How many disabled people do you know who have run full marathons? Christian Jensen of Wisconsin knows dozens. The 30-year-old fitness professional started the Wisconsin chapter of MyTeam Triumph in 2010 to help people with disabilities participate in road races and triathlons with the assistance of able-bodied runners like himself. Along the way, the races organized by his team have become a powerful mentoring opportunity that empowers everyone who participates.
For his hard work, Jensen received one of this year's "Tip of the Hat" awards from Georgia-Pacific. The contest honors people who perform good deeds in their communities and, in an unusual twist, gives $16,000 in donations not to the contest's winners but to other organizations that the winners suggest. (Georgia-Pacific is a sponsor of Mother Nature Network.)
"I'm very humbled that they chose our organization, and myself, for this award," says Jensen. "We've only been around for a short period of time. That recognition that our mission is being accomplished means a lot."
Jensen started out on the path he's on today in 2009 when he met Mary Cox, a client of his with muscular dystrophy who wanted to run a marathon, a goal they ended up accomplishing together. Their story is depicted in this "aha moment" video from Mutual of Omaha:
Cox's inspiration and the work they did together led Jensen to create a local organization to bring the same opportunities to other people with disabilities. "Our first race in 2010 had four 'captains,' as we call our racers with disabilities," he says. "It's grown every year since then." They had 10 racing events in 2010, 15 in 2011 and 25 in 2012, plus countless training events to prepare for the races. Along the way, they have touched hundreds of people. "We've had about 200 captains with disabilities that have participated from the community and about 480 angel athletes. We've been very fortunate to have great partners and an overwhelming response from the people in our community."
What was first seen as simply athletic opportunities quickly evolved into more in-depth mentorship roles. "We're like a Big Brothers Big Sisters on wheels," Jensen says. "The races are fun, and they provide an experience to the captains that they wouldn't otherwise be able to do, but the relationship building between the captains and the angels a powerful way to teach the community about diversity."
Jensen chose the Syble Hopp School in De Pere, which works exclusively with disabled children, as the recipient of his $2,500 "Tip of the Hat" prize. "The Syble Hopp School was one of the organizations we reached out to when we first started this and many of the captains who have participated on our team have come from Hopp," he says. "It's a unique school that really celebrates what's possible. Every time I went there for a visit or for a meeting or to see some of the captains I was totally inspired by the environment that the staff creates and the excitement that the students have. It's absolutely infections."
As a fitness professional and lifelong marathon runner himself, Jensen says goals and volunteering are two central aspects of his life. "I personally feel the best way to achieve your own goals is to focus on helping other people achieve theirs," he says. "It gives greater meaning to our own goals." He encourages people to look at their own goals and ask how they will impact the world. He also says the best way to grow is to do something that scares you. "That's often where we find our true strengths."
For more on MyTeam Triumph in Wisconsin, check out this report from Fox 11: