Pioneer: An Interview with Scott Rigsby

By Jon Gilson

Scott Rigsby meets us in the lobby of the Sheraton in downtown Boston. He's not hard to spot, a few inches north of six feet, pink from the sun, and walking on two prosthetic legs. It's a day after the 2012 running of the Boston Marathon, which Scott finished in spite of the out-of-season 85 degree heat and some issues with his legs not fitting correctly.

When Scott was eighteen, he was thrown from the back of a truck and dragged over three hundred feet. The resultant injuries required more than twenty surgeries, leaving him physically and emotionally battered.

In January of 2006, admittedly at the lowest point of his life, Scott found himself at the magazine rack of a bookstore, where he read about the Hawaiian Ironman, one of the most grueling and well-known triathlons on the planet. As fate would have it, the next magazine he picked up featured the story of a US veteran who was missing a leg but competing in triathlons regardless.

Despite never having run on his legs, not having enough money for a bike, and not knowing how to swim, Scott determined to enter and finish the 2007 Hawaiian Ironman World Championships. Twenty months later, he became the first double amputee to ever finish the prestigious race, and his story was highlighted on NBC's coverage of the event. Since then, he's finished another Hawaiian Ironman, written a book, and dedicated his life to sharing what he calls his "Unthinkable" story.

Living in Atlanta, Georgia, Scott was familiar with CrossFit, having seen affiliates pop up around town over the past few years. But it wasn't until the airing of the 2011 CrossFit Games on ESPN that he began to take real notice.

Jon Gilson: Scott, I'm really interested in your take on CrossFit, as essentially a pair of virgin eyes. You saw it for the first time on ESPN?

Scott Rigsby: Yeah, it was on ESPN. Watching that program kind of took me back to that kind of journey when I was sitting there [watching the 2005 Ironman]. I was thinking about when I thought about the Ironman. I was like, "Has a double amputee ever done an Ironman before?" Well, at that time, no double amputee in the world had done even an Olympic distant triathlon. It goes Sprint, Olympic, Half Ironman, and Ironman. So, I thought, "Well, why don't I do it?"

Then I was watching the CrossFit Games, I thought, "We have so many of our soldiers that are coming back injured." I've been to Walter Reed and many of the military bases around the country. I've seen them doing exercises and seen them doing the rehab, and some of them are kind of CrossFit exercises. I just thought, "Why isn't there an [adaptive] category in these Games?"

So, the way I see the kind of synergy between those two sports is that if there was a category in the Games for physically challenged athletes, then that would only grow the movement. That would only grow the sport because people are--sometimes they can't relate to the guy who won, or maybe even the top ten people. They can't relate to them because they're like, "Wow, that guy could could eat like a trucker and he could still have washboard abs." They can't relate to those body types, but they can relate to people that kind of look like our general population and that got the bug. Maybe they had some kind of accident or whatever, and they're doing it. They're like, "Wow, okay, I don't have an excuse to sit here on the couch anymore and just be a couch potato. I can't use the excuse that I can't be fit anymore, because there's a guy that has two prosthetic legs, and he's carrying sixty pounds of water a hundred yards. Now he's doing pull-ups."

Jon: So, it's the exposure to the scalability and inclusivity of CrossFit that's the true value in highlighting adaptive athletes at the Games?

Scott: The reality is that, I was in--Delta has a magazine, and so these people all over the world got a chance to read about my story before I actually did my Hawaiian in 2007. If you asked a person, if you said, "Hey, do you know who Christy Wellington is? Do you know Chris McCormick?"--that year, nobody would have known, because they can't relate to somebody that can run an eight hour triathlon or Ironman. They can't relate to that, but they can relate to somebody that has had twenty-six surgeries, had all these kinds of challenges and has two prosthetic legs, and they're like, "Okay, I can't tell somebody that I can't do an Ironman, because he just did it."

And it's the same for your sport. People can't--they look sometimes at people, and at CrossFit, and are like, "Oh, that's too hardcore. I can't do that." Well, they can, but you have to get people in your sport that have physical challenges that can show the person sitting on the couch that they actually can do it.

Jon: The interesting gap is not that adaptive athletes aren't doing CrossFit--they are--but it's taking them from that training phase to the competition phase. You've bridged that gap, helping to bring adaptive to the largest stage of triathlon. What challenges did you face in bridging that gap?

Scott: I just had to show people what was possible. For me, the toughest thing was I had to be a pioneer. I was a pioneer because I didn't have somebody ahead of me going, "Okay, this didn't work." My pain has been a lot of people's gain. I got with a great prosthetist that made great equipment, but along the way, stuff didn't work, stuff broke. Seven month before I did the Ironman I ran a marathon where I was dumping cups of blood out of my legs every four miles. I finished the marathon in five hours, forty-five minutes, pouring blood out of my legs. Well, we go, "Okay, that's not going to work." So, I was fortunate enough to have good people around me. I had a doctor who was famous in hyperbaric medicine. He put me in his hyperbaric chamber--a million dollar chamber--and he healed me up in a matter of four or five days, where it would have taken weeks.

I surrounded myself with good people to be able to be that kind of pioneer, so that my pain could be other's gain. Since I finished Ironman 2007, a triple amputee has--through my prosthetist--a triple amputee has actually finished the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon. An arm amputee has finished two Ironmen. So my prosthetist has helped three multiple amputees get through an Ironman competition.

Well, that just happened because people saw me on the NBC coverage in 2007.

The way I bridge that gap is just giving--I created a platform through the media to share this story with them.

Photo credit: Kevin Koresky

Jon: Were there ever moments of doubt, days you wanted to quit?

Scott: I don't know if there ever was--I had gotten to a point where I didn't have anywhere to look but up. So, when you're at the bottom of the barrel and there's only one way to look up, then you've only got one shot.

There was just something inside of me. There's this old movie called City Slickers, and these guys go out to this kind of dude ranch, and they meet this old, crusty cowboy. They're trying to figure out life--they have wives and kids, and they've got these lives that are kind of stuck, and they're trying to figure out, "What is it in life--why am I here?" Kind of a bigger purpose type of deal. The cowboy points his fingers at them and kind of says, "Find that one thing, and just do it."

Well, I found that one thing. I knew that when I read that article, when I saw the soldier in the next magazine. I knew that this was the one thing I needed to do. For whatever reason, I needed to do the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon, be the only guy in the world that finished it with two prosthetic legs.

Jon: We were talking coming up the elevator about the marathon you ran yesterday. You were telling us how you lost a bunch of weight training for the race, and you found your legs didn't fit you as well as you'd like. How instrumental is the role of the prosthetic and the prosthetist in making sport happen for the adaptive population?

Scott: It's critical. If anybody tells you that they have the best prosthesis in the world, well, they're not telling you the truth, because there's really no such thing as the best prosthesis. Like, there's not the best doctor in the world, but there's a group of innovative people that kind of think outside the box, and I just happen to have one in Atlanta. I know for a fact that he's the only prosthetist in the world that has helped three multiple amputees through an Ironman competition. So, he's got something going right.

The role of prosthetists is to work with the amputee and just try and figure out--have these kind of backup plans, like, "Okay, if this happens, then…" And so that's what I did yesterday. I made it through the race. I took an hour and a half longer than I normally would, but I made it through the race. The goal was to finish, and through that I learned, "Okay, next time, what we need to do is we've got to plan more time ahead that if there is a significant amount of body fat loss, then we need to have back up sockets made. We need to have backup equipment."

So, the interesting thing about prosthetics is you can't have a Plan A. You've always got to have a Plan B--and that's not even enough. You've got to have a Plan C.

The cool thing about integrating that, integrating not only prosthetics, but the physically challenged into the CrossFit Games, is that you would see what kind of effort it takes for people to have to adapt. You think that just because you have--well, this is going to be our adaptive category. You don't even have a clue what adaptation is until you actually get there. I mean, you could create a category--there's six categories in triathlon for physical challenges. You could not reinvent the wheel and take those categories and place them into the CrossFit Games and, still, the second year would be drastically different than the first because everybody's trying to figure out, "Well, you know, what are we going to do?"

View the Again Faster Adaptive Team take on the classic CrossFit workout "Cindy."

Jon: One of the biggest struggles I had in writing Push, Pull, Lift, Press was thinking about how we could go about making sure that the divisions we choose, the divisions within an adaptive CrossFit event, were equitable, or at least equitable to a degree, while at the same time making sure we don't have fifteen or twenty divisions in an effort to make things fair.

Scott: You don't make it fair, because life's not fair. So, what you do is--like, they have six physically challenged divisions in triathlon. Well, I compete in a division that I know I'll never win because I compete against people who--maybe they have cerebral palsy, but they just must have learned it that day from a doctor because they are so fast. I mean, I don't mind busting their chops…so, it's like, I don't care. It's not about whether you win or not. It's not whether you win that division or not because nobody cares. The general public doesn't care whether you won a medal for that division. All they care is that you completed it.

And, to back up, all they care about is that you competed. They don't care about where you finish. The Boston Marathon, nobody cares whether I finished in six hours or three hours. They could care less. Nobody cares if I finish the Ironman in 16:59, when there's a seventeen hour cutoff, or twelve hours. They could care less. The general public wants to know that what I've started is finished, and that I gave everything. The only way I was going to leave the Ironman was on a stretcher in an ambulance, that's it.

You guys could stick me in the CrossFit Games with the regular crowd. I don't care, because I'm not competing against them. I'm competing against me. I've already won if I get there because they don't know the challenges I've had to overcome to actually get there and to have to adapt these exercises. My competition is me, and my audience is the guy who is sitting on the couch, the couch potato, the person sitting in the hospital wanting to take their life, the person who's sitting in rehab. That's my audience.

So, I'm not looking to create a category to be able to go win it. I'm looking for an avenue to be able to share a story, to share many stories and be able to grow a sport.

Photo courtesy of Scott Rigsby.

Jon: Adaptive CrossFit competition is still very young, obviously, but there is a groundswell of interest and support for it. One of the things we've been talking to the people at the forefront of that groundswell is about the need to simply try it--let’s have the competition and let’s see what shakes out. Where does theory versus practice play out in adaptive sport, in adaptive competition?

Scott: Well, you already have the Warrior Games that are in Colorado every year. All those folks have some kind of injury. They’re in there and competing. So, it’s not like you don’t have the population. You actually have more physically challenged athletes to access than you do in triathlon. Triathlon, there’s maybe a hundred at best, maybe--I’ll back it up. Maybe there’s sixty to eighty people that might participate in triathlon, in a paratriathlon, with some kind of physical challenge.

The challenge will be to be able to figure out what exercises would be in this kind of preliminary competition.

Jon: That’s kind of the largest hurdle for us, in that the theory behind CrossFit is you prepare for the unknown and the unknowable, and that means that at every joint--shoulder joint, hip joint--you have to be able to push or pull, you have to be able to flex or extend. One of my concerns is the prosthetics that are needed. How is it that we accommodate someone who might have to be pulling on a barbell one moment, using their hip as an extension lever, and somebody who might be pushing on a barbell or a dumbbell or sandbag the next?

Scott: The beauty of CrossFit is that a lot of like--say you’ve got push-up, pull-up whatever, you’re not going to take your leg off. I can do a one-armed push-up. I can’t do many of them, but I can do a one-arm push-up. So, I don’t have to do anything with my legs. Box jumps, they have prosthetic legs out there that you could do a box jump. You just figure out what kind of height is going to tax your body, where it really is taxed, where the average Joe on the street maybe couldn’t do it.

The prosthetics are there. I mean, you can do CrossFit with regular walking legs. You don’t need special equipment.

Then, you just pick – what you do when you actually have a competition, maybe a preliminary competition or whatever, you go, “Okay, you’ve got these ten exercises, or these fifteen exercises that you have to prepare for, but we’re going to pick, let’s say ten of them. We’re going to pick eight of them. You’re going to have do them."

Then, that way, you do have that kind of unknown, but they still know, “Okay, I need to be prepared.”

Jon: You limit the movement selection to something more manageable, or at least trainable.

Scott: They have all the equipment in those – say fifteen exercises total. You pick eight. Well, they have all the equipment for those fifteen, but they know they’re only go to have to do eight. So, then that way you have the element of, “Okay, I don’t really know what’s going to come at me.”

Jon: It terms of combination or duration.

Scott: Yeah, but I’ve got all the equipment to be able to do it.

Jon: What's your next challenge?

Scott: My next challenge is, I want to do the Xterra World Championships.

Jon: That's an adventure race?

Scott: It's an off-road triathlon. It's two weeks after the Hawaiian Ironman. It's a one and a half mile swim, an eighteen mile mountain bike race on lava, and you have a trail run on lava. Last year in the Ironman, on the bike, [the pavement] was 135 degrees. It's probably going to be at least that on the mountain bike course and the running course. So, it's one of the toughest off-road triathlons in the world. It's broadcast on worldwide television, and no double amputee has ever finished it on two prosthetic legs. So, I'm going to go and do it. And then my focus is really going to kind of switch to try and change the CrossFit scene.

Jon: How do you envision that happening? How do you imagine helping change the CrossFit scene?

Scott: I think I’d like to be in the 2013 CrossFit Games. When I sat down and had this vision, I said, “I’m going to be in the 2007 Ironman World Championships.” I just knew that, and I gave myself a long enough time to prepare for it. I’m going to start figuring out--I want to get with somebody that has enough sense about [CrossFit] to have--I can’t do it by myself. I’m smart enough to realize that.

But the CrossFit Games is not an end. It’s simply a means to a larger end, to tell a story and to create stories. That’s what I see. I see that this is just another avenue to being able to create a story.

The beauty in adaptive CrossFit is that all the pieces are there. You’ve just got to coordinate them together. One of the things that the Paralympics did to try to get triathlon is they had what they called--in London, they’ll have kind of a preview. They’ll kind of just do a dress rehearsal. It’s not an official sport. So, you’re not going to get a medal or anything like that, but they’ll have like a dress rehearsal for the ones in Rio [in 2016], and it’s actually a Paralympic event. They’re going to have kind of a run-through and see how things work.

Before you put something on TV, you want to have a grassroots movement. You want to go ahead and work out all the bugs first. You want to have state competitions. You want to have regional competitions. You want to have national competitions before you’re going to have a world competition. I mean, the Ironman started [in 1978] with fifteen military soldiers that had a pissing match and they wanted to see who was the best swimmer, biker or runner. So, they said, “Let’s do this swim. Let’s do this bike. Let’s do this run, and let’s see who’s going to be finished first. Whoever finishes first, well, they’ll be called the Ironman.”

Well, thirty plus years later, that race is broadcast to millions of people around the world and it has anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 athletes in it, and it started with just 15. When it got on the map was in 1982, when an article was written about it in Sports Illustrated, and that really put it out there to the general public to go, “Wow, there is this crazy endurance race.” Something inside of them said, “I’ve got to do this.” It was kind of a measuring stick for themselves, and that’s kind of what people are looking for, that measuring stick. What’s the next measuring stick?

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. You can read the article that inspired this coversation here.