Ask any runner — running is more than just good exercise, it can help treat depression and anxiety, assist in grief recovery and even improve your memory.
But for one New Yorker, running did so much more than that. After an act of violence claimed Anthony Butler’s vision, running helped him to rediscover his confidence and his optimism … and introduced him to the love of his life.
Trouble With The Law
In 2008, Anthony Butler’s life was far from perfect. Only 20 years old, he had several warrants out for his arrest due to minor crimes like selling weed and missing court dates.
A Hopeless Plea For Peace
Butler flipped burgers at McDonald’s because his father was a manager there, and got a GED after getting kicked out of five different high schools. He soon found a better way to earn money for medical administrative assistant school: selling luxury timepieces for Swatch. However, he continued his minor drug-dealing, and late one night, he and his buddies found himself confronted with a rival crew. Though he urged everyone to stay cool, someone pulled out a gun. Butler’s life was about to change forever.
A Shot In The Night
Gunshots suddenly rang out on the Bronx corner. One bullet lodged in Butler’s leg, and another struck his head. It seemed like the end for the ambitious young man who had yet to reach his 21st birthday.
The Ambulance Ride
The young man was certain he was going to die. He laid in the ambulance awaiting his certain death. No one survives a bullet to the brain — he wasn’t going to make it.
Waking Up In the Hospital
Butler miraculously survived the gunshots. The bullets did not claim his life. But, the bullet to his brain did claim his sight. The 20-year-old had completely lost his vision.
A Stunning Loss
Butler was terrified to learn he had lost his sight, especially as he was well-known for that very feature.
“Everyone used to call me bright eyes so I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t have my eyes anymore,'” he told “Good Morning America.” “That’s like my trademark. What am I going to do?”
Learning To Live Without Sight
Butler was beyond grateful to be alive, but he had lost something precious, something most people take for granted every day. He would now have to learn to live without his vision, in a world suddenly dark and shadowed. He did this by depending on strangers to help him navigate New York while living in a supportive housing development and earning degrees from The New School and New York University.
Exercise Seems Impossible
The young man wanted to reclaim his physical strength and aid in his own recovery. However, he wasn’t sure how people without vision could enjoy fitness in a safe and effective manner. Navigating a gym without sight seemed like an impossible task.
Finding Hope In The Darkness
A social worker introduced him to a program which would help him reclaim his physical strength. He would also be able to rebuild his confidence and learn how to navigate his world without sight. Achilles International was about to change Butler’s life.
Volunteers Come To The Rescue
Achilles International, an organization which seeks to help people with disabilities enjoy running, had resources which could help Anthony Butler. Most notably, the group had volunteers who were willing and eager to run alongside people with disabilities. Butler suddenly had a lifeline to help him enjoy exercise once again.
How Tandem Running Works
A tether connects an able-bodied person to a person with disabilities. In Butler’s case or in the case of other people with limited or no vision, this means being physically connected to a person with sight. This sighted guide runs alongside the impaired individual and helps them enjoy running safely.
More Than Just A Simple Tether
Running buddies do more than just help their teammates run safely. Pointing out bumps in the road and helping to prevent injuries is just a small part of the puzzle. Such guides also describe the surroundings and describe the scenery so that their partners can visualize the world around them and connect with nature as they exercise.
Tandem Runners Find Each Other
Anthony Butler was initially teamed up with volunteer Kate Dixon, but eventually met Jessie Rix at Rix’s first Achilles event. The Minnesota native wanted to volunteer her time to help others enjoy her beloved sport of running — and to find companions to run with. But her life wasn’t perfect. Her relationship was on the rocks, and she wasn’t sure what her future held.
Minnesota Girl In The Big Apple
Jessie Rix was a Midwest transplant who was struggling to find her place in the big city. Running helped her find her roots.
“Here in New York, where you have all this noise and people around you every minute of every day, running is my outlet to have that quiet space again,” Rix told Runner’s World. “I’m proud of where I come from, and I don’t ever want to lose that. This really helps connect me with [my past].”
The First Meeting
When Rix first laid eyes on her running partner, she was instantly overwhelmed by his positive spirit and his loud, happy laughter.
“I remember seeing him when I got there, because he was probably the loudest person there — just having the time of his life and laughing and talking,” she told CNN. “He just seemed like a fun person to go for a run with.”
At first, Rix was apprehensive about her new role as a tandem runner.
“The hardest thing for me … was just understanding properly how to interact with people that are blind or have some other disability,” Rix revealed to CNN.
But her training with Achilles International helped her to understand how best to assist Butler without taking away his autonomy.
In the beginning, they always ran in Central Park, where Butler was most comfortable. “He knows every bump in the road; he knows where every water fountain is,” Rix said.
Love Blooms On The Trail
Rix and Butler’s runs together soon became the highlight of their weeks. They did more than just run alongside each other, they talked about everything from their lives to their hopes for their future to their hidden fears. The tether between them became more than just the physical rope holding them together.
He Sees The World Through His Lover’s Eyes
Rix used their runs as a way to help Butler feel connected to the world around them. She would describe the setting sun or the scenery in Central Park, which was their favorite place to run. Butler was very familiar with the park and felt comfortable with the trails there, especially with Rix by his side.
Worlds Apart But Still United
Rix is from the heart of the Midwest, and her life couldn’t have been more different than Butler’s city upbringing. On the outset, it might appear the two had nothing in common, but they soon discovered they shared many things, such as their values, compassion, and deep love for each other. The pair moved in together after a year and began building a life with one another in Harlem.
Fearless And Fierce
Falling in love with Butler came easily to Rix. She was drawn to his confidence and bravery.
“He’s fearless,” she told Runner’s World. “He takes charge of his own life, and I need to be reminded of that for myself. Sometimes it’s hard for me to have that confidence. He makes me realize I can step out and just go after it like he can.”
A Gentle Leader
As for Butler, he was drawn to Rix’s sweet and tender nature. She is soft-spoken and never raises a voice, a quality Butler loves.
“She’s made me softer, kinder, and more patient over time,” Butler said in Runner’s World.
Lovebirds Running Around The World
Rix and Butler didn’t limit themselves to Central Park. The two have run together across the globe. From Paris, France to Washington D.C., the couple have shared countless miles together.
No Detail Too Small
Rix does more than just tell Butler about sunsets and pretty views. She also likes to share funny or mundane things with him.
“Anything that I’m seeing, even if it’s someone wearing something silly on the course, I’ll describe it to Anthony, because I want him to share that memory with me,” Rix told Runner’s World. “Whether he sees it or he doesn’t, as long as he’s there, that’s all that matters.”
Marathons Under Their Belt
In the past two and a half years, the couple has logged serious miles. They’ve now completed five world marathons, including the famous New York City Marathon in late 2018. And they have no plans of stopping anytime soon!
Making The World A Better Place
A former troubled teen, Butler is now an inspiration. Butler was kicked out of school as a teenager and had a criminal past due to his small-time weed dealing. But he is now a social worker who has devoted his career to helping others, and he knows there is no such thing as a lost cause.
You Never Know Where The Run Can Take You
The couple has inspired people around the world. They have become well-known for their love story, and they were even interviewed on “Good Morning America“.
“I never thought in a million years it would bring me here,” Rix said to Butler on the show. “I was just going out for a run and so were you.”
The History Of Achilles
Founded in 1983, Achilles International helps people with disabilities become active and connected with their community. It was organized by Dick Traum, who was the first person with a prosthetic leg to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon. He lives in New York City with his wife of 40-plus years.
What started as a humble organization has grown into a global foundation with members in over 70 countries. These men and women devote their time to helping people with all types of disabilities learn to embrace fitness and rediscover freedom again.
“In training and racing together, disabled and able-bodied athletes learn to support each other and focus on what brings them together, rather than what might keep them apart,” explains the website.
Volunteer To Help
If you would like to run with Achilles International, visit the organization’s website to learn more. Fill out an application form to be connected with local members in your community and start making a difference. You can also email the foundation at [email protected] to ask questions and find out how you can help.
If you or someone you know could benefit from the Achilles International program, you can go to the website to sign up. It is absolutely free and anyone with a disabling condition can join. All athletic levels are welcome.
Reporting by Isabelle Chapman and Samantha Guff.
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