Legally blind Naugatuck man conquers triathlon

Dave Alejandro, of Naugatuck, left, competes in the annual Griskus Triathlon Saturday at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury with the assistance of Chris Love, of Glastonbury, a volunteer with the Achilles Program. Alejandro is visually impaired. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

Dave Alejandro, of Naugatuck, left, competes in the annual Griskus Triathlon Saturday at Quassy Amusement Park in Middlebury with the assistance of Chris Love, of Glastonbury, a volunteer with the Achilles Program. Alejandro is visually impaired. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

MIDDLEBURY — Naugatuck’s David Alejandro has run three New York City marathons, two Hartford marathons, duathlons, triathlons, road races, even a full triathlon of 140.6 miles and a half triathlon at 70.3.

Alejandro is also legally blind.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa 10 years ago, Alejandro has no peripheral vision. He can see only through a vision funnel that he said is the size of a quarter. Yet the Bridgeport native is not restricted to life on the sofa thanks to an organization called Achilles International.

Saturday, Alejandro, 41, competed in his first Pat Griskus Olympic Triathlon. His race guide was Chris Love of Glastonbury. They completed the triathlon — one mile swim, a 25 mile bike, 6.2-mile run — in 3 hours, 36 minutes. They were not last.

With a guide by his side Alejandro is an athlete again.

“You’re always trying to prove yourself and push your body,” Alejandro said. “Achilles allows me to do that.”

In the swim Alejandro was not tethered.

“I can see enough in the water and we swim in tandem,” he said.

Alejandro and Love, 56, rode a tandem bike, and they ran tethered by a bungy cord.
“I have done Iromans, so I know how difficult this sport is,” Love said. “I can’t image how someone like Dave does this.”

He does it thanks to Achilles.

Achilles, with more than 80 chapters worldwide, was started in 1983 by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run the New York City marathon. Traum connected with another famous athlete and amputee, Pat Griskus, the Waterbury native who became the first amputee to complete an Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.

Traum and Griskus became friendly rivals and close friends. Griskus often led Achilles workouts in Central Park. After Griskus died in a 1987 training accident his widow, Robin Griskus, formed a Connecticut Achilles chapter.

“There was a lot of momentum in those first years,” said Erin Spaulding of Branford, current Connecticut chapter president.

But as the years rolled by, Connecticut Achilles athletes drifted away.

Formerly a health care professional, Spaulding suffered a head injury in 2010. She learned to walk again, but was told she’d never run. Undeterred, she showed up at an Achilles race in New York and competed in a five miler using a walker.

“I went up to Dick Traum and asked him, ‘Who runs the Connecticut chapter,’ and he said, ‘No one. You are.’”

Alejandro was one of the first athletes to join. Love, with his 19 year-old daughter Bridget, 19 at the time, were the first guides.

The Connecticut chapter went from a handful of athletes then, to 77 now, with 230 volunteers.

The guides help athletes train and compete, although Alejandro goes on his training runs alone.

“I can’t see every hole, or every rock, or every divot,” he said, “but I run alongside the road, all the way to Quassy, and sometimes all the way to Oxford.”

Determined to run a marathon Alejandro signed up for New York in 2010.

“I was on my own,” he said. “My vision was better then. I was on a journey to prove to myself that I can doing something.”

In New York he was approached by an elderly couple who assumed he was in search of the Achilles tent.

“I was introduced to a lady named Russell,” Alejandro recalled. “She asked me, ‘Do you have an impairment?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She asked, ‘Are you a member of Achilles?’ I said, ‘No.’ She asked, ‘Do you have a guide?’ and I said, ‘No.’”

No problem. A guide was provided on the spot.

“I wasn’t tethered for my first run,” Alejandro said. “I followed the yellow shirt that said Achilles Guide, and 4 hours and 30 minutes later I finished my first New York marathon.”

“We help someone like David, who is rapidly losing his eyesight,” said Spaulding, “or someone like me, with no balance or coordination, or people who’ve had strokes, or who are amputees. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there. This helps you find that way back from feeling sorry for yourself. It gives you hope again. It gives you a chance to push yourself in a way you never thought possible.

“These athletes were told that they can’t do something. We don’t buy that.”
Love said that he and his daughter receive more from Achilles than they put in, and volunteer time has not interfered with their personal competition schedules.

And recruitment is a snap.

“A woman stopped me at the Griskus between the finish line and the food line and wanted to know more about Achilles,” Love said. “She asked, ‘Who are you guys, and how do I get involved?’”

For more information on Achilles International visit www.achillesinternational.org or the local chapter at www.achillesct.org.