In 2018, the U.S. Olympic Committee raised the funding that goes to Paralympic medalists so that they now equal the payments Olympic medalists receive. In 2019, that committee officially became the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, bringing Paralympians further into the fold. These and other changes in the last couple of years have signaled a shift toward greater inclusion for athletes with disabilities.

Examples of the world of running embracing runners with disabilities abound:

  • Toyota announced in May that it would offer sponsorship opportunities to every athlete named to the U.S. Paralympic Team.
  • In 2019, the USA Paratriathlon National Championships provided a professional prize purse for the first time.
  • In October, the Boston Marathon will become the first of the World Majors to have a separate competitive para athletics division for ambulatory para athletes. Wheelchair racers have had a designated division for years that recognizes their achievements, but other para athletes, such as amputees who run with prostheses, have not. Sometimes, this has meant elite para athletes have broken world records but have gone unnoticed in the crowd.

The Retail Opportunity

Running retailers are equipped to help support runners with disabilities, from fitting them with shoes to sponsoring non-profits and events that help athletes with disabilities access the sport of running.

Nicole Ver Kuilen is a runner who had her left leg amputated when she was 10. She completed her own 1500 mile “triathlon” along the West Coast on a prosthetic leg that was not made for running. In 2019, after she received a running blade, she won her division of the USA Paratriathlon National Championships. Then she founded the non-profit organization Forrest Stump to promote equitable access to physical activity for people with disabilities — a few running stores have partnered with her to promote Forrest Stump’s events and hold local runs.

One of them is Ann Arbor Running Company. “Running stores should use their resources to help others do good things,” explains AARC owner Nicholas Stanko.

The Cost Factor

For amputees, the cost of a running blade, which can range from $15,000 to $25,000, is prohibitive. Most health insurers cover a walking leg, but not a running blade because it is deemed not medically necessary. Non-profit organizations have been working to fill this gap and provide running blades for people who need them, including Amputee Blade Runners, the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the Range of Motion Project.

Amputee Blade Runners, based in Nashville, TN, works with amputees in about 40 states, but all of the amputees go to Nashville to receive care. While they’re in town, Fleet Feet Nashville fits them with shoes and provides them for free and the company also supports the organization’s events.

Doing so is good for the stores’ staff, says Christi Beth Adams, owner of Fleet Feet Nashville. “We’re just trying to educate our staff and expose them to the needs of different runners,” she says.

“I would love it if many running stores did similar things. I definitely think that what we do with Fleet Feet is scalable,” says Joshua Southards, executive director of Amputee Blade Runners. That way, runners who live elsewhere could get plugged into their local running community and get support through local retailers.

Amputee Blade Runners has a national Run Your City campaign that gets businesses, run groups and others to host runs in their city and raise money and awareness. Some running stores have organized these local runs.

Fleet Feet Nashville also supports its community partners, including Amputee Blade Runners and Achilles, by selling its own line of graphic tees, called the Community Collection, and giving the community organizations all the proceeds.

Filling A Need

The refusal of insurers to cover running blades because they’re not considered “medically necessary” creates a dire need.

“I think that’s particularly short-sighted as it relates to children, because the importance of children to be active as it relates to their social life, how they perceive themselves, and how they relate to others is incredibly important,” Southards says.

One year, Fleet Feet Nashville received a grant from Saucony to buy someone a running blade — they selected a local fourth-grade girl. “I still remember reading her handwritten letter explaining how, when she’s running and playing at school on the playground, her normal prosthetic holds her back. She said she has to stop and take it off and dump the mulch out of it and put it back on,” Adams recalls.

Achilles International serves people with a range of disabilities in 25 countries through athletic programs and social connection. It runs training programs, hosts events and provides support, such as guides for visually impaired athletes. It also gives its athletes the opportunity to participate in races and training, as well as to experience the fellowship of other athletes, says Amy Harris, executive director of Achilles Nashville.

Fleet Feet Nashville also supports Achilles Nashville, through sponsoring races and providing discounts for all of their athletes, which makes running gear more accessible to them, says Harris, who also would like to see more running stores’ training groups work with Achilles athletes, so they can receive support from groups in their community.

Running retail owners and staff might also consider serving as guides for runners with vision impairment. This would allow these athletes to train with running groups outside of Achilles. “Anybody that’s willing can do that. It really doesn’t take that much training,” Harris says, and Achilles trains people to be guides.

Aside from the obvious basic equipment such as wheelchairs and running blades, some athletes with disabilities need specific gear that running stores can provide. For example, Nike’s FlyEase shoe has an easy-entry system designed to help athletes of all abilities and ages perform better, and Harris says some of Achilles Nashville’s athletes with cerebral palsy have expressed interest in those shoes.

Amputee Blade Runners partnered with the sock maker Swiftwick to create sweat-wicking prosthetic socks, which fit over the end of the amputated limb. Because the materials in the prosthesis do not breathe, many amputees have problems with sweat pooling and the prosthesis losing suction and coming off, Southards explains.

Representation Matters

Including runners with disabilities in running groups and events not only allows them to benefit from the experience, but also makes other runners more aware of athletes with different challenges.

“My running experience is not everyone’s running experience,” Adams says. “The way I shop for shoes and clothing, and what training looks like for me — you just think that’s the way it is for everybody else, and it’s not.”

Adams got involved with Amputee Blade Runners after she saw one of its athletes, a double amputee, running in a race. “Seeing that led to me wanting to educate myself and wanting to be more involved with that organization,” she says. “I want my eyes to be open to the needs of the community.”

Achilles Nashville recently participated in its first in-person race and one of the 18-year-old athletes won his age group. Some athletes’ goal is to walk in these events, “but we do have a fair number of very competitive athletes that can run in the mainstream with anyone,” Harris says.

And running stores can help highlight them. “It doesn’t take much to hang up a picture of an athlete in a hand cycle in your store,” she says.

Fleet Feet uses its newsletter and social media to raise awareness of athletes with disabilities. “Typically, if you can bring awareness to those groups, you’re probably bringing funds to those groups and you’re bringing volunteers to those groups,” Adams says.

Many people may be unaware of the Paralympics, or they may think the Paralympics and the Special Olympics are the same thing, Southards says. When the Paralympic medal payouts were raised to equal the Olympic medal payouts, he saw that as a recognition that “okay, these are elite athletes, and we should treat elite athletes the same way,” he says. 

Improving the representation of athletes with disabilities helps recognize them for their achievements and broadens other runners’ understanding. But representation might be even more important for kids and adults with disabilities who don’t think running is a possibility for them until they see someone like them in action.

Where To Start

Running retailers often sponsor local running clubs, which do vital work. But athletes with disabilities “need a little bit of extra help to get to a level playing field,” Southards says.

It’s a matter of how you give back to the community. “How can we support this community with more than just water and bananas at a 5K?” Adams says.

“A place to start is recognizing that you do have the ability to do this. Be vocal about it with your employees, with your community and be curious. And then I think there would be no shortage of opportunities that would present themselves.”