At first glance it looked like your average triathlon training camp. On a conference-room table strewn with lunch leftovers, a thoughtful organizer had placed energy bars and gels out in baskets. An array of running shoes and water bottles decorated the floor, and the men and women milling about were muscular and lean.

It wouldn’t have taken an observer long, however, to see that this group of people had something other than their athletic passion in common. In addition to their colorful bike jerseys and running hats, each triathlete sported a prosthetic limb, some part of a leg, others a foot or an arm.

This past weekend, these 25 athletes—including eight wounded veterans—shared another experience. They participated in the country’s first-ever paratriathlete training camp of its kind, put on by the Challenged Athletes Foundation and four elite coaches (Paul Huddle of Multisports.com, Sergio Borges of Sergio Borges X Training, Mark Sortio of Multisport Performance Institute, and Peter Harsch, a USA Triathlon Certified coach). Over the course of the three-day camp, the athletes were shuttled back and forth between the conference center, a nearby high school pool and track, and San Diego’s many outdoor training spots to learn and practice a variety of new techniques.

CAF bike fit 2

Two athletes receive bike fit instruction

“You’re responsible for yourself; a professional fitter just gives you another set of eyes,” Mark Sortino, himself a certified fitter, says from the front of the room. He’s launching into a bike fit session with five of the athletes, who are perched on trainers in a neat row. Upstairs, Sergio Borges conducts running gait analysis with another small group, his instructions clear, even over the whirring treadmill. “Tell your body what you want it to do,” he says. “Your legs should always be underneath your body, kind of like when you’re pedaling on a bike.”

Chicago native Jean Draper listens intently. She lost the bottom part of her leg five years ago when an inexperienced driver trying to parallel park hit the gas pedal instead of the brake. Darper had been bent over, buckling her youngest child into a car seat, and didn’t see the out of control vehicle. Draper was a runner who had just started to dabble in sprint distance triathlons. Prosthetics helped her start running again three years ago, and then her husband pushed her to get back into triathlon, too. While racing her first Olympic-distance triathlon last year in New York, someone from CAF met Draper and invited her to be part of the camp.

“With the people they’re bringing in, it’s just this higher level of knowledge” Draper said of her experience at the camp so far. Even though last year she placed first in New York (in the ITU’s “TRI 5,” or below-knee amputee division) and third at the ITU World Championship in Australia, Draper says she still needs a great deal of instruction, especially on the bike. With only one morning under her belt, the blonde-haired mother of two said she’d already had a few realizations. “During this morning’s swim workout I was all of a sudden just like, ‘Oh my God, I get it.’” Draper, who says her injury has been an “emotional full-circle,” plans to race the Chicago Triathlon next weekend and the Chicago Marathon this fall.

Jean Draper

Jean Draper at the bike fitting seminar

Nick Roumonada, now 31, lost his left leg below the knee to bacterial meningitis at the age of 13. He ran short distances on a regular leg for a while before submitting a grant request for a proper running prosthetic. “I wanted to know how people continued to live active lives,” he said, a curiosity that eventually led him to where he is now as a budding triathlete, long-distance runner, and wheelchair basketball player for the New York Knicks.

Roumonada was a professional trumpet player for 10 years, but when a secondary injury prevented him from playing trumpet, he began to search for something to fill the void music had left. Now back in school for sales and marketing, he’s since fallen in love with the idea of how challenged athletes influence people. “We go out and we really put these gifts to use,” Roumonada said, who plans to race (as part of a relay team of 12) the Hood to Coast 200-mile foot race next weekend, and the Westchester Triathlon in September.

Photo by Jennifer Ward Barber

Nick Roumonada is all ears as well

Providing athletes with such gifts has been part of CAF’s mission since its first fundraiser in 1994. But this weekend’s camp started with a very specific vision to offer the athletes more in the way of instruction. “I realized at the championships in New York that people still had so many questions for me,” said Peter Harsch, 14-year CAF volunteer and director of prosthetics for the U.S. Navy. “Even the champs had questions almost like a first timer’s. Triathlon is scary for most of us, can you imagine having no arms, no legs?”

A conference call and a few months later, Harsch had a unique training camp on the table: one he says “brings together all of the pieces of the pie—mentorship, fit-certified bike fitting, Olympic swim coaches, and more.” He said the camp has also been stamped as the official paratriathlon camp for USA Triathlon.

Roy Perkins, Senior Director of Programs at CAF, jumped on the idea. He’d wanted to do such a camp for a long time, for the obvious reasons of helping the athletes excel, but also to help paratriathlon get the attention and respect it deserves. Perkins has also witnessed the power that challenged athletes have; citing a USA Triathlon survey from a few years ago on reasons why people get into the sport, he says that number three or four was “I saw a challenged athlete compete.” “These athletes’ level of dedication is so high—they aren’t getting the sponsorships and money. They’re doing it ‘pure,’ ” he said.

Over the course of the weekend, the 25 athletes will train, in Perkins’ words, “just like ‘normal’ triathletes.” They will have to make certain allowances for their body’s unique demands (technology, proper alignment, and potential prosthesis failure to name a few), but other than that, their training will closely mirror the sport the rest of us wrestle with—and love—every day. It will require the same commitment and attention, and fueled by the same type of courage—if not in slightly higher doses.

Feature Photos by Local Focus Photography