Aug. 28, 2012 at 10:33 AM ET
Michigan dad Rick van Beek transformed himself from chain smoker to triathlete, a healthy turnaround inspired by his daughter, who has severe cerebral palsy.
The change came four years ago when the family saw how much their daughter, Madison, enjoyed racing as she was being pushed in the Grand Rapids Marathon.
“To see her being so happy and enjoying every bump in the road was more than I could handle, my emotions took over,” van Beek wrote in a 2010 blog post. “Shortly after that day I gave up smoking 2 packs a day and chewing a tin a day to be better, for Maddy.”
He started training so he could race with Madison, now 13, who is unable to walk, see or speak.
“It was that day that I realized, Madison is not a burden ... she is a blessing that has changed our lives and so many other people’s,” van Beek told TODAY. “Before Madison showed me the way to a healthy lifestyle, I guess you can say I was running away from it.”
When they compete in the swim-bike-run events, van Beek pulls his daughter in a kayak, then he bikes with Maddy riding in an attached cart, and he runs to the finish while pushing Maddy in a stroller, the paper said.
Madison’s sister, Rachel, participates in the swim part of the race, despite her fear of the open water. “I can go out there and be strong for 500 meters, and I'm doing it for her,” Rachel told TODAY.
And brother Hunter runs alongside his dad, and says that his sister motivates him to keep going.
“Whenever I just think I can't do this anymore, I look inside of that cart and I see Madison laughing and smiling and I'm just like, ‘I can do this! I can’t give up!’” Hunter tells TODAY.
After the father-daughter team completed a sprint triathlon in Sanford, Mich., earlier this month, van Beek told the Midland Daily News that although he’s not fast, he loves spending time with his daughter and seeing her enjoy the outdoors.
"She functions like about a 3-month-old, and one of the very few things that we know she enjoys is being outside, being in the water, feeling the breeze in her hair and in her face, and going over all the bumps," he told the newspaper.
His wife, Mary, keeps the entire Team Maddy group going.
“It’s not about finishing first,” she told TODAY. “It’s all about crossing the finish line.”
Maddy, whose room is decorated with medals and race numbers, has changed her family for the better.
“Just the way she is... has made us better individuals all the way around,” her mom tells TODAY.
And everywhere they race, Team Maddy is cheered on by spectators and other competitors who are inspired by the family's spirit. "When you see what we do as a team," Rick van Beek says, "it's about love."
More stories from TODAY Health: