Para-athlete ‘One-Arm’ Willie competes in first 106º West Triathlon
On the crisp morning of Sept. 10, nearly 800 athletes crowded the Dillon Marina for the first 106° West Triathlon. “One-Arm” Willie Stewart, a 55-year-old para-athlete is a well-known face among them. The father of two and resident of Idaho formerly lived in Breckenridge and currently is an ambassador for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).
This is not Stewart’s first rodeo. He said he tries to fit as many events in a year as he can. But this event is special — he’s doing it in honor of Jon “Zeke” Zdechlik. Zdechlik helped coach the U.S. Disabled Nordic Ski Team in Breckenridge and was a life-long resident of Frisco. He died of cancer in July of 2015, and a memorial sign with the inscription “Zeke’s Place” was recently installed at the Frisco Peninsula.
While Stewart was living in Breckenridge, Zeke was his ski coach. They worked together for 10 years, and the relationship quickly became a solid friendship. The team, including Stewart, made it to the Paralympics, where Stewart won silver in 2002. “Zeke would have laughed if I told him I was doing this (for him),” he said. He added that it was a special moment to see the sign that was dedicated to Zeke.
After losing his arm in a construction accident in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1980, Stewart faced a brief time where he didn’t compete in athletics. He considers this to be the lowest point in his life.
“I’ve always used sports as a kind of coping mechanism,” he said.
His comeback started with championing a rugby team in the District of Columbia before moving to Breckenridge in the mid-’80s and starting a team there. Next up, Stewart challenged himself to skiing and eventually running. “I love first-time challenges,” he said.
A month ago he competed in the Leadville 100 ultramarathon, and he does not plan on stopping with the 106° West this year. After this race, Stewart heads to New York, and finally San Diego for two more events.
Stewart acts as an ambassador for the CAF, which works to support disabled athletes in the United States. A portion of the proceeds from this race benefit the organization. Stewart has worked with CAF for 20 years.
“I get to be part of the community I love,” he said.
Since it was founded 20 years ago, the organization has raised over $40 million for para-athletes, according to its website.
Before concentrating on events with the CAF, Stewart worked several different full-time jobs. Despite his busy schedule training and racing, Stewart said he gets to see his family more now.
Competing in 106º West
Before the race, athletes were told the water in Lake Dillon was 60 degrees. For Stewart, the temperature was his biggest concern. Cold water makes it difficult for your muscles to warm up again for the next leg of the race.
“When you’re in cold water, the quicker you’re in, the quicker you’re out the better,” he said. “The longer you’re out in the water the worse your race is going to be.”
Stewart added that in a typical half-Ironman, he can finish in about five hours, but he said that the elevation would add at least an hour to his time. He estimated the 1.2-mile swim would take him 45 minutes.
Stewart was in wave five of the race, designated by their yellow swim caps. The group was made up of athletes over the age of 40 and was the last wave of the day. This was a concern for Stewart, because the wind was supposed to pick up around 1 p.m., making the bike race portion harder for racers.
At 9:50 a.m. wave five was off for the swim. Nearly 45 minutes later, Stewart emerged from the water. By 10:42, he was on his bike.
The start of the bike course immediately put racers on a slight uphill. But the elevation was not as much of a concern for Stewart. “If the elevation hurts, that’s just part of what I signed up for,” he said.
Stewart clocked his 56-mile bike ride at 1:42 p.m., on track for a finishing time of 6:05:32. The last leg was the 13.1-mile run, which Stewart completed in two hours. But for Stewart, these events are not about getting he best time: it’s about racing for the love of it.
“I wouldn’t know what a bad race is,” he said, “it’s an honor to tow the line.”
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