By Patti Putnicki
Imagine being 20 years old, strong, adventurous, “with your whole life ahead of you,” embarking on a cross-country motorcycle trip with a handful of your closest friends. Picture the freedom, feel the wind on your face, visualize the beauty around you—until the moment that changes everything. You slam into a car that pulls out in front of you, you’re ejected from your bike and you’re hurt so badly that no one expects you to live.
Somehow, you pull through. But, you’re told you’ll never be able to walk again.
That is a very real chapter in the story of Mike King, who, in 1978, went from able-bodied athlete to wheelchair bound; from a free spirit to an angry young man; thankful for life, but saddened by what he thought his life had become. For years, he tried to cope, but he floundered.
“I was angry and depressed for years. But, with the help of my family, my friends and my faith, the depression eventually lifted. I became more independent, started college and even began to travel. But, something was still missing,” said Mike King, co-founder and executive director of Powered to Move. “I was very physically active before the accident, participating in all kinds of sports. After the crash, other than weightlifting, I didn’t have an outlet.”
After King returned from a trip to Brazil, his father asked what his next goal was.
“I told him that I was going to push my wheelchair across the United States. I honestly don’t know where the idea came from; it literally popped out of my mouth,” Mike said. “I hadn’t pushed a racing chair as much as a mile at that point. But I was determined.”
After discovering that two men had already wheeled from the west coast to the east coast, King wanted his journey to be something different. So, he decided to push from Fairbanks, Alaska to Washington D.C., and do it in 120 days.
After extensive training and surrounded by a support team of family and friends, King set off on his aptly named “Challenge of a Lifetime” in 1985. This wheelchair trek was his personal mission to prove what he could do, that he could still be an athlete, regardless of what had been taken away.
“I trained hard and thought I was ready. Everything was planned out,” he said.
But the first few days proved more grueling than anticipated. The inclines were tough, and King covered less ground than originally planned. Even though his support team was always nearby in the van, King was out there alone—still very isolated from the world he hoped to connect with through this journey.
Amazingly, it was a group of local high school students who helped turn things around.
“One day, a group of high school students came out and rode along side me, on their bikes. That companionship made a huge difference,” Mike said. “They asked me a million questions as we went along. Through it all, they helped me forget about what was behind me, and focus on what was ahead. I went 60 miles that day.”
Every day, the momentum built, with more people, more interaction, until King reached his seemingly impossible goal, wheeling in front of the Capitol just 120 days after the trek began. In many ways, that end was really the beginning of his story. All of a sudden, his world, once again, had possibilities.
From Wheelchair Athlete to Champion for a Cause
Soon after the D.C. trip, King became a sought-after motivational speaker, with a book chronicling that historic trek. He became a decorated international wheelchair athlete, traveling worldwide to compete. When he wasn’t competing, he worked at his family’s farm-turned-18-hole-golf-course in Atglen, Pennsylvania. Life was good. But, by 2006, it was time for a change.
“I liked working at the golf course, but I wanted more. I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life,” Mike said.
So, he started working with Joni and Friends, an organization that provides ministry, summer camps and services to individuals impacted by disabilities. It’s also where he met his future wife, Sharyn Brautigan, who, at the time, was a Dallas-based fundraiser and program coordinator for the organization.
It wasn’t exactly love at first site.
“One of our co-workers tried to fix us up, although I had no inkling that it was a set up. Mike was so shy that he didn’t say a word to me that first meeting,” said Sharyn Brautigan King, co-founder and operations director for Powered to Move. “But, when we met again four months later, he got over that initial shyness, and sparks flew. We started dating, I eventually moved to Pennsylvania and we got married the following year.”
In 2013, “because you can’t keep a Texas girl away,” the Kings set out on their next big adventure: moving back to Dallas and co-founding Powered to Move, an 501(c)(3) non-profit organization designed to give persons with intellectual and physical disabilities the opportunity to participate in local road races, either as a hand cyclist or with help from an able-bodied team.
“When you participate in races, you’re not competing against other people—you race against yourself. There’s a camaraderie; a social interaction,” Mike said. “Although wheelchair races and events created specifically for athletes with disabilities are great, they’re not enough. Able-bodied races are really community events; however, people with disabilities are often shut out because they either don’t have the adaptive equipment, or they can’t navigate the course on their own. That creates a real social isolation, and that’s what we wanted to change with Powered to Move.”
The Wingman Racing Program Brings Athletes Together
Powered to Move’s Wingman Racing Program enables individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities to participate at local 5Ks, fun runs and, soon, half-marathons, with the assistance of Wingmen—able-bodied runners who push or guide athletes through the race.
“Typically, we have two or three Wingmen per athlete, switching off between pushing that athlete in an adaptive jogger, and running ahead of the jogger to clear the path, look out for obstacles and guide the team through the crowd,” Mike said. “If the athlete has cognitive disabilities, the Wingman team walks or runs with that person, keeping the athlete hydrated, safe and on course. We provide the training, the adaptive equipment and pair the teams together, based on each other’s ability.”
The idea has been embraced by running organizers, athletes and able-bodied runners alike.
“When I started contacting race organizers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I was thrilled to find out that 90 percent of them were very open to the concept and encouraged our participation. But, I was surprised that most were new to the concept—particularly in a metropolitan area of this size,” Sharyn said. “That confirmed that there’s a real need for what we’re doing here.”
Powered to Move’s Wingman volunteers span the range from recreational joggers to elite runners and triathletes. All are eager to broaden the running community that’s such a big part of their lives.
Julie Latvatalo Smith first read about Powered to Move on a running club’s Facebook page—and this racing enthusiast and fitness entrepreneur was instantly moved to volunteer.
“There’s a collective energy at a race that’s absolutely contagious, whether that race has 1,000 runners or 15,000. Being fit enough to participate is enough motivation for a lot of us to get up at the crack of dawn and do the hard work so we can have fun at the events,” explained Smith, president of dorphs, a Dallas-based fitness training and events company. “I loved the fact that Powered to Move’s mission is making that same wonderful experience accessible to everyone; that wheelchair athletes and persons with intellectual disabilities can ‘run,’ side-by-side abled-bodied racers. By volunteering, I can give other people that same joy I experience at these events. Being a Wingman adds more meaning to something I love.”
Every race, the interest and participation grows.
“Right after our July 5th race, a dad—he was a runner—came over and said that he had always wanted to race with his daughter, but didn’t have the equipment or help,” Sharyn said. “I think people often forget how much the family is affected, not just the disabled person. The family is isolated from the community, too. We make it possible for entire families to be physically active together, and reengage with the community. We take away the barriers.”
With few exceptions, both athletes and Wingmen have the same question as soon as they finish that first race. And that’s: “When can we do this again?”
Power Rides Help Newly Injured Athletes Get Back on the Fitness Track
Powered to Move also offers opportunities to athletes who want to compete on their own, or, as King once did, are struggling to stay physically active although confined to a chair.
“We’ve started a hand cycle team with monthly rides, who also participate in racing events,” Mike said. “This has been an opportunity for people who participated in sports prior to their injuries to find a way to compete again.“
Even if that means competing against themselves.
“We have all kinds of people and skill levels on our team. There is the advanced group, and we also have people like Matt, a new cyclist who has cerebral palsy,” Mike said. “It’s an effort to push, and he’s still building his speed and endurance. He’s not the fastest, but that’s not what’s important. It’s all about personal best, and getting better every year.”
Many times, the biggest barrier is not fear or limitations, but the cost of equipment.
“If you’re able bodied and want to stay physically active, you can buy a cheap bike or an affordable gym membership. But if you have a disability, physical fitness is a costly proposition,” Sharyn said.
Case in point: hand cycles start at around $3,000 or more, which often makes this equipment unattainable for the people who need it most. That’s why Powered to Move offers a grant program that helps athletes purchase adaptable equipment—awarded, based on financial need, after the athlete is sure he or she is committed to pursuing the sport.
“I’m fortunate enough to have spent 30 years in sports, so I have some older equipment that’s still good, though it’s not the latest technology. We loan this out to novice cyclists to see if hand cycling is something they would really enjoy,” Mike said. “If it is, and they meet certain criteria, and we have available funding, they’re eligible for a grant.”
For some, this opportunity helps them through the tough times, and can be as transformational as King’s legendary trek to D.C.
“I know that I was depressed after my accident—I think that’s true for anyone who goes from able-bodied to quadriplegic or paraplegic. Although sports weren’t the only thing that helped me move through my depression, becoming physically active helped fill the empty spots in my life. Instead of focusing on what I couldn’t do anymore, I was able to really enjoy what I was able to do,” Mike explained. “That’s a real gift, particularly when you’re adjusting to a different kind of life.”
King personally mentors many new cyclists, both training with them in power rides and accompanying them on their first race. Most importantly, he shows them what is possible.
A 30-year Anniversary. A Look to the Future.
Although just one year old, Powered to Move has accomplished a lot, with a full race schedule, a growing group of Wingmen and athletes, and expanding community awareness. Up until this point, the organization has grown through word-of-mouth and help from running clubs in the area. While Powered to Move has made great strides, the Kings are quick to point out that they have miles to go to bring their vision to fruition.
“Our goal is to expand our pool of volunteers—we need both Wingmen and non-runners who can help with logistics on site. We’d love to get to a point where we had a network of Wingmen in different cities throughout Texas that we could pair with athletes remotely,” Mike said. “We want to build on what we’ve started—adding more events—even marathons—awarding more grants and expanding our ministry so more people benefit from the experience. To accomplish this, we have to grow our funding, sponsorships and donor support.”
The Kings are also planning a big Powered to Move event for 2015, the 30-year anniversary of Mike’s “Challenge of a Lifetime,” that gutsy endeavor that started it all. The journey that proved, with determination, faith and hard work, people can accomplish anything. Sometimes they need a little encouragement. Sometimes they need a little help. Like those high school riders who helped King so many years ago, Powered to Move gives them both.
“People with disabilities just want to experience the joys that come with being active, the satisfaction of reaching a personal goal, the sheer fun of being outdoors, riding a bike or hiking a hill,” Sharyn said. “We’re here to make sure they can, with a little help and willingness from some able-bodied friends.”
No matter who crosses the finish line first, everyone wins.
For more information on Powered to Move, to volunteer, donate, apply for grants or to register as an athlete, visit the web site or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.