Monday, July 27, 2009

Florida teen with autism takes on the NYC Triathlon


July 25, at the sound of the starting gun, Ocala's Robbie Phillips (pictured) will compete alongside his father, Bob, and 3,400 other top-notch athletes at the ninth annual Nautica New York City Triathlon.

Making it to this premiere sporting event, which features competitors from all 50 states and 20 nations, is a major feat in itself for any athlete. For 18-year-old Robbie, who has autism, it has been a special journey.

As a child, Robbie was severely overweight, was sick and couldn't do much of anything physically. In addition, he couldn't speak and didn't interact with others.

Around the age of 5, Robbie's life began to turn around when he was enrolled in a physical therapy program to help him overcome some of his neurological problems.

"He couldn't run at 4 years old, Bob Phillips said. "We had doubted that any of this would do any good, that he wasn't going be able to do it. We just didn't have him figured out."

Much to everyone's surprise, not only was Robbie able to do it - he excelled. At the age of 8, the determined boy competed in the four-mile Daytona Beach Easter Run. From there, more races followed and the sky was the limit.

Robbie also became a successful gymnast, compiling 14 gold medals while earning state all-around titles in 2001 and 2002 and competing in the Special Olympics.

Though he had blossomed into a gifted athlete, the transition into triathlete was not a smooth one.

"I always knew about triathlons and I had thought about doing it [with Robbie]," Bob Phillips said. "But I pulled a bike out of the garage and I just couldn't get him to ride a bike. I kept trying and kept trying, but he wouldn't ride a bike. So I gave up."

Then Vickie Collins, who at the time was Robbie's adaptive physical education teacher at Maplewood Elementary, approached Bob and his wife, Cathy, and told them that she had gotten their son to ride a bike.

"We told Vickie that we were never going to forget her for teaching him how to ride that bike, because it had opened up so many doors," Bob Phillips said.

With that major hurdle conquered, and with coaches at the local YMCA guiding him as a swimmer, Robbie began training for triathlons with his dad. He entered his first race, St. Anthony's Meek-n-Mighty, in April of 2001.

Since then, the hungry competitor has participated in more than 30 triathlons, including the Philadelphia Triathlon and the Turtle Crawl.

Today, he may face his toughest task yet in the only Olympic-distance triathlon that New York City has to offer. He will begin with a 1,500-meter swim through the Hudson River, then tackle a 40-kilometer bike ride along Manhattan's West Side before finishing up with a 10-kilometer run that goes through Central Park.

When Robbie began therapy in 1996, the Phillips' never imagined the strides he would eventually make.

"What we were striving for was better physiology, better breathing and better fitness," Bob Phillips said. "That's what we've always been after since his earliest age."

But for Robbie, competing is not just an outlet for his disorder - he genuinely loves it. And that rewarding sense of achievement he gets every time he performs well may just be the driving force behind his will to overcome.

"There's a sense of accomplishment that comes with it," Bob Phillips noted. "That's what we notice when he gets his awards. He gets a big kick out of it."