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Backwards Bill: A lesson in mutual support

Shelly  Gigante

Posted on October 23, 2018

Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Live Mutual lesson from wheelchair marathoner

Bill Reilly, who has finished more than 40 marathons — backwards and in a wheelchair — credits his mom for his competitive streak.

Born with Cerebral Palsy (CP), “Backwards Bill,” as he is affectionately known, trains between three and 10 miles every weekend when prepping for a marathon with Achilles International, which pairs athletes with disabilities with guides.

“My mom told me early on that if you’re not Number One then the hell with it,” he said in a joint interview with his running guides, Harold Chayefsky and Erica Rodriguez. “I’m one of the few marathoners with CP and what I’ve learned is that you can do whatever you want as long as you put your mind to it.”

Indeed, said Reilly, goal-setting is no different for athletes with disabilities than it is for athletes without disabilities.

“You still have to strive to do your best,” said Reilly. "I am always trying to better my times from previous races, whether they are marathons or shorter races.”

The commitment and dedication required to finish a marathon are character traits he embraced long ago. Despite significant physical and speech limitations, he pushed himself to graduate near the top of his class in high school, then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science in college, competing all the while on swim and racing teams for CP athletes.

(Learn more: Special needs strategies and planning )

While the feeling of crossing the finish line motivates him to continue participating in road races, however, Reilly said it’s his guides and fellow runners who make it all worthwhile.

“It really is more than a community,” he said of the friends he has made on the marathon road. “It’s a family.”

Chayefsky, Reilly’s guide for the last eight years, helps steer and brake his racing wheelchair, but equally provides emotional support both on and off the racing circuit.

“My wife is quite sick now and the support from my guides really helps a lot,” said Reilly.

Chayefsky originally volunteered as a way to connect with others who share his passion for distance running, but the relationships he has forged with Reilly has been an unexpected gift.

“Running is a social activity for me,” Chayefsky said. “At one point, most of my running partners had moved away and I kept running alone for three or four more years, but I had always seen the Achilles Foundation runners at the events. Eventually, I called to ask if they needed volunteers.”

The obvious camaraderie of the Achilles Foundation athletes is contagious, said Chayefsky, noting one of their newest guides is a man who visited New York from California with his father when he was 17 years old.

“He came to watch the marathon, where he saw Bill cross the finish line, and he said it was the most inspiring thing he had ever seen,” said Chayefsky. “He moved to New York 10 or 15 years later and joined our team as a guide.”

(Learn more: Staying fit with a disability )

Erica Rodriguez, another volunteer at the Achilles Foundation, agreed, noting the guides get back as much as they give.

“It’s so much fun and so much of a community that you’re just hanging out with everyone,” she said. “You’re amazed by the resilience of these athletes, but at the same time you forget about any disabilities and you’re just on a run with someone who may be visually impaired or in a wheelchair and you’re just out hanging out with your friends.”

A man and woman standing being a man in a wheelchair, all wearing green/yellow “Guide” shirts by the side of a road in a park

Bill Reilly with his guides Harold Chayefsky and Erica Rodriguez. (Picture credit: Kate Senie)

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