This reflection and tribute to the late Dick Traum was written by Richard Stopol, President Emeritus of NYC Outward Bound Schools.
Dick Traum, who died last week at the age of 83, was a source of inspiration to countless individuals. As the visionary founder of Achilles International, a global organization that transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connection, Dick was a tireless evangelist for the importance of pushing beyond the obstacles that life puts before us or we impose upon ourselves. And on a more personal note, he was the initiator of one of the most profound experiences of my life – one that taught me powerfully enduring lessons about the indomitability of the human spirit and how lending a helping hand to others can be more rewarding and satisfying than any individual achievement.
During the early 1990’s, Dick served on the Advisory Board of NYC Outward Bound Schools, an organization I led as the President & CEO. He immediately saw the commonality between Achilles and Outward Bound in that both are rooted in the idea that with the right mix of challenge and support, every individual, regardless of background or circumstance, can achieve far more than they thought possible.
With that in mind, Dick successfully recruited a number of our staff and board members, including me, to participate in the NYC marathon, alongside an Achilles partner, providing them with support and encouragement. In my first marathon experience, I was partnered with a 78 year old man from Vermont who had a lung removed several months ago and who was also legally blind. Despite these infirmities, he was one of the most cheerful and spirited people I have ever met, with an optimistic outlook on life second to none. His training for the marathon had been compromised because of the lung operation, and while he was determined to finish, he didn’t have a good sense of how long it would take him, estimating a completion time ranging anywhere from 6 to 9 hours.
Because of that, race officials started us out several hours before everyone else except for a few other Achilles runners, running through the streets of Brooklyn pretty much on our own, without any crowds to cheer us on. We ran at a comfortable, albeit somewhat quicker pace than I anticipated through Brooklyn and into Queens, which meant that we came to the 59th Street Bridge earlier than projected. We had been told when we started out that if we made it to that point in the race before the marathon leaders got there we should stop and wait until they fully traversed the Bridge. Otherwise we could cause a bottleneck because they would be accompanied by police motorcycles and press cars.
But when we got to the Bridge, my Achilles partner was starting to pay the price for the pace with which he had navigated the first 13 or so miles of the race and told me that he was starting to experience pain in his legs and back. In light of that and also because there was nobody at the base of the Bridge who stopped us, I determined that we should just keep going and head over the Bridge into Manhattan. When we got about three-quarters over the Bridge we began to hear police sirens, a sure sign that the race leaders were not far behind us and closing in fast.
We managed to get off the Bridge and turn onto First Avenue a few minutes before the leaders. As we did that and began running up First Avenue we were greeted with an explosion of noise that was like nothing I have ever heard or experienced since. Because everyone had gathered on First Avenue in anticipation of cheering on the race leaders and because we were the first people to run past them, the crowd directed all of its cheering toward us. It felt and sounded like what I imagine it feels and sounds like to be Aaron Judge in Yankee Stadium after hitting a World Series homerun or Taylor Swift when she steps onto a concert stage.
The crowd so energized my Achilles partner that he began to pick up his pace dramatically, running from one side of First Avenue to the other, slapping palms with people as they cheered him on. I urged him to slow down but to no avail as he raced up First Avenue still waving to the crowd and weaving across the Avenue until about 72nd Street when the race leaders finally passed us. Once that happened and the flow of adrenaline subsided he realized that he was in considerable pain and slowed down to what was little more than a walk. By around 96th Street the pain had gotten worse and we decided to stop in a medical tent for treatment. That began a routine which we carried out together roughly a dozen times over the remainder of the race. I would urge him to consider stopping and he would insist on continuing, so long as he could get treatment at the medical tents (which were spaced about a mile apart). The treatment consisted of a brief chiropractic adjustment, which made him yelp with pain, but after which he got up and headed back out onto the marathon route. Sometimes we walked and sometimes we jogged as we made our way through the South Bronx, Harlem and Central Park, but always we kept moving ahead, interrupted only by those stops at the medical tent.
He had told me that his wife would be waiting for him on 59th Street about a quarter mile from the marathon finish line, and miraculously enough, as we approached that spot, he began to pick up his pace again, so much so that I found myself hard pressed to keep up with him. When he saw his wife he stopped to give her a big hug and then resumed running at his newly quickened pace for the next few hundred yards. When we crossed the finish line, he leaped into my arms, hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks, saying, “Thank you, Richard. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
In truth, he gave me way too much credit. It was his remarkable ability to dig deep within himself and keep going and his relentless can-do spirit that brought him to the finish line. But still, I count that hug and kiss and the accompanying words of gratitude — as among the best moments in my entire life.
I am forever grateful to Dick for making that moment possible and for opening my eyes, along with those of so many others, to a core truth about the illusory nature of limitations that is summed up so aptly in this quote from Outward Bound’s founder, Kurt Hahn: “There is more in us than we know. If we can be made to see it, perhaps for the rest of our lives we will be unwilling to settle for less.”