The late comedian Robin Williams would have turned 69 years old on July 21. But even though he is no longer with us, his life is a gift that keeps on giving, particularly to adaptive athletes in the U.S. and around the world.
Williams' active support for adaptive athletes and the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), an organization that provides opportunities for people with disabilities, began in 1997 when he joined the Malibu Triathlon as part of a relay team. He was the first A-list celebrity to embrace the organization's sport and cause.
Williams cemented his support for the organization when the actor befriended the eventual Paralympic champion Rudy Garcia-Tolson when the latter was just nine or 10 years old. Their connection deepened when they teamed up with triathlon legend Scott Tinley for the Triathlon Challenge in San Diego, California. At the time, Garcia-Tolson, who was 15 years old, did the 1.2-mile swim, Tinley ran the 13.1-mile half-marathon, while Williams did the 56-mile bike ride.
Williams became a regular at CAF's other events. His presence was instrumental in attracting fundraising muscle and media attention to the organization. His staunch support helped CAF grow from a local San Diego charity into a global foundation. CAF is also a primary feeder into Team USA's Paralympic development lineup.
Heroes, Heart & Hope Gala
Williams was also instrumental in the inception of CAF's annual Heroes, Heart & Hope Gala in New York City. It all started when Scott Stackman, a New York financier, won a slot in the 2004 Ironman World Championship triathlon, which was auctioned off by CAF. Upon winning the auction, Stackman flew to San Diego to secure his prize, which was given at CAF's yearly Triathlon Challenge.
Stackman didn't know anything about the organization, but he wanted to race at Kona, Hawaii—where the Ironman is held every year—because it's the toughest ticket to get in the sport. According to CAF founder Bob Babbitt, inspiration struck Stackman when he found himself standing with Williams, while the latter presented a set of running prosthetic legs to Jake Frank, an eight-year-old above-the-knee amputee.
Babbitt shared that as soon as Frank received the legs and put them on, both he and Williams played tag on the grass. Stackman was moved at the sight of a young man transitioning from a wheelchair to running around and playing with Williams. This moment spurred Stackman to establish the Heroes, Heart & Hope Gala in New York. Over the years, the annual fundraiser has produced over $22 million.
The gala eventually became CAF's biggest charity event, bringing in around 20% of its annual budget. Sadly, the 2020 Heroes, Heart & Hope Gala had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A continuing legacy
Before Williams passed away in 2014, he created an endowment fund for CAF athletes. The Robin Williams Endowment Fund has supported numerous young, adaptive athletes. The latest recipient is 12-year-old Max Wong from Flushing, New York, who received a new tennis wheelchair grant. Wong is an upcoming wheelchair tennis player who dreams of playing at an elite level. The grant was awarded on May 6 during CAF's first-ever virtual 2020 Heroes of Sport Celebration.
CAF needs your support to ensure that adaptive athletes have what they need to be active now and after the pandemic. If you'd like to donate, please do so on their website. You can give your donation in honor of Williams or on behalf of someone you love.