These Volunteers Are Helping Hands For Athletes With Disabilities

In this Nov. 5, 2017 photo, a marathoner reaches the 19th-mile mark. (Photo by: Allison Weintraub)

Andy Shamsi, 62, has been volunteering with Achilles International for over a year and a half now. He travels from New Jersey to Central Park twice a week to guide athletes with disabilities as they complete meticulously planned out training regimes.

Shamsi is part of a volunteering initiative with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that helps train and encourage athletes with disabilities to take part in various marathons around the country. The New York City chapter is made up of experienced runners, first-timers, retired professionals and fitness enthusiasts all lending a helping hand. The volunteers with Achilles are like-minded people who come together and help out the dedicated athletes who are running the world-famous New York City marathon.

“It really gets to me, seeing how courageous these people are, that they put all the obstacles behind them and do the best they can. They’re just willing to take the challenge,” said Shamsi. He helps train and guide athletes with disabilities and sometimes runs with them.

The group’s training sessions happen in Central Park on Tuesdays and Saturdays, Prospect Park in Brooklyn on Thursdays and Flushing Park in Queens on Sundays. The athletes are divided into groups of five to train for five, six and seven mile stretches of walking or running and then paired up with volunteers.

Volunteers are required to be in good shape and have a basic understanding of the training required to run marathons. “We regularly have 20 to 30 runners, 10 to 15 walkers, so the New York City chapter itself has over 200 runners combined,” said Michael Anderson, director of the New York City chapter. Over time, volunteers learn everyone’s different ability levels and work at their own pace to complete their stretch for the day.

When asked how they first found out about Achilles and its volunteer program, most people talked about seeing the group training in the park and eventually, curiosity got the better of them. Many of them simply walked in on a training session and enquired about the cause before jumping in.

“Volunteering for a cause like this, it’s not something people think about,” said Zack Maxim, 23, who was initially a part of the New York Road Runners group and used to clock in daily runs at Central Park before he came across the group. “But some of these people rely on a guide to get out and run and it’s something that needs to extend to all cities, schools and universities.” Maxim trains with an amputee who has previously completed several triathlons and full-length marathons.

On Sunday, Achilles International set up a cheering stand on the Pulaski Bridge, which connects Long Island City and Brooklyn. Some volunteers assisted the runners during the race, while others took to the stands to cheer on the strong-willed athletes and watch their hard work pay off.

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