Toughened by adversity, blind Achilles runners fear no athletic challenge

Achilles athlete Matt McAvoy (right) competes on the Z-wall in the Spartan Stadion obstacle race in Philadelphia along with guide Anthony Rewinski at Citizens Bank Park back on Sept. 21, 2019 (Spartan Race photography).

“I think what I represent is achieving what you want in life. It’s a matter of your attitude. Some people have a negative attitude and that’s their disability.’’

—Marla Runyan, blind runner and three-time U.S. national 5,000-meter champion.




Her greatest achievement wasn’t winning a race.

It was believing she could.

Marla Runyan set an example for countless sightless athletes, most importantly herself, by winning those formidable titles.

And right here, today, in Pennsylvania, the miracle is being repeated over and over again as members of Team Achilles perform amazing feats of athletic speed, strength and durability.

One need look no further than the Philadelphia chapter of Achilles International, which counts numerous sight-challenged athletes among its membership, for inspirational performances.

Their only reliance? A guide to help make sure they stay on course.

“From the athlete’s perspective why they would want (to be with Achilles). . .one of the pluses is the athletes feel safe,’’ said guide Eileen Mannix, a Yardley resident. “When they run, they exercise, they feel safe.

“The hardest part was getting to this. All the things they’ve overcome, now let’s sit back and enjoy the ride because they’re protected. It’s just a tremendous trust and resilience these athletes have.’’

An accomplished runner, Mannix was competing in the Philadelphia Marathon a few years back when an Achilles runner and a guide passed her near the finish line.

The outpouring of support from onlookers and well-wishers for this athlete at the base of the Art Museum made a lasting impression.

“I had a personal connection in the sense of an awakening,’’ Mannix explained in a recent telephone call. “Both those runners were wearing bright yellow shirts. There was such an exuberance, such an energy. I could feel it.

“As soon as they passed me, I was like, ‘I have to get involved in that.’ ’’

Achilles International (named after the Greek warrior who died in battle) was established in 1983. It encompasses a membership of all handicapped athletes, including wheelchair competitors and ones with other physical disabilities.

An estimated 60-70 percent of the Philly chapter is comprised of sight-challenged members. Besides running, other activities include walking, weight training, indoor treadmill and cycling.

A number of Bucks County athletes are active participants. The attraction is strong.

“There’s an athletic side to it but also a social connection which you cannot deny,’’ Mannix said.

The current pandemic has essentially eliminated racing for the time being and also made it tough for Achilles athletes to get together and socialize.

Recently, however, some restrictions have been lifted and allowed for some limited gatherings for training, etc. The Philadelphia chapter meets once a month at the Signa Building downtown.

“For many months, I wouldn’t say athletes were lost but definitely had a different kind of challenge,’’ Mannix said. “They wanted to stay healthy, get outside and exercise safely.

“After restrictions lightened up, Achilles International gave the go-ahead for outdoor meetings. During this, many athletes and guides stayed in touch. It’s been a challenge but that just shows the strength of the commitment in the Achilles family.’’

Mannix points out the able assistance provided by the Bucks County Roadrunners Club, specifically Billy Lane and Sam Cler.

Cler has been helpful with Achilles member Matt McAvoy, one of the team’s best racers.

“Sam said whatever it takes,’’ Mannix said. “When asked for help, the Roadrunners say yes without hesitation.’’

Mannix, a Germantown native, spent the past several decades living and working in New Jersey before returning to this side of the Delaware.

Officially retired, Mannix remains active in the workplace through her teaching of English as a second language at Bucks County Community College, as well as Rowan University in Burlington, N.J. and a citizenship preparation course at The English School in Lawrenceville, N.J.

A cancer survivor herself (2013), Mannix understands what people with disabilities must go through in order to achieve success.

As a guide, she knows the importance of the concept of “trust’’ between the two individuals.

“Some compete without tethers, that’s how good the communication is,’’ she said. “It’s how trusting they are. They can’t see anything. They’re just listening to the verbal cues.’’

Those interested in the movement can contact Philly Achilles Chapter coordinator Melissa Wilcox at or at the main Achilles website

“Team Bruce’’ (Bruce Linsky) trains at Tyler State Park in Newtown/Richboro on Saturday mornings.


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About Wayne Fish 2446 Articles
Wayne Fish has been covering the Flyers since 1976, a stint which includes 18 Stanley Cup Finals, four Winter Olympics and numerous other international events.

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