Roland Simmons doesn’t think of himself as handicapped, in spite of the fact that he was born with his right arm partially developed and significantly shorter than the other. That’s because “handicap” would imply an inability to do certain things and, as far as Simmons is concerned, there isn’t anything he can’t do if he puts his mind to it.
Simmons, 65, was one of around 100 athletes who participated in the Big Horn Canyon Triathlon at Horseshoe Bend last weekend. It is his third year of participation in the event, which includes a half-mile swim in open water and a 12-mile bike ride up a grueling hill, followed by a 3-mile run–all during the sweltering heat of a hot summer day. He completed the task in 2:07.32, never once having a doubt in his mind that he could.
“I’m always happy to see Roland at the event,” said event organizer Ben Zeller. “I think he inspires people with his great attitude.”
Simmons trains for the event by swimming, biking and running several times a week as a part of his normal routine. To keep from swimming in circles, he created several special kicking and arm stroke patterns that help him stay on course. To keep his balance on the bike, he created an innovative extension bar that attaches to the handlebars of his bicycle. The extension allows him to hold on with both hands and gives him better balance. And the run, well, that’s the easy part for someone like Simmons, who is fueled for such challenges by his own positive attitude.
Reflecting on his childhood, Simmons said he thinks that he was an unlikely candidate to become a triathlete.
“It’s funny because back then, water and I were not friends at all and yet now you will find me participating in this triathlon every year,” said Simmons.
Simmons grew up in Cowley in a supportive family and community environment, where he was never made to feel handicapped in any way.
“I was raised in this town and my family was very supportive of me and I’m pretty sure my mother told my brother and sister never to tell me that I couldn’t do something and I suspect she knocked on every door in town and told everyone else the same thing because no one ever treated me like I was different. They always treated me like a normal kid, who could do anything a normal kid could do,” said Simmons.
The first time Simmons felt like he might be different was when he went to the swimming pool in Powell for the first time with a friend.
“I left my little pristine, safe community, put on my bathing suit and walked out on to the deck,” said Simmons. “It seemed like every person there stopped what they were doing and stared at me. It was like time stood still. It was shocking, like being on stage. For the first time in my life, I felt embarrassed.”
Although the experience made him uncomfortable, he returned to the swimming pool in Powell about two years later for swimming lessons.
“The teachers were all high school kids and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they just ignored me,” said Simmons. “The techniques they were teaching didn’t even apply to me, so I used the time to teach myself how to swim.”
Simmons now swims one half-mile, three times a week, at the local swimming pool.
“My goal when I swim is not to compete in a triathlon,” explained Simmons. “My goal is to keep my body healthy, so I can swim when I’m in my 90s.”
Simmons credits his mother for teaching him how to ride a bicycle.
“Riding a bike is tricky for me because it’s hard to keep balance when you can only hold on with one arm,” said Simmons. “When I was first learning to ride, my mother took me out every day. She never gave up on me.”
Simmons said his so-called “disability” forced him to tap into his own creativity in order to meet the challenge of performing certain tasks. Simmons channeled that same creativity when he studied industrial design at Brigham Young University and has used it to create a unique lighting system that he sells under the brand name Lumi Lights.
He left the safe haven provided in his hometown of Cowley to live in California for a while, returning later to live on the same piece of property he grew up on and was the town’s mayor for several years.
Occasionally, Simmons is called upon as a motivational speaker. He hopes that by telling his story, others will feel renewed hope and the confidence to face their own challenges.
By Patti Carpenter