Christian Jensen pulls Mary Cox on the bike leg of the 2013 Wisconsin Ironman. PHOTO BY TIFFANY JENSEN
Christian Jensen pulls Mary Cox on the bike leg of the 2013 Wisconsin Ironman. PHOTO BY TIFFANY JENSEN

In the final hours and the final miles of Ironman Wisconsin in Mid September, hundreds of competitors shuffled along the streets of Madison slumped and struggling.

Christian Jensen stood out in contrast. Tall and powerful, he propelled a specially built wheelchair carrying his captain, Mary Cox, with forceful strides and purpose. His desire had first flickered in the ashes of a fire that destroyed his family home more than a decade earlier. In the darkness, it burned with unwavering intensity.

This was his calling, to be the arms and legs of someone like Cox, to give people with disabilities the joy of competing and succeeding in a way they had never imagined.

Finishing the Ironman, as the founders of myTeam Triumph Wisconsin, was the high point of their partnership to date, but only a step toward the larger goal of creating the same sense of freedom, belonging and accomplishment for hundreds of others.

It has immeasurable rewards: the smiles of the captains overcoming disabilities, the camaraderie and the shared joy of doing something selfless.

Since its creation in Green Bay in 2010, the Wisconsin myTeam Triumph franchise has paired more than 700 men, women and children with disabilities with more than 1,000 volunteer angels. The able-bodied runners, clad in red T-shirts with the “Run like an Angel” motto on the back, provide the propulsion in nearly 30 races a year, from 5K runs to marathons to 100-mile bike rides to triathlons.

Each year, myTeam Triumph has added more equipment, more volunteers and more captains. Their inventory now includes 30 strollers, eight boats for use in triathlons, a 17-foot cargo truck and a trailer. The operating budget has grown from almost nothing to $100,000, and Jensen expects it will double in 2014.

Jensen plans to expand myTeam Wisconsin from the chapter he created in Green Bay into Madison, Milwaukee and the Fox Valley over the next several years.

“There’s a boundless demand for it,” said Jensen, 31. “I think there are going to be a lot people involved as a captain, but also people who have done races and want to do something more with the sport.”

The Wisconsin organization is one of 28 myTeam Triumph chapters in the U.S., and the second group to sprout from the athletic charity that business executive Ron Robb founded in Michigan in 2007. He drew his inspiration from Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father-son team that began racing together in the early 1980s. What struck him most was the message that Rick wrote after their first race: when he’s rolling along with hundreds of athletes, hearing the cheers and feeling the wind, his disability disappears.

Robb has an ambitious goal, to support 100 franchises around the world by the end of 2014. The example set by Jensen and his success will be a template for that growth.

“I wish I had 500 Wisconsin chapters around the world. It’s kind of remarkable what they have accomplished and the time they accomplished it,” Robb said. “A lot of people have the vision and not the passion, and a lot of people have the passion but not the vision and leadership. They have a team that has all three of those.”

Robb added, “When we form a myTeam Triumph Hall of Fame, I guarantee that Christian’s bust will be in the lobby.”

Jensen’s new path
Watching Jensen run behind Cox in Ironman Wisconsin, it was hard to picture him as the 285-pound NCAA Division III discus champion he was in 2004 while a student at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh. At a lean 205 pounds, he looked every bit the endurance athlete as Maik Twelsiek, the German who won the race that day.

As a high school football player and collegiate thrower – “a meathead” he said – Jensen avoided running and never imagined himself running a marathon. The fire that destroyed his home in Lake Geneva on a summer day in 2004, and a coincidental pairing with Cox four years later, changed that and his life.

“We didn’t have any clothes,” he recounted. “We were staying in a hotel, and we went to the store and I bought a pair of tennis shoes with those Velcro straps. I remember that night going out for a walk and being very stressed out and wanting to release some energy. So I ran about a mile. I felt this huge release, this connection with the world. It was a very emotional and spiritual thing.”

Jensen wore out those Velcro shoes “pretty quick,” then took up bicycling and found a new path. Just a semester away from graduation, he changed his major from history and education to exercise science.

“I wanted to help other people to live the most fulfilling life; to improve their mind and body and spirit,” he says.

Pairing with Cox
After finishing his studies in 2007, Jensen landed a job as a personal trainer with Bellin Health, in Ashwaubenon. He was working at the desk when Cox called and asked about signing up for an exercise program to lose weight and gain strength. She didn’t mention that muscular dystrophy had left her immobile and only able to lift her arms roughly an inch from her sides.

They talked by phone over the course of a month. Jensen crafted a plan and encouraged Cox to come in for a session.

“I came in on my husband’s back,” said Cox, 63. “It didn’t dawn on him that I would be coming in piggy-back.”

Jensen recalled being unnerved, a little scared but resolute.

“Trying to figure out what to do to help her, I quickly felt very helpless,” he said. “I knew that I couldn’t cure her, but I could maybe slow it (the progression of her disease) down, and help her move her body in same way.”

Jensen and Cox improvised workouts together and talked about possibilities, not obstacles. After Jensen saw a video of Dick and Rick Hoyt, he suggested he and his wife, Tiffany, push Cox in the upcoming Bellin Run 10K. They improvised with a children’s stroller and crossed the finish line. That became just the start.

“Coming from someone who spends most of her day alone, now she’s around 10,000 people, shoulder-to-shoulder,” Jensen said. “We all knew without saying anything that this was something for more than we thought it would be. We realized there was something bigger to it.”

In 2009, they raced together in the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon. Jensen stopped the stroller 50 yards from the finish. There, he told Cox to take them in, lifted her to her feet and guided her faltering steps across the finish line. The video of that finish nearly matches the inspirational scenes the Hoyts have created over their 30 years as the role models for overcoming challenges through athletics.

“I felt like I won the Olympics,” Cox said of that moment.

Others inspired, assisted
Through their continued racing and local press coverage, the duo inspired others. Parents called and asked for help giving their children with special needs the same kind of experience they had witnessed Cox enjoying.

“It’s the relationships that you build with so many people,” Cox said. “The team experience and being able to be in a race and crossing the finish line; all the training that goes into it. I absolutely love it.”

At events, the volunteers and their special athletes create their own village of excitement, encouragement and tearful celebrations. The bonds between the able-bodied angels and the captains are palpable.

Ann and Don Allen, schoolteachers from Winneconne, first experienced the spectacle at the Oshkosh Half Marathon, on a cold morning last April.

“We got there and it was so cold, so we sat in the car,” Ann Allen recalled. “My husband went over there and he came back to the car and he had tears in his eyes. ’You have to see this for yourself,’ he said.”

Allen continued, “You saw all these beautiful people in red T-shirts and wheelchairs full of children and adults with special needs and all these volunteers at their sides. There was an empty chair with Eric’s name on it.”

Eric is the Allens’ son, an enthusiastic 19-year-old boy who can’t talk or walk because of a rare genetic disorder.

“It’s hard to articulate what that meant to us, that people were so there for Eric,” Ann Allen said. “So many times he’s on the fringe of groups. We have to consider is it going to be OK for us to bring him into a restaurant. So many times we don’t do things because of Eric, and this was all about him.”

Allen said, “Half the race we were running with tears in our eyes, just thinking of the amazing community we were part of and that was welcoming our son.”

Eric smiled and laughed and roared as he passed other runners.

“He doesn’t always have a lot of affect, and he was so engaged,” Allen said. “The cheers, the encouragement, the cowbells that people are ringing. His whole personality change. It’s beautiful to see.”

‘Angels’ profoundly affected
Allen also sees the impact the myTeam Triumph has on the volunteers and spectators, who gain a new appreciation for their abilities and the challenges of others.

“You hear so much feedback from other people on how it’s inspiring them in some way, helping them with something that’s a boundary in their life, whether it’s real or imagined,” she says. “We talk about barriers, but live your life in a wheelchair or as a nonverbal person or someone who is tube-fed. See what their lives are like and maybe push yourself a little harder.”

Many of the myTeam Triumph captains are people like Eric, people who spent most of their lives dependent on others, restricted to wheelchairs and somewhat isolated from the world around them.

Cox, however, has known the joy of participating in ways most take for granted. She biked and ran as a child, walked to school, bounced on a trampoline.

The first signs of muscular dystrophy appeared just before she reached her teens, and she found ways to compensate for her diminished physical capacity the rest of her life. She married, had children and is now a grandmother of six.

When she called Jensen, she did so out of determination, not desperation.

“I was looking for any type of exercise that would keep me mobile, so I could keep doing the daily tasks I was doing during the day,” she says. “If I sat around doing nothing, my muscles would atrophy. I knew I needed some kind of exercise to keep me going.”

Her persistence and attitude propelled Jensen.

“Someone who grew up being as active as you or I, more active than most girls her age, to have that taken away from you very slowly, I could not imagine what that would be like,” he said. “And yet she’s got this mental and spiritual endurance and fortitude. That was incredibly moving to me. And still, most of her day is sitting in a chair, doing nothing, looking at a screen. She never says ‘why’ and that gave me a kick in the pants.”

His run in those cheap shoes provided a path. Cox provided a purpose.

“When Mary called me up, that completely changed everything for me, in terms of my self-worth and motivation, to be a second-stage-of-my-life athlete” he said.

Managing a growing nonprofit while holding a fulltime job and training for an Ironman put tremendous demands on Jensen. Similarly, dozens of volunteers sacrifice their time and individual athletic pursuits to support others, to give them opportunities to do endurance events

“It’s my passion. It’s where I feel I want to be, and where I can have the most impact, growing this organization,” Jensen said.

“It was just initially something to help Mary get out in the community, but I’ve been completely blow away by the support in the community and the people who want to be involved. It’s been a dream come true to see all these people at all these races.”

Tom Held is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based freelance writer and blogger at www.TheActivePursuit.com.