NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — A Northwest Arkansas triathlon team, Team Luke, is preparing to compete in one of its most challenging races yet, an IRONMAN 70.3.
“This is a big thing. It’s a very rare occurrence. Where a team is taking on something like a 70.3 IRONMAN,” said Team Luke Captain Greg Parker.
Team Luke is not an average triathlon team. There’s an extra participant, who is differently abled, and by all accounts the biggest motivator on the team, Luke Willyard.
“He’s the athlete and I just get to go along with him and it’s amazing,” Parker said.
Luke was born with a gene mutation that presents as Dravet Syndrome as well as Cerebral Palsy.
“Technically, you can say Luke is nonverbal, but as a mother, I feel very differently,” said Luke’s mom Carrie Willyard. “He makes lots of noises and sounds and gestures that we know what they mean. He kind of has his own his own small language.”
Team Luke doesn’t let Luke’s differences stop the triathlon, instead together, Luke, Carrie, Parker and the others who make up Team Luke work together. They have competed in upwards of 40 races.
“The swimmer, who generally is me, pulls Luke in a kayak or an inflatable boat that’s attached to us,” Carrie said. “And then we transition him to what’s called a bend a cycle. It’s a piece of equipment that both hooks up behind a bicycle and then you pull him behind the bicycle. Then when it’s time to run, you unhook it from the bike and it transitions into like a push stroller.”
As the team prepares for its biggest competition yet, an Ironman 70.3, there is one thing on the participants’ minds: inclusion.
“Our team is big,” Parker said. “Our supporters are amazing. And our purpose is inclusion.”
Luke beams off this amazing positive energy to the audience, to participants, to spectators and then it comes back and it’s just amazing feeling. You just know the right thing is happening. It’s such a magical thing.Parker said.
The team will swim 1.2 miles in the water, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles.
They are competing to raise awareness that just because Luke’s differently abled, doesn’t mean he’s not just as much part of the team as any other person on it.
“Your disability should never keep you from being able to participate,” Parker said. “Luke, he is an athlete. He’s a registered participant in Ironman, and that’s an issue that I love even saying it. I love thinking it’s true.”
This message, Luke’s mom said, has already resonated with other families like hers.
“I know of so many families who, because of Luke… have gotten involved in racing with their children,” Carrie said. “I had a friend recently make the comment that sometimes they watch us carrying Luke and then by the end of the race, it’s Luke carrying us across the finish line. And I love the thought of that.”
Team Luke will either participate in the IRONMAN 70.3 in Chattanooga or Tulsa on May 21, 2023.