SEATTLE — Somewhere between another NFL player arrest and Penn State getting punished by the NCAA for one of the ugliest scandals in sports history, I was pretty down on sports last month, so I decided to give Andre Kajlich a ring.
And of course, being world-class athlete that he is, Kajlich big-timed me and didn’t return the call. Well OK, by big-timed me, I actually mean Kajlich was busy with his sister, Bianca, serving as a volunteer counselor at a youth camp for young amputees.
The nerve of that guy.
Well, I finally caught up with Kajlich recently, and just as I had hoped, had my faith in sports restored at least a little bit. If you don’t know Kajlich’s story, it is a truly inspiring one. Seven years after losing both legs after being hit by a subway train while studying abroad in Prague, the now 33-year-old Edmonds native took up paratriathlon on something of a whim, and quickly became one of the world’s best in his sport.
In less than a year in the sport, he was medaling at World and U.S. Championships, including a second-place finish at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, one of the most prestigious events in endurance sports.
Simply put, despite having no legs, Kajlich can most definitely kick your ass.
But all of his impressive accomplishments, as well as the aforementioned ugly side of sports, weren’t the only reason Kajlich came to mind recently. As the Olympics wound down, and the Paralympics approached (they begin in London this week), Kajlich also came to mind because he won’t be in London. Paratriathlon is a growing sport, and won’t be in the Paralympics until 2016 in Brazil.
But Kajlich isn’t lamenting a missed opportunity to represent his country this week. Instead, he’s focused on helping grow his sport by helping the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), the organization that has helped him get to where he is now.
“I’ve gotten a lot out of this, it’s given me a lot of drive, not just to go faster and go harder, but just to do more in life in general,” said Kajlich, who has every intention of competing in the 2016 Paralympics.
Kajlich got into triathlons through the CAF, seeing as a chance not only to rediscover himself as an athlete for the first time since his accident, but also find a community of people with whom he could relate. The CAF, which has helped get more than 75 athletes to the Paralympics (roughly 30 percent of Team USA), bought Kajlich the hand cycle he used in Kona last year and still races on today, but the San Diego based organization has done a lot more than provide equipment for athletes like Kajlich.
“One of the things CAF provided me wasn’t just a handcycle, but the community,” He said. “The first place I got into triathlon was there. … It’s a great community, and I learned a lot from those interactions with other handcycle guys, other triathletes. Everything from getting my stuff around through airports, logistical stuff, to technique and training.”
So instead of heading off to London last week to prepare for the Paralympics, Kajlich was back home, training for the other events that will keep him plenty busy. Those events include another trip to Kona for the Ironman World Championships in October, a race he hopes to win this year, and the International Triathlon Union World Championship in Auckland, New Zealand, which is only a week later.
Kajlich is also spending some time giving back to the CAF after it gave so much to him. On Saturday, Kajlich hosted the first AJK Classic, a golf tournament at Gold Mountain Golf Club that benefits the CAF. Kajlich and his sister have also talked about working with the CAF to create some sort of youth camp on the west coast (the one at which they currently volunteer is in Ohio).
“I’ve been in contact with so many people who have shared experiences with me (through the CAF), he said. “It has helped define who I am. … I’m definitely in favor of promoting that as much as possible.”
And heck, I’m a sucker for a good cause, so I’ll promote right along with you, Andre. To donate to the CAF, or just learn more about the organization, go to challengedathletes.org, or check out Kajlich’s website, willgodo.com.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.