By Katie Fallon
In less than a week, one Sandy Springs resident could become famous for doing something nobody in the world has ever done.
Scott Rigsby, the youngest of seven children, is a double amputee triathlete who has already left for Kailua-Kona, Hawaii to compete in the Ironman World Championship triathlon on Oct. 13. Although the 39-year-old only started participating in triathlons last year, he has already qualified to participate in the pantheon of swimming, cycling and running events.
Rigsby’s inspiring story begins during the summer of 1986 when as a soon-to-be college freshman, the former football player was working for a landscaping company. Rigsby was sitting in the back of a pickup truck hauling a trailer of lawnmowers on a south Georgia road when an 18-wheel tractor trailer approached the truck from behind.
The driver of the tractor trailer tried to pass the pickup truck on the two-lane highway as it approached a narrow bridge. When the driver realized the two vehicles wouldn’t able to get over the bridge at the same time, he attempted to move back over into the pickup truck’s lane, but clipped the trailer. This jolted the truck and left Rigsby clinging to its side. He was eventually dragged more than 300 feet before both vehicles came to a rest, with the two-ton trailer pinning Rigsby’s right leg to the ground.
While Rigsby’s right leg was immediately amputated, he kept his left leg for 12 years until he finally made a surgeon for the Atlanta Falcons and Thrashers amputate it as well.
“From 1986 to roughly 1997, I was pretty much a professional patient,” Rigsby said. “I had eight surgeries in six weeks and 17 in one year.”
The single, University of Georgia graduate said his “good” leg often required much rehabilitation, patching up after only moderate physical activity and had only short bursts of standing ability.
“At that time, I wasn’t able to stand very long,” Rigsby said. “I could run for a mile a day or I could be active for a certain extent, but if it required standing for any period of time, I really couldn’t do it.”
Similarly, because of the toll living with one amputated leg and one handicapped leg took on him, Rigsby was also on several medications for depression and other symptoms.
“From 1994 to 1997, I don’t remember a whole heck of a lot,” Rigsby said. “I was so doped up and on so many prescription medications. I literally took a pill to get up in the morning, a pill for panic attacks and all these things.”
When a friend from college told him God had a better plan for his life, Rigsby decided to flush all his prescriptions down the toilet and took a week to dry out. The second amputation also followed a doctor’s recommendation that the leg would have to come off eventually. Rigsby saw that prospect as a way of getting his life together.
“To me, if a doctor is saying ‘sooner or later,’ I’d already been 12 years and 25 surgeries up to that point,’ Rigsby said. “I just wanted to have my life back. I wanted to get on from being a professional patient and get on with life.”
Six weeks after Rigsby’s 1998 amputation surgery, he was able to run foot over foot on his first pair of double prosthetic legs. Since then, he has not stopped running.
While Rigsby said it was initially a bittersweet moment when he realized how well he could run and get around on two prosthetic legs. Soon after, though, he also realized that his quick recovery time may be part of that other plan he thought God had for his life.
“I really realized that I had a gift when I was able to recover that quickly and run on prosthetics,” Rigsby said. “I knew I had this uncanny ability to balance and run on prosthetics, but I didn’t know what to do with it.”
At the time, Rigsby said he just wanted to have a normal life, which to him meant finding a job, getting married and having children. While he did, at one point, have a successful sales career, training for and running triathlons has since become his fulltime career.
But what is even more remarkable is that Rigsby’s triathlon career did not even begin until April of 2006. That is when he ran his first triathlon, which was a sprint event involving a 600 meter swim, 12 mile bike ride and 5K run. It is also when Rigsby said he found his purpose through inspiring others and being an example for people who think they cannot overcome something.
What Rigsby will have to overcome in the Ironman championship, for which he qualified by completing an Ironman half-triathlon, is a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and finishing with a marathon run of 26.2 miles. The cutoff for each is two hours and 20 minutes, 10 hours and 30 minutes from the beginning of the race and 17 hours from the beginning of the race respectively.
Currently, Rigsby’s training regiment with trainer Carole Sharpless, herself a multiple Ironman participant, is much like any able-bodied triathlete. Although Rigsby said he sometimes need more recuperation time than others, his days are still filled with consecutive sessions of 60 to 80-mile cycling sessions, running and open-water swimming.
Rigsby does much of his training, particularly in the off-season, at the Concourse Athletic Club in Sandy Springs. The club is also one of his sponsors and has donated the cost of his membership as well as some workout gear.
One person who has also become an integral part of Rigsby’s training is his physical therapist Kat McDonald, who likewise works for both the Falcons and Thrashers. Rigsby sees McDonald twice a week.
McDonald said her role is to decrease the toll Rigsby’s training takes on his body.
“Scott is a challenging patient for a physical therapist, as I cannot draw upon my previous
experience with patients with amputations as he is so high-functioning,” McDonald said. “Nor can I categorize him with professional athletes as he obviously has some unique challenges. At this stage, due to physical therapy as well as the tremendous advances in prosthetics that Scott is taking advantage of, he is actually noting less negative issues than a year ago.”
The physical therapist said Rigsby’s training has improved, but that she does worry about him overdoing it.
“While I am extremely pleased with his sensible, yet demanding, training schedule, I am concerned that Scott competes in too many events without allowing enough time intervals in-between,” she said.
McDonald is nonetheless behind her patient all the way and said she admires him for making other amputees as well as the general public aware that missing a part of their body does not mean they are disabled.
Rigsby is confident that he has a distinct advantage over other double amputee Ironman participants in the past. Other double amputees have completed the infamous sporting event, but Rigsby said none have done so while completing all three sections on two prosthetic legs. Often times, those participants have used a hand crank bicycle.
“There are double amputees that are faster swimmers than me and faster runners than me,” Rigsby said. “But nobody’s ever been able to put a swim, bike and run all together in the same day.”
The biggest obstacle during the Ironman in Hawaii for any triathlete will be battling the elements. In addition to the strong winds that can blow a rider right off his or her bike, participants also have to contend with cycling through lava fields where temperatures can climb to almost 120 degrees.
Like with every triathlon, Rigsby will also have the added constraint during his transitions of changing his legs like his competitors have to change their footwear. He has several different sets of prosthetic legs, depending on the type of activity in which he is participating. He has one set for walking and going about his day-to-day business, but has separate sets for running, cycling and swimming.
To help finance his Ironman quest and possibly pay for his doctor and trainer to accompany him to Kona, Rigsby has set up the Scott Rigsby Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization he set up to accept tax-deductible donations. For more information, visit www.scottrigsby.com.