More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Ironman Robert Stevens outruns Multiple Sclerosis

Special to the Chronicle
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Robert Stevens is 43 years old and he can now call himself an Ironman.

Like many triathletes, Stevens balances training between a demanding career and family life. But unlike other Ironmen, Stevens, or "Robby", as his friends call him, is also dealing with Multiple Sclerosis.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disease of the central nervous system. It affects motor ability and many suffering from the debilitating disease are confined to motorized wheelchairs. The disease often strikes in the prime of life, as it did with Stevens. When he was 31 he lost vision in his right eye. After a series of tests and doctor visits he was diagnosed with MS. His body was physically healthy at the time, but he was told that the scarring on the nerve endings of the brain were equivalent to a person over 70.

Some of the other symptoms he began to recognize included cramps, slurred speech, vertigo, numbness and leg dragging.

Ultimately, the doctors told him to be prepared for anything "One day you can be just fine and the next a total invalid," Stevens said.

With a wife and both a 4 and a 7-year-old child at the time and a business as the proprietor of a roofing contracting business, he was determined not to let the disease beat him. "My thought when they sat my wife and I down in that office was, 'I'm not going to be a cripple and sit around an wait for this disease to take over my body'," he remembered. "MS is going to have to catch me."

So Stevens started running - literally. Up to that point, he had never done anything competitive or consistent as an exercise program. He liked to surf and swim from time to time.

As he an his wife began to research the disease, they discovered that regular exercise had proven effective in dealing with symptoms of MS. Inspired by his older brother, Danny, who was a triathlete, he started doing some bike riding and a little jogging.

He had always liked to swim, so the triathlon seemed a natural evolution. About one year after the initial diagnosis, Stevens completed his first sprint triathlon with his brother at his side.

"As most triathletes can attest, it's like a drug, you do one race and you set your sites on another and another," Stevens said. "Maybe I can do Olympic distance," he had wondered." Or maybe a Half Ironman."

A native and resident of Dunnellon, he has now successfully completed the Panama City Half Ironman for the last 7 years.

Of course, what came next in the progression was Ironman distance. For the past three years Robby has completed a Florida Ironman distance race (Florida Challenge), but until recently, not an official "Ironman."

He set his sights on Lake Placid Ironman USA 2001 to mark his official Ironman. He finished the race in 12:14: 07.

"I had the greatest day, the scenery is just spectacular and the crowds were absolutely amazing." Stevens said. "I was running at about the 18th mile and I saw this sign my wife had made for me. She is an interpreter for the deaf, and it had a picture of the hand symbol for I love you on the front.

On the back it said 'Run Robby Run.' I picked up that sign and ran the last eight miles with it. The crowd just went crazy chanting, 'Go Robby! Run Robby Run!', and I had the time of my life. That night my wife Janie and I went out dancing to celebrate."

Stevens did not bask in the glory of this July accomplishment for long. He was soon back into his usual routine. Waking at about 5:30 a.m. and off to work, then once his crews head out for the day, squeezing in a run or quick swim - later a few long bike rides per week and home for dinner with the family. Stevens is grateful for the love and support of his wife, children, parents, brother and all of his close family and friends that live in his immediate area. He says knowing they are behind him helps to keep him going every day. Additionally, he keeps in touch-via the internet with a community of people battling MS. He says that many of them are wheelchair bound and it means a lot to him to be an inspiration to others struggling with the disease. Often when he is racing, he has them in mind. Back on a training mission these days, he plans to soon be racing again in Ironman Florida (hoping to break the 12-hour mark) and perhaps one day, off in the distance, Hawaii.

"It's hard sometimes, battling the fatigue factor and recently I have been dealing with some numbness in my one arm," he said. "But I never let my mind go to that place where I say the MS is stopping me from doing what I want to do.

"Actually, if it weren't for MS, I know for a fact I wouldn't be an Ironman."