Putting the “able” in disabled

Bob Ward
Special to The Aspen Times
Courtesy photo

It’s common in Aspen to hear about athletes who climb great mountains or run great distances. It’s rare, however, when a physically disabled person participates in such an endeavor.

But Win Charles, of Aspen, and her cousin Barbara Ann Bernard, who lives in the Bahamas, are poised to become the first female duo to compete in an Ironman triathlon in which one team member has cerebral palsy.

Charles, who turned 26 on Saturday, already has completed one triathlon with the 33-year-old Bernard. If they succeed in gaining entry to the Kona Ironman in October, then they plan to enter several other events in order to train.

There’s a catch, however, to entering the Kona Ironman. Most participants in the world championship event qualify by winning other Ironman races, but Charles and Bernard are taking an alternate route called “Kona Inspired,” a contest that asks participants to submit a video showing their belief in the statement “Anything is Possible.” Charles and Bernard’s entry — which focuses on Charles’ determination to overcome the limitations of her disability — can be seen at

They call themselves Team We Win.

Between now and Thursday, Team We Win is asking Aspenites — and anyone else, for that matter — to watch their Kona Inspired video, cast votes in the team’s favor, tweet the link and generally offer support. With enough votes and online buzz, they’ll realize a dream.

Still, they recognize that it’s a competition and they may not win a coveted Ironman spot.

“If I had to be honest, I think Win and I have already won,” Bernard said. “If it didn’t transpire, we would be very happy.”

In the video and in a phone conversation this week, Charles said, “I’m a disabled woman living a nondisabled life.” And she sees the Ironman as an exciting way to assert her passion for a full, rewarding life.

For her part, Bernard says she often thinks of Charles when she’s competing in endurance events, and the opportunity to compete together physically is a natural progression.

“I generally race thinking about those who can’t,” Bernard said. “Whenever I start feeling tired, I always think, ‘Win, this one’s for you.’”

In their unique team arrangement, the able-bodied Bernard (Charles calls her “BA,” for Barbara Ann) provides the locomotion, and Charles brings other things to the table. During the swimming portion of an event, for example, Bernard pulls Charles in an inflatable boat, but Charles navigates.

“Because I sit up in the boat, I am BA’s eyes,” she said.

In running mode, Bernard again is the engine, but Charles must steer the three-wheeled wheelchair. And when that wheelchair is converted to a two-wheeled recumbent bike trailer, Charles assists by pedaling.

“Win can (pedal), and it is very helpful when she does,” Bernard said. “We’re working on getting those legs strong.”

The cousins have known each other for all of Charles’ 26 years. Bernard, who has run triathlons for two years, came up with the idea to compete as a team. Charles’ first reaction was, “You’re nuts; you’re absolutely nuts,” but she came to see the endeavor as another challenge to embrace.

Ironman or not, the journey already has proven rich and occasionally funny. Charles, for example, had never driven before having to steer the racing wheelchair. This resulted, of course, in a few off-course excursions, both before and during the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in St. Petersburg, Fla., in April.

“I pick up any cones we hit,” Bernard said with a laugh.

Charles has a picture in her office of herself with Bernard, in which her cousin is carrying her piggyback. “To me that symbolizes a bond between two cousins,” she said. “This has deepened our relationship because now I get to see what BA goes through by herself.”

Bernard, too, has learned from the relationship and the new triathlon chapter.

“For me, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” she said. “When we built Win’s bike, we suddenly saw ability and not disability.”


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