DUNEDIN — Scott Rigsby always dreamed of becoming a professional athlete, running touchdowns or scoring home runs. His father always said if you split his head open, all sorts of sports balls would fall out, and even when a horrific accident caused him to loose both of his legs, he still made his childhood dream come true.
Rigsby became a hero to many, like the small congregation of The Kirk of Dunedin Church, when, in 2007, he became the first double amputee in the world to finish the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii. On Sunday morning, Rigsby joined about 150 community members in the “Unthinkable 5K” race toward Honeymoon Island, in honor of the church’s 47th anniversary and to inspire others to turn their own tragedies into triumphs.
The person he is today is a far cry from the “lost”18 year old in Atlanta who was sitting on the back of a pickup truck that was suddenly sideswiped by an 18-wheeler. Rigsby was dragged 324 feet on the pavement, ripping his right leg off below the knee and causing significant damage to the left. After seven years of college marked by hundreds of surgeries, Rigsby decided he wanted to do something more with his life than be a “professional patient.” He chose to amputate the left leg, and was literally up and running six weeks later.
“I didn’t really have a plan for my life, and I was in a dark place,” Rigsby said. “I just said a little prayer to God that I would figure out what I was here for. I think God gives you what you can handle and he takes care of the rest. This isn’t my story, it’s God’s story and I’m just a person in it.”
After reading about the Ironman, Rigsby decided to teach himself to swim, run and bike, starting with little races like Sunday’s. After gaining the world’s attention with his feat, the Scott Rigsby Foundation was born, providing monetary and emotional support to those who have lost limbs and reaching out to service members and those injured just feet away from Rigsby during last year’s Boston Marathon bombings. Now, Rigsby travels the world sharing his story, running races and helping others. One month last year he covered 33,000 miles in the air, traveling from football teams to businesses, and he’s now training to run the Boston Marathon, which he’s completed twice. The work can be exhausting, but he finds the strength to keep going in the people he meets along the way, he said.
“The race is very representative of life: There are people that are speeding through, there are some people kind of dragging behind that may need some help, and there are some people kind of in the middle. But today all the fast people waited for the ones that were dragging along behind and I think that’s a great metaphor for what this church is doing,” Rigsby said. “They help. They love. Seeing that and meeting these people is all the motivation I need.”
People like church member Ron Hinkley, who a year ago was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he began to loose feeling in his legs. The 65 year old could have given Rigsby a run for his money, as he regularly biked around Dunedin on 40 mile trips. Although he completed Sunday’s race in his wheelchair “to please his wife,” his spirits were still lifted, he said. It was the first time he had been to church since September.
“He gives me hope,” Hinkley said as he kissed his wife Ann before the race began. “I’ve already lived a pretty nice life, but he was in my chair when he was only 18, when you’re just beginning. He’s proof that only God knows what can happen. Maybe tomorrow it’ll go away.”
The nondenominational church is all about hope, said Pastor Steve Rittenhouse. Everyone has hard things happen to them, but there are also opportunities to find positive lessons in those experiences, Rittenhouse said. The church plans to make the race an annual event.
For Steve Casanova, his heroes and sources of inspiration are the stalwart members of his neighborhood church. A contracted hip left the 72-year-old bedridden for a year, and doctors told him he would never walk again. He felt lifeless and depressed, a prisoner in his own mind and “just out of it,” Casanova said.
However, Rittenhouse and his congregation never gave up on him, never stopped calling, visiting and urging him to get out of bed. One day, he was finally struck with a powerful urge to get up. Today he can walk short distances of about 1,500 feet and is looking to move out of his nursing home, where he’s lived for two years, in about three weeks.
“This church, this pastor, gave me my faith back and I wouldn’t be here today without them,” Casanova said. “The love in this church makes recovery so much easier, and they made me so excited to start living again. Someday I’ll be able to ride my bicycle all the way down to Honeymoon Island. ”