Group Rises Above at 2019 Park City Red Bull 400
When Meetra Nahavandi first saw the Red Bull 400 last year on a trip to Park City, she knew she wanted to do it.
“That looks like fun,” she told her husband, Daniel Toppan Rabello, after they had watched hundreds of people race up the Utah Olympic Park’s K120 Nordic jump. “We’re doing it.”
Toppan Rabello thought the idea was outlandish.
But Nahavandi and Toppan Rabello traveled from Madison, Wisconsin, to run in this year’s edition of the Park City Red Bull 400 at the Utah Olympic Park on Saturday. Both were born with a severe type of spina bifida called myelomeningocele. For Nahavandi, 29, it means reduced sensation in her lower legs. For years she wore leg braces before she started focusing on physical training. Toppan Rabello, 33, uses crutches and leg braces and has no feeling below the knees.
Climbing the 400 meters up to the top of the ski jump would be an intense challenge for them.
“I first thought she was crazy,” Toppan Rabello said. “But just to make sure she’s fine, I wanted to do it with her.”
Nahavandi was born and raised near Madison, where she went to college, while Toppan Rabello grew up in Curitiba, a city in southern Brazil. They met over Instagram, where they were both involved in discussions about adaptive athletics.
Nahavandi contacted Toppan Rabello when she saw a video of him doing a plank as a core workout.
“How do you do that without hurting your feet?” She wrote as a cheeky pickup line, knowing he probably couldn’t feel them.
They hit it off.
Four months later, Toppan Rabello came to visit Nahavandi in Madison, where she picked him up from the airport and drove him around Wisconsin’s capital for four hours.
“I thought she was kidnapping me,” he said.
Nahavandi said going to see Toppan Rabello’s family in Brazil a few months later was just as intense. She doesn’t speak Portuguese, and even finding a bathroom in the airport was difficult.
But they got comfortable with the challenges, if not the distance between them. After three years of going back and forth, Toppan Rabello moved to Madison.
Last year, he and Nahavandi were speaking about their goals for the future.
Nahavandi said she wanted to make adaptive fitness a bigger part of her life.
“For me, adaptive fitness and inspiring and helping others with disabilities has been something I’ve always been interested in,” she explained. “And I just thought it would be amazing to have this program group, whatever we can create out of it, to help (people) do activities like this, or even just simple walking things like 5Ks.”
She started Rise Above, an adaptive fitness group, to do just that, and she started looking for events to join. After participating in a handful of 5K races, Nahavandi decided the Red Bull 400 would be the group’s first big goal. She contacted Nicholas Mattioli, 29, a high school friend, to help crew the event for Rise Above, and Juliana Faulkner, 33, a Parkite who Nahavandi knew from their shared time at Edgewood College in Madison. Faulkner, who was a fitness coach and Nahavandi’s live-in peer mentee at Edgewood, has Down syndrome.
Faulkner said she didn’t really know what she was getting herself into.
“She said yes, then I showed her the video,” Nahavandi said.
“But I know I can do this,” Faulkner quipped to Nahavandi.
Her family had come to watch and support her.
All of the Rise Above crew had prepared for the climb, but it was still intimidating. The course starts with a short, grassy field leading into the broad bottom of the ski jump, which narrows as it climbs. At halfway up the hill, the jump starts to level before starting up the ramp that skiers sail off in the winter. The course is covered largely by thick green nets like a ship’s rigging, which switches to wooden slats as it climbs up the steep final ramp to the staging platform.
The men’s record for the Park City Red Bull 400 is 3 minutes, 58.9 seconds, held by Ahmet Arslan. Parkite and former Olympic cross-country skier Liz Stephen holds the women’s record at 4:39.2.
The Rise Above crew was, first and foremost, hoping to finish. They would give themselves an hour, then evaluate the situation. If they were close to the top, they would push through. If they weren’t, they would bail. Red Bull was accommodating. Race organizers would allow them the time they needed; further heats would continue as necessary and simply go around them.
Nahavandi and Rise Above were there to do some inspiring, too. Having spina bifida and other disabilities makes taking on physical challenges intimidating. She and Toppan Rabello were there to share a lesson their parents had taught both of them: try first, then decide if you can do something; never assume that you can’t.
At noon, they set out to see if they could tackle the Red Bull 400. They were going to start at 11:45, but were delayed by a medical event up above. A soft rain started to fall over the artificial grass slope.
After the delay, the start gun went off with a crack, and a small herd of people ran toward the bottom of the slope, with the Rise Above crowd walking behind.
Faulkner and Nahavandi led the foursome, with Toppan Rabello and Mattioli just behind. When Toppan Rabello reached the bottom of the slope, he handed his crutches to a Rise Above supporter and started crawling up the net with Mattioli behind him. Mattioli was there to keep the crew safe on course. He advised the climbers to stay in a straight line, so if someone slipped, the person behind could potentially catch them. He also helped Toppan Rabello maneuver his feet. Each step required significant effort, as Toppan Rabello lifted his legs into position. Sometimes, Mattioli would push on the soles of one of his shoes and guide his foot onto the next rung.
From the start it was clear Toppan Rabello would rely heavily on his arms. He could barely stand, and used his legs for a modicum of balance while hauling himself up the rigging, his face a mask of determination.
Ahead, Faulkner led with exuberance, smiling for photos as she slowly made her way up the course. Just behind her, Nahavandi kept a close focus on her feet, watching them as she placed them carefully on each rung of rope. Twelve minutes in, they all stopped briefly after reaching the 200-meter mark then started again. By then, people from the earlier heat, and finishers of the same heat as Rise Above were walking down the stairs that run down the side of the jump. As they passed, they looked over at the Rise Above crew.
“You’re the man!” Someone yelled to Toppan Rabello. Others spoke among themselves about how impressed they were with the group as they walked down.
“Don’t worry about us!” Faulkner shouted to the passers by. “Just moving up slowly!”
They continued up over the hump of the jump, where Toppan Rabello briefly switched to crutches before starting the final climb up the wooden slats to the finish area.
Thirty five minutes in, the next heat’s leaders started passing by. They, too, offered encouragement.
“Way to go, buddy,” one said through labored breaths as he climbed the steep wooden ramp.
“Nice work guy, you got it,” another mumbled in passing.
Faulkner and Nahavandi pushed ahead about 15 rungs from Toppan Rabello and Mattioli. At that part of the climb, there were spectators and competitors sitting and watching the racers finish, and they started to cheer for the Rise Above team.
Toppan Rabello was hauling himself up with Mattioli just behind, occasionally pushing one foot up until it crested the next wooden slat and found purchase. Toppan Rabello’s eyebrows furrowed beneath a patina of sweat, his mouth was downturned and open as he willed himself up the ramp one hard-earned step at a time.
“We’ve got the last leg here, and we will finish it, let’s go!” Mattioli shouted.
Then there was a cheer above as Faulkner summited the last steps and emerged onto the platform above, followed by Nahavandi.
The whole crew at the top started to cheer and chant as Toppan Rabello reached the last step, and hauled himself over the lip and onto the mats and collapsed, arms outstretched on his back.
Behind him, Mattioli, on his knees, raised his arm up over head in triumph.
Toppan Rabello looked up at the tightly packed group of spectators and friends peering over him and did his best not to cry, even if many of those watching did.
“I just love that energy,” he said. “That feeling of camaraderie, of friendship. That feels awesome. If I could inspire one person here today it was all worth it.”
The group celebrated with friends and family who had come to watch, then gathered in front of a sign for the Red Bull 400 with finishers’ medals.
“Just think, a couple weeks ago we were so nervous, but look we made it to the top,” Mattioli said. “Do it again next year?”
Faulkner instinctively, playfully, shouted “No!”
She was glad to finish the race.
“I trained very hard for this,” she said. “Now my legs are shaking like no other. I’m so happy, I’m crying happy tears right now.”
Nahavandi said the race was a huge success for the group, and feeling the energy of the crowd at the top was a bonus.
“That just helps us,” she said. “It keeps us motivated and lets us know that we’re doing something positive.”
She plans on organizing a Rise Above group for another 5K back in Madison before choosing another big goal. But she said she and the Rise Above crew will be tackling another challenge soon, ideally with others who refuse to write themselves off.
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