Challenge from a Champion

I loved to compete, so I threw myself into many activities, from debating at school to playing the piano. I graduated from high school and moved to Seattle to study business at the University of Washington. While in college, I interned at the White House and IBM. I studied abroad in Spain and backpacked through Europe by myself, wearing my leg braces and crutches. Upon graduating, I moved to New York City for a management consulting job. I pursued an MBA, got married, and now work at a large multinational insurance company. Through my example, I hope people can see that a disability shouldn’t hinder someone from living a full and productive life.

While living in New York, I met Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon in 1976. Dick later founded a nonprofit, Achilles International, which provides free training and support to help people with disabilities participate in sports. He gave me a handcycle, which is a three-wheeled recumbent bicycle propelled by the arms, and encouraged me to train for a marathon. This opened up a new world of opportunity for me, and I completed the New York City Marathon in my handcycle in 2006.

My next challenge was thought to be impossible for a female wheelchair athlete: the Ironman Triathlon. I made the transition to triathlon and finished my first Ironman in Louisville, Ky., and qualified for the world championship in Kona, Hawaii, in 2012.

The Ironman Triathlon requires a wheelchair athlete like me to swim 2.4 miles, handcycle 112 miles, and push a racing wheelchair 26.2 miles, all within tight time limits for each stage of the course. But at the Kona Ironman, I failed to make the 10½-hour cutoff time for the cycling portion. I was disappointed, but I’d faced harder setbacks before. The failure steeled my determination, and I decided to regroup and try again the next year.

Dentler becomes the first woman handcyclist to finish the Ironman World Championship after completing the 2013 Kona Ironman in Hawaii.

Compimagephoto

By October 2013, I was back at the starting line for the Kona Ironman in Hawaii for the second time. I was bidding to become the first woman handcyclist in history to finish the Ironman World Championship. Just as my parents had insisted that I complete the same chores as my siblings, the Ironman event demanded that I complete the course within the same strict time limits as every other able-bodied competitor. I had qualified for the race and earned the right to compete on a level playing field, but if I did complete the race, it would mean something more than achieving another personal goal.

With every rotation of the wheels on my racing wheelchair, I was moving forward for the millions of polio survivors who would never get this opportunity.

Every stroke in the water and crank forward on my handcycle were movements for those who could not lift limbs paralyzed by polio. With every rotation of the wheels on my racing wheelchair, I was moving forward for the millions of polio survivors who would never get this opportunity. When I finally crossed the finish line 14 hours and 39 minutes after I started, I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement. It was a storybook ending and the realization of a dream that seemed impossible to achieve.

I’d followed Rotary’s polio eradication efforts for some time when I had the honor of being invited to speak at a World Polio Day event in 2014. Since then, I’ve been one of Rotary’s polio ambassadors, helping to raise awareness for the End Polio Now campaign. In this role, I was offered an opportunity to return to India for the first time since I was a child.

Last year I set off for the country where most people said polio could never be eradicated. But against the odds, one year after my first successful Ironman World Championship, India did eradicate polio – despite the challenges of crowded slums with poor sanitation, the second largest population in the world, the weakened immune systems of millions living in poverty without proper nourishment. Despite all this, Southeast Asia was certified polio free in 2014.

The enormity of this achievement is clear if you consider that less than a decade ago, India reported almost half of the world’s new polio cases. But until the disease is eradicated everywhere, it could easily return. So on my trip, I participated in a National Immunization Day, when 172 million children through age five are immunized against polio.