of what Sewell was signing up for when he accepted the Kona entry. However, he knows what it would mean for not just himself, but other amputee athletes to complete a race like this.
“You’d be amazed how many people ask me if I need help,” Sewell said. “Sometimes, people need help, but I’m doing Kona. It’s all about how you see yourself. If I see myself as disabled, I might need help. But if I see myself like the rest of these guys out there competing, who knows what you’ll be capable of.”
He realized there was a small training window to prepare when he got his entry. Immediately, he jumped into action.
His first move was not only to get riding, but to get a handcycle. The helped him out, fitting the double, above-the-knee amputee with a kneeler-style ride.
“We’ve been monitoring his training,” Messick told Runner’s World. “The handcycle is the hardest part. It is super taxing on the body, so his biggest test will be on the bike.”
Sewell put in major mileage each week on the bike, focusing his training around shorter weekday rides and weekend long rides of 80 to 90 miles at his peak. Then, he’d mix in running two to three times a week with a long run on the weekend. His longest was 16 miles.
As for swimming, that he knew he had in the bag. He spent time in the pool, but the least out of the three disciplines.
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Despite the shorter training block, Sewell feels prepared for the race on October 12. The nerves are certainly still in his system, yet just like any challenge in his life, he’s ready to fight to the finish.
While Sewell won’t be the first double amputee to compete in the Ironman World Championships—Scott Rigsby was the first, finishing the race in 2007—he is ready to drive the point home that he can take on anything when attempting the less than a week after Kona.
“We want to do this for the next generation, so people don’t see us as needing special treatment, but rather as athletes competing at the highest level,” he said. “A wave is coming, so this is just the beginning.”
Gear & News Editor Drew covers a variety of subjects for Runner’s World and Bicycling, and he specializes in writing and editing human interest pieces while also covering health, wellness, gear, and fitness for the brand.