Stand and Deliver 

Able-bodied man competes in and wins wheelchair races

Rick Thigpen is not disabled. He just plays that way on TV.

Rick Thigpen is not disabled. He just plays that way on TV.

In April, Thigpen, a 50-year-old engineer from Murfreesboro, won the wheelchair division of the Country Music Marathon even though he doesn’t use a wheelchair any other time. His spine is fine and his limbs are intact. His only weakness is a pair of bad knees, which doesn’t stop him from working out or shooting hoops at the gym. But after he gave up running a few years ago, Thigpen experienced a divine revelation and soon after found new life as a competitive athlete.

“Late at night, God told me, ‘Your legs aren’t working right, but your arms are working just fine,’ ” Thigpen recalls.

Oddly, the officials at the televised Country Music Marathon don’t seem to care that Thigpen’s disability is—as best we can tell—being middle-aged. They awarded him first prize in the wheelchair division even though it’s an open secret that Thigpen uses his wheelchair as an accessory. He admits he has little problem walking, even if his knees occasionally ache. As recently as 2005, he actually jogged the Country Music Half Marathon. It was only after a few surgeries on his knees that a pair of physicians advised him to find another sport.

They probably didn’t have wheelchair racing in mind.

Last year, Thigpen finished fourth among the wheelchair athletes at the Country Music Marathon before taking the top prize this year. In 2007, he was the runner-up in the wheelchair division of the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando. This year he came in third at the Magic Kingdom race, where those who saw him rise from his chair after he crossed the finish line might have thought they were watching a real-life fairy tale.

Speaking in a gentle drawl, the gray-haired Thigpen defends his decision to compete against athletes with serious disabilities, including amputees and paraplegics, by noting that he is raising money for charity. Every time Thigpen races in his wheelchair, he collects donations for Special Kids, a religious nonprofit aimed at helping children with a range of serious medical conditions. This year alone, the trim Thigpen says he’s raised $3,227 for the group.

“I do it because I’m pushing for all these kids in the wheelchair who can’t sit up or walk,” he says. “There are 100 kids in my lap going with me; it’s about them. It really is.”

This year John Payne, a 28-year-old Memphis native, finished second to Thigpen at the Country Music Marathon and spotted the first-place finisher walking around after the race. That didn’t bother Payne or compel him to challenge the results, but he still wonders if his able-bodied rival should be competing in his division.

“Seems like if he could walk just fine, he could walk the race for money,” says Payne, who became paralyzed from the chest down 10 years ago after he lost control of his mountain bike. “If you’re doing it to raise money, then why are you trying to win the race?”

That’s not a bad question, but, as is his habit, Thigpen has a way of putting unusual circumstances into context. Sounding as earnest as a country preacher passing around a collection plate, he says that his new sport has given him a valuable appreciation for those who are disabled.

“By being in a wheelchair, my respect and attention to what they have to deal with has increased,” he says.

Of course, by Thigpen’s logic, someone who is obese or simply out of shape can compete in the wheelchair division if that aids their perspective on the human condition. Taking a more commonsense view, Mary Bryant, vice president of the New York-based Achilles Track Club, which represents athletes with a range of disabilities, says that the sport of wheelchair racing should be reserved for those who battle serious physical challenges in leading a normal life.

“Our feeling is if you can’t run, you walk,” she says. “And if you can’t walk, then you roll.”

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