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Athletes with Disabilities Face Unique Challenges During COVID-19 Restrictions

Disabled runners find ways to navigate social distancing and heightened health concerns during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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For many people, running is an outlet and a therapeutic way to get outdoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. But for some athletes with disabilities, the crisis has created new challenges.

Eliza Cooper, for one, misses running. She particularly longs for it when she is out walking her dog in New York and hears runners passing her on the sidewalk.

“Their unencumbered strides sound so free, and it makes me a little sad,” says Cooper, who is blind and runs with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization that helps adults and children with disabilities participate in athletics.

The coronavirus has upended race plans and training groups for many runners, but for those who rely on others in order to practice their passion, the COVID-19 crisis has taken away their opportunities to run.

Cooper, 34, usually runs next to a guide with a flexible running tether between them that they both hold.

“The tether is just a couple of feet long, so there is no way for me to do this safely and follow social distancing guidelines,” she says, adding that even if they wore masks she wouldn’t feel comfortable because she lives with a first responder and worries about her virus exposure.

To stay active, Cooper takes long walks with her dog and does a mini sprint workout in her apartment a few times a week.

“Not being able to run is breaking my heart,” she says.

Emily Glasser, Achilles president and CEO, says many Achilles athletes face big challenges in addition to their disability, including isolation, unemployment and underlying health conditions. The pandemic has made those struggles even more difficult.

“Not only are (some) required to shelter in place for health and safety reasons, but most are unable to engage in a workout by themselves or at a social distance,” she says. “Additionally, many of our athletes have respiratory issues that make wearing a face mask very challenging.”

To help athletes cope and stay connected, Achilles has set up a robust online community of chats and virtual races.

Still, virtual connections can’t take the place of in-person ones, says Luanne Burke, an Achilles runner in Westminster, Colorado.

“I think everybody has days when they are doing all right and days like, ‘I really need some people,’” says Burke, 58.

Burke’s beloved seeing-eye guide dog, Chessie, a German shepherd, is also trained to run with her, but Burke tries to avoid working her too hard and typically relies on human guides.

“I am so grateful I have her, but I am also grateful for other people because I need to be around people, and my social community is runners,” says Burke, who plans to run with Chessie in the virtual BolderBoulder 10K on Memorial Day.

Not that running with a canine guide is so simple these days. Abigail Shaw, a 28-year-old Achilles member and four-time marathoner, lives in Brooklyn, near Prospect Park, which is frequently crowded.

“Although my guide dog has also received training to guide me while running, she does not know the whole six feet of separation deal,” she says.

Alison Lynch, a triathlete and eight-time marathoner, is visually impaired, but has managed to keep running in recent months, as long as she follows a familiar route. With her eye disorder, achromatopsia, she can’t see more than a foot in front of her and is very sensitive to light.

“There are some days where the sun is too bright for me to run quickly,” says, Lynch, 32, of New York, adding that the light makes it harder for her to process what’s in front of her. “It’s been frustrating, but nothing compared to many of my friends who are totally blind and unable to run without a guide.”

Shaw hopes the heartache of the pandemic will make people more empathetic to others and grateful for what they have.

“If there is anything good that has come out of this crisis, I think it is that people have learned to slow down and value the importance of small things,” she says.

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