Tampa, Fl - Thanks to a new partnership between the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association and the Florida Chapter of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), the once hugely popular 15K Elite Wheelchair Division is back!
On Saturday, February 9, at 7:25 a.m., two dozen of the best wheelchair racers in the country will line up wheel-to-wheel for an epic battle worthy of the Gasparilla tradition. These world-class “wheelers” will streak along Tampa’s beautiful Bayshore Boulevard ahead of thousands of 15K runners. At stake? More than $10,000 in prize money.
Through CAF’s Race for a Reason program, able-bodied runners who register to race in any of the four Publix Super Markets Gasparilla Distance Classic Race Weekend events are also able to join Team CAF Gasparilla 2008. Their pledges to raise a minimum of $100 each for CAF will allow the Wheelchair Division to be part of every future Gasparilla event. Anyone interested in joining the CAF team can do so by going to www.raceforareason08.kintera.org/gasparilla08.
For more than a decade, the 15K elite wheelchair race was one of the biggest attractions during the February Race Weekend. In 1997, more than 75 of the top racers in the world wrapped up a week of warm-weather training for the Boston Marathon with a no-holds-barred assault on the wide, level and near-perfect 15K wheelchair course.
However race organizers lost those competitors when they discontinued the prize purse, hoping instead to redirect more money to local charities. Despite their good intentions, the move put an unexpected end to the wheelchair event, which has been missing from Gasparilla race weekend ever since – at least until now.
“No question, the Gasparilla 15K was absolutely one of the coolest races anywhere,” says Adam Bleakney, a two-time Paralympian, Silver Medal winner and Head Coach of the University of Illinois wheelchair track & road racing team. “We all loved coming to Tampa in February and being part of the festivities.”
For years, the Illini program has been considered the finest in the country, and Bleakney will be bringing some of his athletes with him to Tampa. Even at 31, he is considered the favorite to snag the top spot among this elite field, and is training hard to qualify for a trip to this fall’s 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.
But for now, these elite athletes can renew their rivalries, and restart a tradition that will hopefully continue for years to come.
“We’re so excited to have CAF working with us to make this happen,” says Susan Harmeling, the Executive Director of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Association that puts on the event. “With the return of competitive wheelchair racing on the streets of Tampa, the community will be made more aware of how participating in events like Gasparilla’s 15K or 5K can provide those with physical challenges a tremendous boost in self-confidence and purpose in their lives.”
Lew Friedland, founder of CAF’s new Florida Chapter, said his group has been successful raising funds at some of the big events in the state, but was looking for a good way to spend some of what they have raised since their startup in late 2006.
“When we approached Susan, we came not to ask for money, but to ask what we could do to help out the race,” says Lew Friedland, founder of CAF’s newborn Florida Chapter. “When she told us what happened after the 1997 race, trying to re-create a competitive wheelchair division was a perfect fit for us.”
In addition to the 24 elite competitors lined up to race here by former world champion Scot Hollonbeck, six current members of the BlazeSports disabled sports program, under Sports Coordinator Andy Chasanoff, will also be competing, some for the very first time.
“If we can get more of these local kids interested in athletics, we think that is a win-win for everyone,” says Friedland. “CAF is here to help those individuals reach goals they never dreamed they could achieve. We’re finding they can actually accomplish anything they put their mind to, and it is impressive to see.”
photo Getty Images
photo Getty Images