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Roderick Sewell has overcome a lot in his 28 years: Born without tibias, Sewell had his legs amputated when he was 18 months old. As he grew, his prosthetic legs were so expensive that his mom quit her job of 20-plus years to file for unemployment so that the prosthetics could be covered by insurance. That began a domino effect that eventually left the two homeless on the streets of San Diego when Sewell was 8 years old.
But since those days, he’s also accomplished so much—he’s been competing for Team USA in para-swimming since 2014, he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Alabama, ran a 1:39 half-marathon debut as part of a relay at 70.3 Oceanside, and became the first bilateral above-knee amputee to complete the Ironman World Championship.
So how did he get from homeless child to Kona finisher? The trajectory of Sewell’s life changed significantly when he got involved with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) aged 8. Through the San Diego-based nonprofit, he was introduced to not only fellow amputees, including the now four-time Paralympic swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson, but also to adaptive sports like wheelchair basketball, track, and swimming. “Being active in new sports opened my eyes to a whole new world,” he said. “Having that reassurance gave me confidence to go through everything else.”
He showed such promise in the pool that Paralympic swimming became a dream early on. Along the way, through CAF, he also started participating in tri relays. After his swift half marathon in Oceanside in early 2019, he received an invite to race on the Big Island, despite having never ridden a bike. CAF fitted him with a kneeling-style handcycle and helped get him across the line with his training. “[Kona] did more for my friends and my family and for me than going to the Paralympics [will],” he said. “We were on a bigger stage, and we made a bigger sound of, ‘There’s no saying we can’t do this.’”
His successful Kona attempt gave him a new goal: making it to Tokyo in swimming and handcycling. The journey to becoming a Paralympian has already been 12 years and counting. But it’s the support of his family, CAF, and his friends like Garcia-Tolson and Paralympian Blake Leeper that keeps him going. “For any Olympian or Paralympian, they understand it’s an individual journey, but it’s possible,” he said. “It’s a dream I’ve had that I’d like to fulfill not just for myself, but for everybody that’s supported me up to this point.”
His “why” for his journey goes even deeper than his family’s support, though. As a Black man living in the U.S. during a time of such unrest centered around racial injustice, Sewell draws energy from his connection to his ancestors. “I look back on my personal life and my people’s and my family’s lives, and then our ancestors’ lives,” he said, seeking out “anything I can use to remind me that I can do this.” He’s spent time researching his own family’s ancestry as well as the history of what Black people have endured, and it continues to empower him to move forward.
Looking ahead, Sewell will maintain his training as much as possible while working remotely as a financial adviser. In addition, he knows that he wants to use his voice and story to change the lives of others—that’s why he studied public communication in college, to become a motivational speaker. He went on a trip to Ethiopia with the Limb Kind Foundation to give prosthetics to children who don’t have the same access to healthcare, and he’s a CAF ambassador.
“Roderick is a pass-it-on type of young man,” said Bob Babbitt, co-founder of CAF. “It means the world to him when he meets a young person also dealing with a physical challenge who has gained confidence through something Roderick has accomplished. That means much more to him than simply finishing a race.”
While Sewell’s not planning much beyond the Paralympics right now, he’s excited for what the future holds. “I feel like the opportunities are endless,” he said. “The future is very broad, but I feel like I’m on the path.”