Talking 25 Years of Challenged Athletes Foundation With Founder Bob Babbitt

And their upcoming first-ever New York City surf clinic on June 2.

You may know Bob Babbitt for the fact that he co-founded Competitor Magazine, as well as being inducted into both the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame and the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame. But arguably, another organization that he founded has made more impact than any of his other achievements.

The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) has provided “opportunities and support to people with physical challenges, so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics” for the past 25 years. They make everyday improvements to peoples’ lives and understand that sport can play a major role in helping heal.

ASN recently chatted with Babbitt about what 25 years of CAF has provided, what it all means to him, and their upcoming first-ever NYC surf clinic (happening on June 2 in Long Beach, New York), as well as what they continue to do and have in store for the future.

Explain CAF?

Anything that’s a Paralympic sport or something that someone wants to do, CAF is here to get them the equipment or training or travel to get them involved with that sport. A lot of people might think we focus on triathlons because of our background in that, but at the same time we gave out grants this year in 95 sports, 48 states and 40 countries.

It’s been 25 years, we’ve raised $95 million, we’ve sent out over 23,000 grants. Just over the last month, we sent out 2,600 grants totaling $4.3 million. It’s been pretty amazing. And we just recently sent out 365 wheelchair basketball chairs. We do a lot of rock climbing for athletes who are trying to summit the Seven Summits, so we’ve helped out a ton of different adventure sports pursuits.

Jim MacLaren (right) with another challenged athlete. Photo: Courtesy of CAF

How did CAF get started?

Everything started for us in 1985. A friend by the name of Jim MacLaren was a football player at Yale. He was taking acting classes in New York, was on his motorcycle and gets hit by a bus … 90-feet in the air, dead on arrival. [He] Lives, but loses his lower left leg. He comes back from that to run a 3:16 marathon in a walking leg and a 10:42 at the Ironman World Championships.

And I owned Competitor Magazine, so Jimmy was someone we were covering – he was sort of the Babe Ruth of amputee athletes doing something nobody had ever done before. Eight years later in ’93, he was racing in Orange County doing a triathlon and a van goes through a closed intersection and hits the back of his bike and propels him head-first into a pole. Guy who was an amputee becomes a quadriplegic.

At that point, myself and two buddies decided we wanted to do something for Jimmy. We cover a lot of paralyzed athletes, and the one thing that they would tell me when I would ask them what’s the worst part about this phase of your life? It was, “I’m 30-years-old, here come mom and dad back in my life, no sense of self and independence.”

So our goal was to put on a little triathlon in La Jolla Cove and raise $25,000 to buy Jimmy a van with hand controls to give him that independence. That’s what it was about.

So we put on the triathlon, we raised $49,000 and thought our job was done. Three amputee women came to us that day and said “Jimmy got us into endurance sports. Did you know that if you get injured your health insurance will cover for a walking around leg and an everyday wheelchair. But nothing to do with sport is covered by insurance. As athletes, health insurers consider sports a luxury item.”

And you and I both know, sports are not a luxury item. So at that point we got our 501(c)(3) and decided if someone needed a piece of equipment for sport, then CAF would be there.

CAF and the Junior Seau Foundation teaming up for a recent surf clinic. Photo: Courtesy of CAF

How did CAF start with surf clinics?

When Junior Seau was a football player here in San Diego, his passion was surfing. He grew up in Oceanside, was a big surfer. When he passed away, the Junior Seau Foundation funded our surfing initiative.

We have a van and trailer and we got to link up with ISA to work on the World Championships in La Jolla Shores the last couple years. The Bro-Am (which Switchfoot is very involved with) has an adaptive surfing component in that. And our kids are on stage with Switchfoot. It’s just been amazing.

So we’re doing our first adaptive surf clinic in New York a couple days before our big gala. Surfing has become a very major initiative for us. We just did a clinic in Oceanside with the Ironman folks. It’s really good stuff.

CAF at the Switchfoot Bro-Am in Encinitas, CA. Photo: Courtesy of CAF

What’s it been like being able to provide people with sport again?

With how viral the world is now, a lot of people get injured and they live in South Dakota or the kid and the parents might not have ever met somebody like them. That’s where we can help. The key is as fast as you get people back into sport, I think sport is really underestimated in how powerful it is and making you feel good about yourself and the recovery aspect – the sooner we get them back into sport the more likely they avoid that whole spiraling depression.

So many of the things with kids, if you were a a kid growing up back in the day and you have your leg amputated, the doctors would tell your parents, “You know a walking leg will be fine, because if he wants a running leg it’s going to cost $15,000. Why don’t you wait till he stops growing.”

So from the ages 7-14, you’re going to be the last kid picked, you’re running around on some old piece-of-crap walking leg rather than now you can be competitive with everybody else, and all it is is a piece of equipment.

Changing the dialogue and making people realize that there’s no reason that sports go away, in fact it’s even more important than it was before.

Giving people opportunities to enjoy sport is what it’s all about. Photo: Courtesy of CAF

Who are some of the athletes CAF works with at the professional level?

Evan Strong was a kid who lives on Kauai, he took a silver in the Snowboard Cross at the Paralympics. Evan was someone we met right after he was injured and he was 16-years-old. One of our kids, Rudy Garcia-Tolson, who is a double above-the-knee amputee, was there at our event in Hawaii when he met Evan who was on crutches. And Rudy had just gotten back from winning a gold medal at the Paralympics. And Evan was like, “Wait I can still be an athlete?” Because he was actually a sponsored skateboarder and he lost his leg. The next thing you know, he’s back skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding and going to the Paralympics.

And two years ago at the Paralympics in Rio, a mom came up to me at the hotel and said, “Bob my name is Debra Jackson, you probably don’t remember but eight years ago you gave my son Desmond a running leg and tomorrow night here in Rio he’s going to be running in the finals in the 200 meters.”

How can people get involved?

They can go to the ChallengedAthletes.org website and people can sign up for triathlons, bike rides down the coast, the gala in New York and another number of events that are fundraisers. People can volunteer in New York. If it’s sports that someone wants to get involved with, we’re here to help them.

Pro surfer Yadin Nichol sharing the stoke with a CAF athlete. Photo: Courtesy of CAF

More Adaptive Sports Content From ASN

Inside the World of Adaptive Rock Climbing

Meet the First Blind Rock Climber to Summit the Tallest Peak on Every Continent

Why Paralympian Alana Nichols is Pushing for Surfing in the Paralympics