October 24, 2021

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Veterans With Disabilities Celebrate Resiliency, Conquer 650-Mile Relay

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The 650-mile, 19th Annual Achilles Resistance Relay wrapped up on July 10 with a group of 4,000 runners racing through New York City’s Central Park.

The relay, which began June 26, was led by the Achilles Freedom Team, a group of ill and/or injured veterans, with legally blind runner Eric Strong conquering the opening 44 miles, heading eastward from Charlotte.

Relay participants — runners, walkers and wheelers — began by heading east across North Carolina and Virginia towards Washington, D.C. On June 28, the route stretched 128 miles, from Louisa, VA to Arlington, VA.

The Achilles Freedom Team was honored at a June 30 event featuring former U.S. President George W. Bush, in a conversation with Cigna Corporation CEO David Cordani, in Washington, D.C.

“Demonstrating bravery on the battlefield, they often return home with injuries — both visible and invisible — that intensify the challenges of transitioning to civilian life,” Bush said. “Together, we celebrate an elite group of veterans who, through their perseverance and athletic accomplishments, are teaching us that when we face adversity, we can push our limits of what is possible.”

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Among the heroic stories of the Achilles Freedom Team is U.S. Army Captain (Ret.) Holly Koester, whose military career ended when she sustained a permanent injury while in the service. “When I was first injured, I thought my active life was over,” Koester said. “After discovering wheelchair sports, I realized that is clearly about as far from the truth as can be imagined.” Koester, a proud canine enthusiast, became the first person to complete a full marathon in all 50 states using a pushrim chair.

Jenny Hwang, of Queens, NY, was born with Retinitis pigmentosa, and lost most of her sight in 2002. In 2013, “The Daredevil” discovered Achilles and began a new chapter of distance running, completing the Paris Marathon in 2018.

The 650-mile relay culminated on July 10 — the 31st anniversary of the signing of the Americans With Disabilities Act — with a 4-mile Achilles Hope run through Central Park, hosted by the New York Road Runners. Celebrity ambassadors on hand included comedian Jon Stewart, former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber and ABC News journalist Deborah Roberts.

“You have inspired not just myself over these years but the entire country as we reawaken … to possibilities and the hope of everything that we can accomplish,” Stewart said.

Achilles International is a global organization that transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connection. The relay campaign has raised more than $109,000; donations can be made here.

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