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The path to inclusion: Catching up with Rob Balucas

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Balucas’ race wheelchair allows him to adaptively compete in the running portion of a triathlon and he uses a handcycle for the biking portion. PHOTOS BY SCOTT FLATHOUSE

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

LOS ANGELES, CA – For Rob Balucas, qualifying for the Kona full IRONMAN World Championship race was more than standing on the triathlon’s biggest stage as a paratriathlete—it was about making the path of inclusion for paratriathletes easier to travel.

Balucas had recently taken up training toward competing in triathlons when, on Sept. 5, 2015, while mountain biking in Marin County, California he crashed. His injuries included a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, collapsed lung and fracture in his lumbar spine, rendering him a paraplegic, and forever changing his life.

Refusing to give up, Balucas began a rigorous rehab and training routine and began competing in triathlons with the help of a handcycle and race wheelchair. Today, he not only trains in the paratriathlete division of IRONMAN, but also speaks candidly about his crash, recovery and adaptive, athletic journey, including when he joined Outlaw Partners, publisher of EBS, last January for a riveting talk at TEDxBigSky.

With qualifying for Kona as his goal, Balucas competed in the Handcycle Division at the IRONMAN 70.3 in Lubbock, Texas this past June. Despite a few hiccups—he and his wife Erika Chau, made the last minute decision to drive, forgoing the chaos that is pandemic air travel, and then it rained on the course the night prior, rendering all of his equipment soaking wet—Balucas arrived and competed against two other handcycle racers for a total time of 5:57:20.

Balucas came in third—just one place short of qualifying for Kona—but there was a communication mix-up. Usually, the first and second place handcyclers are offered a qualifying place at Kona, and the others are offered a spot in the Utah half IRONMAN. While congratulating the athletes on the podium, the race directors this time only offered the Kona spot to the first place winner.

Knowing full well this was not communicated to his fellow athletes, Balucas did what he’s been doing since that crash in 2015—reaching toward athletic goals and striving to advocate for paratriathletes like himself.

“I didn’t like what it meant for people in our division,” Balucas said of the mix-up. “I am able to do this with relative ease because of people who came before me, because I was following a path already set, and I want to do that for people who come behind me.”

After some investigating, Balucas found that his fellows in the handcycle division felt similarly that they had been misled. After all, this would forfeit one handcycle athlete from representing the Americas at Kona this fall. After reviewing Balucas’ concerns, the Lubbock IRONMAN race directors admitted their miscommunication and opened one more slot for Kona. After confirming that the second place handcycle athlete before him didn’t want the spot, reality sunk in for Balucas—he was going to Kona.

“I felt a full shock through my entire body, including the half I can’t feel,” joked Balucas. “It was half excitement, half ‘Oh my gosh what have I gotten myself into.’ It was validating.”

Rob Balucas and his wife, Erika Chau, attend the IRONMAN 70.3 in Lubbock, Texas in June. This race qualified Balucas for the Kona full IRONMAN. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROB BALUCAS

Although Kona has been postponed from Oct. 9 to Feb. 5 due to pandemic concerns, Balucas remains optimistic and diligent about his training schedule. He calls swimming his ‘Achilles heel’ and hopes to get his swim pace down to an hour and 40 minutes, which means putting the time in to shave some time off of his current pace.

“I’m in the best shape fitness and endurance-wise I’ve ever been in, and I’m working on maintaining and increasing that,” Balucas said. “I worked hard I did the best that I could and I’m about to get to the Big Dance.”

The Big Dance not only being one of two representatives for paratriathletes in the Americas at the full Kona IRONMAN, but also advocating for those who follow his path, making it easier for those who have overcome their disabilities and still strive to achieve their athletic goals.

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