20-09-04 Challenged athletes Willie.jpg

Adaptive athlete “one-armed Willie” Stewart is part of a team of athletes taking on the 400-mile Smoke ’n’ Fire race.

The Smoke ’n’ Fire 400 bike race is not for the faint-hearted. The self-supported competition runs through rough terrain from Boise to Sun Valley, through Stanley and back to Boise.

Now in its eighth year, the race will include for the first time a team of athletes with special challenges—but they certainly are not “disabled.”

Take Willie Stewart, for example. Known as “one-armed Willie” to fans, the adaptive athlete lost an arm in a construction accident in the 1980s. Due to rush hour traffic that day, he ran a mile on foot to the hospital carrying what remained of his arm. The former all-state wrestler has since become a well-known triathlete, cross-country skier and cyclist, using a prosthetic arm attached to the handlebars.

“We are creating a unique group of athletes to send a message to the next generation to show what is possible,” Stewart said. “Challenged Athletes of Idaho is here to let parents of kids with disabilities know they can have a bright future. We are here to prove it!”

But the Smoke ’n’ Fire will provide a whole new set of challenges. Almost entirely on dirt roads and single track, it covers more than 35,600 feet of elevation gain over five days.

“Even for many able-bodied athletes, this is an incredibly difficult race. Many of them don’t finish it.” said Taylor Walker, spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which sponsors athletes like Stewart and the rest of his team.

“For adaptive athletes, they are met with additional challenges because of malfunctions not only with their bikes, but with their prosthetics,” Walker said. “Also, for athletes using a hand cycle or recumbent, they will encounter areas where their cycle simply won’t fit and the team will have to resort to carrying the bike and potentially the athlete.”

The rest of the Challenged Athletes team includes Lucas Onan, who has an underdeveloped left arm due to arthrogryposis, Mohamed Lana who has a single leg amputation due to a pelvis, hip and femur disorder, and Andre Kajlich, who lost both legs in a train accident.

“Because Andre is a double leg amputee, he will likely have the most challenges during this race,” Walker said. But he will not be alone.

“It’s an individual race but no one is saying we shouldn’t help others when we can,” Stewart said.

After a night out with friends while studying in Prague, Kajlich was struck by a subway train. The tragedy did not put an end to his competitive spirit. Since then he has been named “U.S.A.’s Paratriathlete of the Year,” winning the Pan American Championship, Ironman 70.3 and Kona World Championships.

The Challenged Athletes team is expected to arrive in Ketchum on Wednesday, Sept. 9.

For more about the Smoke ’n’ Fire 400 go to bikepacking.com/routes/idaho-smoke-n-fire-400.

For info on the Challenged Athletes Foundation, go to: www.challengedathletes.org.

Email the writer: tevans@mtexpress.com

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