Crew of disabled athletes tackles triathlon this weekend

Team members with SPARC racing pose for a photo Saturday, June 23 near Ross's Landing. The team features handicapped racers who will be competing in today's Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon.


Beginning at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday, the following closures will occur for the triathlon:› Riverfront Parkway will be closed to all traffic from Molly Lane to Aquarium Way and closed to through traffic from West M.L. King to Molly Lane.› The southbound off-ramp from Veterans Bridge to Riverfront Parkway also will be closed.› The center lanes of Riverfront Parkway, Riverside Drive, and Amnicola Highway will remain blocked off to traffic during the race from Aquarium Way to just past the entrance to Chattanooga State Community College.› Chattanooga Police Department will be at all major intersections to help direct traffic. Drivers in the outside lanes are asked to only cross the center lanes at the signals where officers are directing traffic.› Roads will reopen at 3 p.m. with the exception of Riverfront Parkway, Power Alley and Chestnut Street; they will reopen by 5 p.m.Source: Chattanooga Department of Transportation

A crew of disabled athletes will be tackling this weekend's Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon to show others with disabilities they, too, can participate in a healthy, active lifestyle.

"When I ride or when I do something, I want people to see me and think of someone they may know who is disabled or in a wheelchair," David Cunningham said. "I want them to pass on that 'hey, I saw this guy out there on a hand cycle, and he was putting it down.' I want people to realize we are just as capable as everyone else. We just have to do things differently."

Cunningham is a paraplegic. The Army Reserve veteran and Wildwood, Georgia, resident was active in outdoor activities and fitness before a hang gliding accident left him without the use of his legs. However, he wanted to continue his fitness lifestyle. Through that effort, he discovered SPARC (Sports, Arts & Recreation of Chattanooga). The organization connects people with disabilities to competitive and recreational activities.

The organization will have three teams competing in Sunday's Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon. The club did not have the volunteers to help disabled racers exit the swim, and the narrow run course does not allow safe room for both wheelchairs and runners. However, each team has one paraplegic member - Johnathan Grimes and Dave Ennis in addition to Cunningham - racing the bike leg. There will also be a visually impaired athlete - Annette Williams - attempting the full race with the help of guide and triathlete Rebekah Gilman.

For SPARC athletes, participating in the triathlon is an important step for not only themselves but all disabled individuals.

"Just being able to participate. There aren't too many races just for someone with a disability, so just getting them to participate on an integrated basis for this race is something really cool they get to do," SPARC co-founder Debbie Hightower said. "Just being part of that community, the triathlon community."

The triathlon has been held in a variety of forms around Chattanooga since 1992. It was originally the Riverbend Triathlon held in conjunction with the music festival. However, event officials no longer wanted to host the race. Members of the Chattanooga Track Club were involved and wanted it to continue, club president Jenni Berz said, so the club took control and moved it to Chickamauga Dam where it became the Dam Triathlon. The Dam Triathlon was held until the 21st Century Waterfront was completed. That's when the race moved to Ross's Landing and became the Chattanooga Waterfront Triathlon about a decade ago.

This year's event sold out before the weekend. The 1,400 competitors will be about 300 more than last year.

"As a race director, that's awesome for me. It's pretty exciting," Berz said.

This year's course will be similar to last year, which was changed because of construction on Highway 27.

The sprint distance will begin at 6:45 a.m. before the intermediate race at 7:30 a.m. The swim will be held in the Tennessee River. Intermediate racers will begin at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Rowing Center, while sprint distance racers will start at the boat dock under Market Street Bridge. The cycling portion will take cyclists on an out-and-back course down Riverside Drive and Amnicola Highway. Bikes will be using the inside lanes of the four-lane road. The outer lanes will be used for traffic. Police officers will be present to help direct turning vehicles. The race will finish with a run on the newest section of the Tennessee Riverwalk.

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.