Running. There's a feeling of speed and weightlessness to it, a feeling 13-year-old Sayers Grooms thought she’d never experience in her life. That is, until she got a RaceRunner, a custom-built tricycle without pedals that helps people with disabilities walk and run.
Sayers of Gainesville, Florida, was born with ataxic cerebral palsy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cerebral palsy (CP) is a group of disorders that affect a person's ability to move and maintain balance. It's caused by abnormal brain development or damage to a developing brain. Ataxic cerebral palsy is a less common form, and leads to problems with coordination.
Sayers has never let CP limit her goals. From a young age, she’s been interested in movement, playing soccer and enjoying the outdoors. She’s also very independent. When she was four years old, she refused to use her walker, and still tries to avoid using it when possible.
“She has had a keen interest in movement and mobility since the very beginning,” her mother, Mary Grooms, told TODAY. "As she got older, she figured out the walking thing, but couldn't figure out the running thing, that was difficult for us to watch.”
When Sayers was seven years old, she expressed an interest in one day playing in the Paralympics.
“At that time she had already been participating in soccer for several years, she had tried adaptive soccer, but she really preferred to hang out and play with the typical kids; but speed has always been a challenge for her and certainly was back then,” Grooms said.
Finding the RaceRunner
So Grooms began searching online for ways her daughter could participate in the games. Though, her research revealed that current Paralympic sports might not be physically possible for Sayers.
“Even Paralympic sports had pretty (physically) able athletes. I kept thinking, ‘there’s gotta be something out there for this kid,’” she said. “I did any combination of search words to see what came up.”
Finally late one night, she came across a term “RaceRunning.”
RaceRunning is a sport for people with disabilities living with impaired balance or strength, using a RaceRunner.
We don’t want children who want to move to learn it’s OK not to move and not to exercise.
The first RaceRunner was constructed in Denmark in 1991 after Mansoor Siddiqi, a Paralympic backwards wheelchair racer in the 1980s worked with Connie Hansen, a Danish Paralympic forward wheelchair racer and occupational therapist, to see if they could come up with a new machine that would enable athletes to do more.
Together, they invented the RaceRunner, allowing differently-abled athletes more forward movement. About a year later, the RaceRunner started gaining popularity in Denmark.
After reading about this, Grooms and her husband, Greg, wanted to try to get her daughter one.
“I reached out to the two manufacturers of RaceRunning frames that I could find, and one said, 'Absolutely not. We don’t ship to the U.S.' And the other said, 'Let’s find a way.'”
That second manufacturer who agreed was Hansen. They exchanged details, Hansen asking questions and Grooms sending videos, photos and measurements. Right around Sayers’ eighth birthday, her RaceRunner arrived.
“We strapped on her running shoes and she hopped on the RaceRunner and for the first time in her life, she got to feel like she was actually running,” she said.
“She just took off. She kept looking down at her feet like she couldn’t figure out how it was all working. She was so happy. Her sister, Harrison, was thrilled, running around with her.”
The moment, which Grooms caught on camera, was life-changing for the entire family.
“It was actually a tough video to film, because I was so emotional at the time. I was just amazed at the moment of freedom for her,” she said.
Sayers was hooked. Since, she has competed in races in Denmark and Spain.
RaceRunning can be such a game changer for physical and emotional health.
From then on, Sayers wanted to share it with any other kid out there who could also benefit from the sport. Slowly, Sayers started raising money to help other children, young adults and adults with disabilities purchase one. Her nonprofit is called Watch Me Run.
RaceRunning has approximately 30 to 40 athletes in Europe, with an annual race and camp for young adults and kids in Denmark. International interest is growing.
In October 2017, the International Paralympic Committee announced that RaceRunning would be a World Para Athletics event. This means that RaceRunning competitions will be included in major international Para events moving forward. Inclusion of RaceRunning in these major Paralympic events moves the sport closer and closer to eventual inclusion in the Paralympic Games.
David Black, principal of a company called RAD Innovations, which makes adaptive mobility bikes and products, has distributed RaceRunners in the U.S.
“When you see an individual who is on a motorized wheelchair, that can get onto one of these frames and be held secure … It’s a life changer,” said Black.
He sees incredible potential in the RaceRunner. “The RaceRunner isn’t just a competitive sports product, it is a mobility product as well.”
The RaceRunner has yet to catch on in the U.S., but Grooms is working hard to change that.
“We don’t want children who want to move to learn it’s OK not to move and not to exercise,” she said. “RaceRunning can be such a game changer for physical and emotional health.”
Pausing, she added: “It’s so important that we not give up on these kids and give them opportunities to move. And RaceRunning is a perfect opportunity for movement of a body that’s not always cooperative.”