Scott Rigsby: Ironman

What does it take to swim 2.4 miles, then bike 112 miles, and top it all off by running a 26.2 marathon?

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For Scott Rigsby (BSFCS ’93) it took a life-changing accident, two artificial legs and a lot of heart.

When Rigsby crossed the finish line at the Ford Ironman in Kona, Hawaii, after just under 17 hours of continuous effort, he was hailed as the first double amputee to complete the event, considered by many to be the most challenging triathlon in the world.

Ironically, Rigsby’s first steps to the Ironman competition began with him lying on a South Georgia highway, his head in the lap of his best friend, his right leg crushed.

Six thousand pounds of trailer was the tourniquet for my right leg,” he recalls of the accident that resulted in the loss of his right leg and a series of surgeries, strung out over 20 years, on his left. “My right leg was severed. I broke my left femur. My left heel bone was drug off and I had third degree burns down my back.”

The accident occurred when an 18-wheeler tried to pass the truck carrying a teen-age Rigsby and his friends back to Camilla after a morning spent on yardwork as part of their summer jobs with the Camilla housing authority. The semi clipped the trailer carrying lawnmowers and other equipment, causing Rigsby to be thrown from the back of the truck and crushed beneath the trailer.

Although he lost his right leg below the knee, doctors were able to rebuild his left, including the piecing together of a new heel and ankle. Despite having spent a year undergoing a total of 17 surgeries, Rigsby forced himself to rapidly progress from a wheelchair to crutches to a walker.

Scott Rigsby

"Two weeks before I began college was when I started walking unassisted,” he says.

Life-Changing Decision  

Rigsby spent 2½ years at Valdosta State University, dividing his time between classes, having his prosthetic leg refitted as his healing continued, and trips to Athens to watch the Bulldogs play—as well as to visit Dick Ferguson’s men’s store.

"I have champagne taste and a beer budget,” Rigsby says of his fondness for fashion, “but I also thought that maybe I’d like to open a store like that some day.”

Ferguson had lectured to fashion merchandising majors and suggested Rigsby, who transferred to UGA in January 1991, consider studying family and consumer sciences.

If it wasn’t for Dr. Hathcote and Dr. and Mrs. Etters helping me, it would have been a tough go for me to graduate,” he says, referring to textiles, merchandising and interiors faculty members Jan Hathcote and Nolan and Betty Etters. “It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized that I had a traumatic brain injury that was affecting my ability to learn, but they were all very supportive and helpful to me.”

Although Rigsby had dreamed of starting his own men’s store, continuing problems with his left leg prevented him from being able to stand for very long.

"Everyone thought of my left leg as my ‘good’ leg, but it was my left leg that gave me so many problems,” Rigsby says.

The unremitting pain, combined with the realization that he wouldn’t be able to meet the demands of being a buyer or running a men’s store contributed to Rigsby becoming addicted to prescription pain medicine. That dependence lasted for three years—following his graduation with a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer sciences in 1993—until a meeting with a pastor moved Rigsby to flush all of his pain medication down the toilet and make a radical decision: to have his left leg amputated.

"I had to meet with psychiatrists and other people to prove that I wasn’t crazy,” he says. “But I was in constant pain with my left leg and my right leg didn’t bother me at all.”

On June 22, 1998, Rigsby’s left leg was removed, and six weeks later he was running on his prostheses.

Pursuing His Calling

Over the next few years, Rigsby worked a series of jobs, including one as a top salesman for an internet company, but he found little fulfillment. His one dream, to work in the sales force of a prosthetics company, ended particularly bitterly.

"I contacted three or four prosthetics companies, but none of them had any amputees on their sales force and they weren’t interested in hiring me,” he says. “I was 33 and having a mid-life crisis. I wasn’t asking why had I lost my legs, but a different kind of why: How do you make a difference? I was so disillusioned.”

Lying on the floor of his parents’ home in Camilla, Rigsby prayed: “If you’ll open a door for me, I’ll run through it.

"There was no tabernacle choir singing hosannas,” he says, but less than a week later, he walked into a bookstore and saw a story on Sarah Reinertsen, an above-the-knee amputee who had completed the Ironman in Hawaii. In short order, Rigsby saw other articles on amputees accomplishing unlikely athletic feats, but nothing about a double amputee completing an Ironman. In fact, no double amputee had completed a much-less-demanding but still formidable Olympic-distance triathlon, which includes a nearly mile-long swim, a bike ride of about 25 miles and a 6-mile run.

Rigsby had found his calling, except for the fact that he had none of the skills for even the shortest of triathlons.

"I’m not genetically gifted as an athlete,” he says. “I’m not a swimmer. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was a kid. I’d never gone farther than a mile with my prostheses.”

Undeterred, he began running every morning at 5 a.m. in the parking lot of his apartment building. He also approached the owner of a health club, who let him ride the stationary bikes, as well as the swim coach of an Atlanta private school, who would sneak him in on Sundays so he could hone his swimming skills.

In April 2006, Rigsby entered his first “sprint” triathlon—a half-mile swim, a bike ride of 12.4 miles, and a 3.1-mile run, in Panama City, Fla. 

His last-place finish was less than stellar, but he continued to enter sprint triathlons, completing six of them in seven weeks and improving his overall time by 38 minutes.

Later that year, Rigsby achieved his original dream of completing an Olympic-distance triathlon, but that turned out to be a starting point rather than an ending. During the succeeding months, he went on to complete a half ironman in Greenville, S.C., and was the first double-amputee in the United States to run a marathon when he finished the ING Marathon in Atlanta, despite his prostheses having rubbed the ends of his legs so raw that he had to stop several times to dump the blood.

As a result of publicity he received from these two events, Rigsby received some financial support from sponsors and began to earn money from speaking engagements. Among the sponsors was Freedom Innovations, which furnished him with new running and biking legs.

A Finisher in Hawaii  

In June 2007—a year and a half since pledging to run through whatever door God opened—Rigsby began the Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene (Idaho). After completing the swim and more than half of the bike ride, the chain on his bike locked, flipping him over the handlebars and onto his back. He still managed to complete the bike segment of the race and began the running portion, but finally dropped out at mile 13. Later, he learned that he had cracked two vertebrae.

Despite his injuries, Rigsby was determined to compete in the Hawaii Ironman, for which he had qualified because of his finish in the earlier half ironman. After spending July and early August recovering, he recommitted to his training regime and in late September, three weeks before the event, headed to Hawaii for on-site training. 

Although Rigsby had competed in triathlons that involved open-water swims, when he began the Hawaii Ironman it was only the fourth time he had swam in the ocean. Yet, the problem came not from the waves and currents but someone else’s foot.

"I swam about 400 meters, got kicked in the eye, and it immediately swelled shut,” he says.

After finishing the swim in just under an hour and a half, Rigsby began the 112-mile bike ride, which passes through lava fields with an air temperature of about 94 degrees. At mile 78, he ran into a headwind that slowed his pace considerably. Feeling a bit overwhelmed and wondering how he would survive the bicycle ride and the marathon yet to come, Rigsby focused on what was his to control.

“I knew I could control my heart rate,” he says. “I could consciously concentrate on slowing it down. Once I did that, the elements didn’t seem as overwhelming.”

After completing the bike ride—which took more than eight hours—Rigsby began the 26-mile run.

“It was really hot, 85 degrees and 80 percent humidity,” he recalls. “It was hard to breathe, and four miles in I had to stop and dump sweat from my prostheses.”

He continued to slog along, stopping every few miles to readjust his prostheses. But at mile 16 he received some jarring news.

“I had only two hours to do the final 10 miles or I’d miss the cutoff time for being considered a finisher,” he says. “I ran the last 9 miles 25 percent faster than the first 17.”

Rigsby completed the marathon portion in six hours and 23 minutes. He crossed the finish line with a total time of 16 hours, 42 minutes and 46 seconds just 17 minutes before the 17-hour cutoff time. A mere 18 months had elapsed between participating in his first sprint triathlon and completing the Hawaii Ironman.

Pushing the Boundaries

Rigsby has received adulation from people around the world for his athletic accomplishments, but his family—he is the youngest of six children—keeps him grounded. 

“I think my siblings are proud of me, but they’re also worn out because it’s taken me so long to get to this point. They’ve been on a roller coaster ride with me all of these years,” he says. “My mom called me after the Ironman and said, ‘I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that, but I’m proud of you.’”

Rigsby’s father has been the hardest member of the family to win over.

“My dad farms land that’s been in our family since the Civil War,” he says. “Originally his attitude was, ‘You’re not a world-champion athlete. Why don’t you get an 8-5 job, watch Fox News, go to church and mind your own business?’ It’s taken two years for him to move from, ‘I’m not proud of you,’ to indifference to reluctant optimism.”

Meanwhile, the competitor has formed the Scott Rigsby Foundation “to inform, inspire and enable physically challenged and able-bodied people to live an active lifestyle.” 

In addition to giving talks to groups ranging from Chick-Fil-A and Arby’s corporate meetings to a boys’ cross-country team in South Carolina, he hopes to stir interest in further development of prostheses for athletic use.

“One of the easiest ways for most people to get exercise is on a stationary bike,” he says. “But the design of stationary bikes needs to be modified so that amputees can go to their neighborhood gym and use them. Many people with physical disabilities want to lead an active lifestyle, but they don’t know how to get started. Once they’ve completed physical therapy to learn how to use their prostheses, that’s it. Most of them are on their own.”

Rigsby hopes his efforts will help people like himself, who have lost limbs to accidents, but also to the some 40,000 men and women who have been injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 600 of whom are amputees.

Rigsby also is working on a book deal for his autobiography, which he already has named—Unthinkable: The Scott Rigsby Story.

“To most people, it was unthinkable that I would begin training for an Ironman triathlon when I was 37 years old and had two prosthetic legs,” he says. “I want other people to know they can do the unthinkable to.”

 

About the Author

Denise Horton is director of communications in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences and editor of FACS Magazine where this story first appeared.