The Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii is one of the most strenuous endurance races ever invented. The race starts includes a 2.4-mile swim in ocean waters, a 112-mile bike ride across the Hawaiian lava desert – and concludes with a 26-mile marathon run along the island coast.
Now, imagine completing this grueling race on two prosthetic legs. On October 12, 2019, Roderick Sewell became the first above-the-knee double amputee to complete the Hawaii Ironman race on prosthetics. To make this amazing story even more miraculous, Sewell was not only born with a physical disability, but he also spent a number of his childhood years homeless.
Sewell was born with the tibia bone missing in both of his legs. This caused his mother, Marian Jackson to make the very difficult decision of having his legs amputated at the age of one and a half. As Sewell began learning to use his prosthetics it became apparent that the low-grade model that Jackson’s health insurance provided wasn’t sufficient enough for him to enjoy a normal lifestyle. They were clunky and would easily break.
Unfortunately, good prosthetics were prohibitively expensive, and Jackson’s insurance didn’t cover the cost. In an interview with GameChange, Sewell explained the solution, “The fasted route she could think of was to quit her job, file for unemployment, and get full coverage for my prosthetics.” He added, “So because of her sacrifice I was able to walk.”
It was a steep sacrifice. The family’s financial situation continually worsened until they eventually found themselves homeless and forced to sleep in shelters. “I cried all the time,” said Jackson. She added, “I tried to make it into an adventure. I had to ease him into it because he couldn’t understand why we couldn’t go home.”
Sewell’s life changed when someone approached him and his mom to ask them if he might be interested in signing up for sports with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). Playing sports changed Sewell’s life. He said, “I was ten when I got my first running blades. I was still homeless, but I walked around with a smile on my face because I had a new way of life. It was being active, doing sports.”
Later, Sewell began swimming in CAF meets and slowly progressed into becoming a world-class adaptive athlete. He ultimately made the USA swim team and won the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke final of the Para-Pan Games, an adaptive sports competition for all nations of the North and South American continents.
When asked if being an international swim champion and Iron Man is how he’d like to be known, Roderick said no and instead pointed to his resilience as the quality that means the most to him. “I see a lot of people, limbs or no limbs, who have kind of given up on life and I could have easily been one of those people, but I just refuse to be held back.”