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A challenge for champions

Craig Hutto, a two-sport star at his Tennessee high school, was enjoying his summer vacation in the waters off Florida when a shark bit into his right thigh. His leg would have to be amputated as a result of his injuries, but for Hutto, the games go on.

Hutto, now 17, still plays for his school basketball and baseball teams with the help of a prosthesis. On Sunday, Nov. 5, at La Jolla Cove, he will take part in an event that has long been recognized as among the most challenging in all of sport: the triathlon.

More than 100 physically challenged athletes will compete in the 13th Annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge, a fund-raiser for the San Diego-based Challenged Athletes Foundation. The half-Ironman distance triathlon begins with a 1.2-mile swim at La Jolla Cove, followed by a 56-mile bike ride up the coast to Carlsbad and back, then finishes with a 13.1-mile run from the Cove to Torrey Pines State Park and back.

Hutto is just one of many athletes who have continued to make athletics a part of their lives despite physical challenges. At the Triathlon Challenge, they will compete alongside more than 500 able-bodied triathaletes and several celebrities in an event that is expected to raise more than $1 million for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

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The proceeds will allow the foundation to provide people with physical disabilities the funding and support they need to participate in the fitness activities and sports that many able-bodied people take for granted. Since it was formed in 1997, the foundation has satisfied more than 2,100 funding requests from challenged athletes in all 50 states and dozens of countries around the world.

The foundation has donated $2,000 handcycles to cyclists who don’t have the use of their legs, helped pay for running prothstetics that can cost $15,000, and arranged for mentoring and support for challenged athletes who need encouragement. The foundation’s mission is to provide those with the desire to live active, athletic lives the opporunities they need.

“There are lots of studies that show people who get involved with sports when they are injured lead a much better life than if they were to sit on the couch feeling sorry for themselves,” said Roy Perkins, director of the Triathalon Challenge. “It’s about getting people involved in activities that will help make their lives whole.”

For Hutto, sports were a huge part of his life before the shark attack that claimed his leg, and they remain so. He attended last year’s Triathlon Challenge as a spectator just months after the attack.

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“That’s where I got the idea to do it myself. It was really cool,” Hutto said. “Just seeing everybody still able to do everything, it kinda made me want to do it.”

The triathlon will be the first time Hutto has returned to the ocean since the attack. Part of that is because he lives in Tennessee, but he has passed up some chances to swim in the ocean because he wanted to make the triathalon more special.

“I’ve been kind of saving it up for the triathlon,” he said. “I’m ready to get it over with - not in a bad way. I’m just excited.”

Hutto’s is just one of countless exciting stories that will be playing out at the Cove on Nov. 5. The Challenged Athletes Foundation has named Tricia Downing its Most Inspirational Athlete for this year. Downing was an elite road and track cyclist who volunteered as a pilot for visually impaired cyclists before a training accident left her with her own physical challenges to cope with. She was hit by a car while riding in Colorado and suffered spinal injuries that left her a paraplegic.

While lying in her hospital bed, she wrote a grant request to the Challenged Athletes Foundation for the handcycle that would get her back on the road. Last month, she became the first female paraplegic to race at the Ford Ironman World Triathlon Championship in Hawaii.

Twenty-two U.S. soldiers wounded in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq will also participate in this year’s Triathlon Challenge as part of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound program. One of the soldiers, Maj. David Rozelle, returned to combat duty in Iraq on an artificial leg and finished this year’s Ford Ironman World Triathlan World Championship.

Several celebrities and world-class athletes will also be on hand. Actor Robin Williams has been a regular at the event and will return this year, along with Amanda Beard, a seven-time Olympic medalist in swimming, and Scott Tinley, a legendary triathlete who has won two world Ironman championships.

Some athletes will cover the entire course, others will compete in portions, and others will compete as part of relay teams.

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Check-in begins at 6 a.m. on Nov. 5, the challenged athletes will be introduced at 7 a.m. and the event begins at 8 a.m.

The Cove will be decked out with an athlete’s village with food and prizes, and a family fun zone will be set up with inflatable jumpers, carnival games and other fun activities.

For more information, including how to get involved through donations or volunteering, call (858) 866-0959 ext. 103 or visit www.challengedathletes.org.