Two years ago, Austin Crymes reached a milestone.
A young man with cerebral palsy, he completed a 5-mile race, even though it took him four hours and 10 minutes using a cane in each hand to help him walk.
As he neared the finish line, more than 20 others ran out cheering to cross the line with him.
“I was crying happy tears,” recalled his mother Shawna Crymes. “That was a really big deal.”
Crymes, now 25, is a member of the Nashville chapter of Achilles International, a nonprofit that pairs able-bodied runners with athletes with disabilities. The volunteers help the athletes participate in races in Nashville and around the country – races for people with disabilities and also those open to all. The Nashville chapter started five years ago.
The athletes, who range in age from middle school years to more than 70 years old, have disabilities ranging from vision impairments and blindness to spina bifida and multiple sclerosis, among others. The volunteers guide them in ways to meet their needs during training exercises and races. Some athletes use prosthetic legs, hand cycles, walkers, braces or tethers.
When Crymes participated in the 5-mile race two years ago, two guides met him at 5 a.m. in the morning, when it was still dark, to make sure he would have enough time to finish. The race was the annual Hope & Possibility race sponsored by Achilles and held on the Dominican Campus in Nashville. This year’s event, which has both a 1-mile race and 5-mile race, will be held Oct. 21.
The athletes and their guides train at the McCabe Park Community Center in Sylvan Park on Wednesday evenings and at various locations around Nashville on Saturday mornings. This week on Wednesday, Crymes walked outdoors at the community center with volunteer Amy Harris at his side. Harris made sure he didn’t fall and helped him with water breaks.
Crymes told The Tennessee Star that he likes the group because he gets a chance to exercise. But his favorite part, he said, is the friendships he has been able to make.
Harris became involved in Achilles as a volunteer through her daughter, Lizzy, who has cerebral palsy and is an athlete in the group. A program manager in the special education department at Vanderbilt University, Harris is well connected in the disabilities world. What she likes about Achilles is enjoying seeing the athletes meet personal goals, no matter how big or small. She also appreciates seeing so many volunteers come out to help.
“They’re here to give to someone else,” she said.
Harvey Freeman became a volunteer around three years ago after seeing the group at the McCabe Park Community Center while out walking his dog. He walked up to ask about the group and the next Wednesday he was back to volunteer. He recently helped Stephanie Zundel, a young blind woman and recent Vanderbilt graduate, compete in the Boston Marathon. Zundel holds onto the crook of Freeman’s arm as they run together.
Freeman’s former co-worker Will Sanford is one of the group’s newest volunteers.
“It’s a great cause,” Sanford said. “It puts things in perspective. It helps me realize how exercise is important to all of us.”
Theresa Khayyam, another blind athlete in the group, credits Achilles with helping her become a runner capable of competing in marathons. The 52-year-old retired civil engineer went blind in 2010 after suffering a viral infection.
Before going blind, Khayyam would watch runners from afar, but was not much of one herself. She became more motivated, ironically enough, after going blind. Her fear of living a sedentary lifestyle compelled her to get active.
When she first told people of her serious aspirations, they probably were shocked, she said. “I’m sure they were thinking, this lady can’t even run 50 feet.”
But all that has changed.
“I’m doing it now,” said Khayyam, who has run nine half-marathons and five full ones.
And she plans to keep going for as long as she can.