Here’s a quick vignette in memory of Robin Williams, who would have turned 69 years old this month (on July 21) and who did as much as anyone to promote the growth of adaptive athletics in the United States and around the world.
Williams befriended eventual Paralympic champion Rudy Garcia-Tolson when the latter was just nine or ten years old. Their connection cemented Williams’ enduring commitment to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), a partnership that has benefited thousands of competitors over the years. Williams became a regular participant in CAF’s annual Million Dollar Challenge and other events, bringing gobs of media attention and fundraising muscle to the organization. His steadfast support helped CAF grow from a local San Diego charity into a global foundation and a major feeder into Team USA’s Paralympic development pipeline.
Among his many gifts to the world of adaptive athletics, Williams helped inspire CAF’s annual Heroes, Heart & Hope Gala in New York City. It happened back in 2004, when CAF auctioned off a coveted slot in the Ironman World Championship triathlon, held annually in Kona, Hawaii. A New York financier named Scott Stackman won the contest, and he few out to San Diego to secure his prize, which was awarded at CAF’s annual Triathlon Challenge. CAF founder Bob Babbitt picks up the story:
“Scott Stackman knew nothing about CAF. He just wanted to go race Kona, because that’s the toughest ticket to get in the sport. So he came out to our event, and he’s standing there when Robin Williams was presenting a set of running legs to Jake Frank, who’s a double above-the-knee amputee. Jake was probably about 8 or 9 years old at the time. So Jake gets these legs, has them on, and Robin Williams starts playing tag with him on the grass. And Scott Stackman is standing there when Jake runs up and grabs Scott’s hat off his head. Scott began to tear up, watching this amazing moment of this young man going from a wheelchair to running around and being chased by Robin Williams, and he’s thinking: ‘If I did something with this group in New York, I think people would really support it.’ So he created the Heroes Heart & Hope Gala in New York, which has raised over $22 million dollars for CAF over the years.”
Amplitude’s sister publication, O&P Edge, briefly noted Williams’ appearance at the event and the presentation to Frank. Heroes Heart & Hope has grown into CAF’s largest fundraiser, accounting for roughly one-fifth of CAF’s annual budget. It might never have happened if not for Robin Williams. Babbit’s got a pretty good trove of stories about the late comedian, including one that begins: “Putting a live microphone in front of Robin Williams is like putting a piece of raw meat in front of a lion. You sort of know what’s going to happen.”
This year’s Heroes, Hearts & Hope had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, but you can still make a donation to support CAF. Do it for Robin’s birthday. He was one of a kind.