A Founder’s Vision
James Benson, a Boston businessman originally from suburban Chicago, founded World T.E.A.M. Sports in 1993. As a high school student in McHenry, Illinois in 1960, Benson became aware of a fellow student, Ricky Prine, who was talented not only in the classroom but also consistently showed signs of great athletic ability. However, Prine was disabled and was consistently excluded from activities by his peers. Benson saw something different in Prine and recognized him as a capable person, notwithstanding his disability. It was through this formative experience that Benson made a promise that if ever given the opportunity, he would create an organization committed to providing more opportunities to individuals living with a disability and he would use the power of sports to make them possible (read about the initial years of World T.E.A.M. Sports in James Benson’s essay, Living the Dream).
The First Decade
In 1987, colleagues Benson and Stephen Whisnant were intrigued by the possibility of accomplishing an athletic achievement previously thought to be impossible. This led them to organize the October 1987 Ride Across America, a month-long, 2,650-mile bicycle relay from Newport Beach, California to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Benefiting California Special Olympics, the ride included 25 developmentally disabled riders, many of whom had never before participated in an outdoor event.
The Ride Across America was followed in February, 1990 by the Kilimanjaro Confidence Climb. This event brought together 12 developmentally disabled athletes and 15 non-disabled athletes as a team to climb Africa’s highest peak over nine days. Unfortunately, owing to inclement weather, only a few team members successfully reached the 19,341-foot summit. A 1990 documentary film of the climb, Let Me Be Brave, was narrated by renowned sportscaster James Brown and aired as a CBS Sports special. This documentary won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Program Achievement that same year.
Inspired by the public reaction to the Kilimanjaro Confidence Climb, Benson and Whisnant chartered World T.E.A.M. Sports as a North Carolina-based non-profit organization in June, 1993. Whisnant agreed to serve as the organization’s first Executive Director. With the new organization, there was a broader vision – the directors wanted to achieve extraordinary challenges while enabling athletes with disabilities worldwide. The realization of that vision led to the AXA World Ride, a 13,000-mile bicycle adventure through 16 countries over nine months beginning in March 1995. The ride featured more than 10,000 day participants and 400 stage riders. A core team of seven – six with disabilities – undertook the entire challenge. The event was embraced worldwide, with most American Ambassadors and many foreign heads of state greeting the group in their respective countries. The media was drawn to the event and coverage was extensive – even through the 4,000 mile trek in Russia. Russian National Television covered the event and the team was featured four times to over 50,000,000 households throughout Russia. The combined media coverage totaled over 300,000,000 impressions. Another highly acclaimed documentary film was produced, airing twice on CBS, and narrated by the Emmy-award winning host, Charles Kuralt. The film, The Possible Dream, was enthusiastically received and won several national awards.
World T.E.A.M. Sports served as the organizer for the August 1996 NationsBank Paralympic Torch Relay from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta. For ten days, World T.E.A.M. Sports, in a partnership with the organizing committee and event sponsors, crisscrossed busy avenues, back roads, rivers and lakes. President Bill Clinton hosted the organizers and the first torchbearer on the south lawn of the White House on the morning of August 6. The final torchbearer was greeted by 70,000 spectators in Centennial Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of the Paralympic Games. World T.E.A.M. Sports advisory board member, Mark Wellman, scaled the steep cauldron tower and ignited the Paralympic Torch.
In February, 1997, an integrated team of six individuals traveled to Antarctica to compete in one of the most unusual running events in the world – the Last Marathon. All members of the World T.E.A.M. Sports team finished the event and were featured in national media stories.
Athletes from the organization participated in the four-day, 300-mile Xerox Capital Ride in the Carolinas in September, 1997. World T.E.A.M. Sports also directed the All Sports Day in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1997. In this event, Olympic and Paralympic athletes offered hands-on swimming, running, bicycling, tennis and climbing clinics to more than 800 participants.
The success of the 1995 AXA World Ride led the organization to undertake another great challenge: pairing former combatants from both sides of the Vietnam War to overcome both their disabilities and prior animosities. Known as the Vietnam Challenge, this January 1998 event paired 70 disabled riders from the United States and the former North Vietnam with 20 able-bodied coaches on a 16-day, 1,250-mile bicycle expedition from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Participants ranged in age from 11 to 78, with three blind cyclists and eight hand cyclists. Joining the riders was Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and long distance swimmer Diana Nyad, both members of the World T.E.A.M. Sports board. Late in the ride, as the team approached Ho Chi Minh City, honorary chair Senator John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador Pete Peterson joined the team.
The resulting feature documentary film about the Challenge from Kartemquin Films, Vietnam Long Time Coming, was well-received by critics and the public. Hosted by sportscaster Dick Enberg and narrated by actor Joe Mantegna, it aired as an NBC Sports Special on Veterans Day 1998. The film received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Program Achievement. World T.E.A.M. Sports co-chairman Peter D. Kiernan spoke to CNN Television and NBC’S Today Show and Channel 12 Daytime Edition about the ride.
Nearly 100 celebrities, sports figures, and community leaders, including Robin Williams, Madonna, Greg LeMond, George Steinbrenner, Donald Trump, Christopher Reeve, Tom Brokaw, Yoko Ono, Britney Spears, Rudolph Giuliani, Lance Armstrong, Shaquille O’Neal, Elizabeth Taylor and Arnold Schwarzenegger donated bicycles for six silent auctions and receptions benefiting the ongoing work of World T.E.A.M. Sports. Held from 1996 through 2003, the auctions provided ongoing fundraising for the non-profit organization. At the 1999 auction, over 400 people filled the Sports Club/LA in New York City for a festive and entertaining program that included special remarks by cyclist Lance Armstrong and Sean “Puffy” Combs as well as musical entertainment by True This. The event was co-chaired by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Lance Armstrong. The May 13, 2002 auction at The Lighthouse in New York City raised funds to support the Face of America Ride and was attended by Senator Charles Schumer, Senator John Kerry, Christopher Reeve and others.
Becoming the “Face of America”
With the beginning of a new decade, World T.E.A.M. Sports athletes regularly participated in outdoor sporting events nationally. These events included the Los Angeles Marathon, The Lance Armstrong Foundation Ride for the Roses in Austin, Texas, the Colorado Relay in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and the Turkey Trot in Charlotte, North Carolina.
World T.E.A.M. Sports launched a series of non-competitive bicycle rides in May 2000 that continue to this day. The inaugural Face of America ride partnered with Rails-to-Trails Conservancy and featured two teams of about 50 riders each departing simultaneously from San Francisco and Boston on May 13. Each team covered over 1,400 miles in 22 days, and included disabled and able-bodied cyclists from 40 states and ten countries. The teams met at the Memorial Arch in St. Louis, Missouri on June 3. Participant disabilities included spinal cord injured (paraplegic and quadriplegic), visually impaired/blind, cancer survivors, hearing impaired, cerebral palsy, intellectual and developmental disability, amputee (single and double) and brain injury. A total of 100 core and stage riders participated in the ride, including participants as young as six years and as old as 77 years.
In November 2000, World T.E.A.M. Sports athletes traveled to Cuba to participate in the Havana Marathon. The first American team to run in the marathon, team members also met with the Cuban Sports Federation for the Disabled. At the meeting, team member Carlos Moleda, on behalf of World T.E.A.M. Sports, demonstrated and presented to the Cuban Paralympic Committee a Stage One handcycle donated by Freedom Ryder and a racing wheelchair donated by HallsWheels — gifts that provided much needed equipment to disabled Cuban athletes.
The Italian Dolomite Trek from World T.E.A.M. Sports offered an integrated climbing adventure for women along the Via Ferrata, an extensive system of high mountain routes in the Italian Alps. The group traveled together to the Brenta region in the Dolomites, a magnificent mountain range of bold rock towers and spires, cliffs, and ridges. The Via Ferrata is an ancient trail built to transport iron from the mines to the melting furnace in the western Italian Alps. The trail is a spectacular series of narrow ledges, and walkways protected by steel cables, vertical iron ladders, and narrow gullies and ridges that use cables, pegs and steel rungs pounded into the mountain to aid in climbing and for protection.
On September 8-9, 2001, World T.E.A.M. Sports introduced a new event held in the mountains of North Carolina. In the footsteps of the world-renowned Hood to Coast Relay in Oregon, the Mountain Madness Challenge Relay in Asheville attracted teams to participate in a challenging 160 mile team running relay. The route from the top of Beech Mountain to Asheville took teams along the Blue Ridge Parkway to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States.
Like much of America, the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington and New York changed the direction of World T.E.A.M. Sports. The September 2002 Face of America was dedicated as a “moving memorial” to the victims of the attacks. It included more than 1,400 participants riding 277 miles in three days from Ground Zero in New York City to the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. 2002 World T.E.A.M. Sports co-chairman Peter D. Kiernan provided a preview of the ride to New York’s Channel 1 television. A year later, on September 12-14, 2003, the ride ran the same route again, with over 500 riders from ten countries coming together to participate. Cyclists with and without disabilities rode from Battery Park City to the ferry past the Statue of Liberty to the shores of New Jersey, continuing through Delaware and Maryland, ending their exhilarating ride in Washington D.C.
The Face of America was re-envisioned in 2005 to honor those who suffered injuries in the Global War on Terror. Working with the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and The National Navy Medical Center, the April 2006 ride raised over $100,000 for future World T.E.A.M. Sports events. Reporter Ally Donnelly wrote and produced the New England Cable News Network‘s award-winning 2006 documentary film about the ride, The Long Journey Home. In 2008, the ride was redirected, from Washington to Gettysburg. It has featured a growing number of participants, including many active duty members of the armed forces, who want to help reintegrate these wounded warriors back into their communities.
On January 20-31, 2007, World T.E.A.M. Sports sponsored the Return to Kilimanjaro expedition, bringing seven developmentally disabled athletes to Africa to climb the continent’s highest mountain. Following the 1990 expedition, in which only a few of the participants reached the summit, the 2007 expedition successfully accomplished its goal of safely reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro and returning.
Another new event in 2007 was the Adventure TEAM Challenge. Held in western Colorado, it is a multi-day, multi-event outdoor event, featuring teams of five with disabled and non-disabled athletes. Envisioned by blind Colorado adventurer Erik Weihenmayer, the event debuted June 14-16, 2007 as the Real Deal Inclusive Sports Adventure. The annual event includes mountain biking, river rafting, climbing and other challenging physical activities. NBC Sports’ Jeep World of Adventure Sports featured a short documentary about the 2008 event.
In August, 2009, World T.E.A.M. Sports hosted the Coastal Team Challenge, an eight day adventure from the organization’s Military Initiative which brought together American and Canadian injured veterans in the Pacific Northwest. The participating soldiers traveled 82 nautical miles by sea kayaks from Anacortes, Washington through Puget Sound to Vancouver, British Columbia.
World T.E.A.M. Sports sponsored two events in 2010 for young athletes. With Massachusetts’ Unified Sports Program and the Boston Bruins National Hockey League club, World T.E.A.M. Sports provided support for a sled hockey event for children with disabilities in Boston. This event was held again in February, 2011, at Boston’s TD Garden. In late September 2010, World T.E.A.M. Sports sponsored a three day Adventure TEAM Challenge for developmentally disabled teenagers and young adults at the Frost Valley YMCA, in New York’s Catskill Mountains. The Frost Valley event, directed by corporate partner American Portfolios Financial Services, also was held in June, 2011 and 2012, and in September, 2013.
The Sea to Shining Sea debuted in 2010, and featured a cross-country bicycle ride from San Francisco, California to Virginia Beach, Virginia. In the summer of 2010, a team of mostly veteran participants rode 3,687 miles over 64 days through 14 states on their journey across America, visiting large cities and small towns. Like the 1987 Ride Across America, the Sea to Shining Sea ride brought together disabled and able-bodied athletes to overcome obstacles in pursuit of a team goal – crossing the North American continent. A documentary about the ride and the participants by director and cinematographer Austin Smithard, Two Shining Seas, was released to the festival circuit in October, 2012.
In October 2010, World T.E.A.M. Sports directed the inspiring Soldiers to the Summit expedition, a part of the organization’s ongoing Military Initiative. The three week expedition brought together a team of disabled veterans and able-bodied climbers who ascended to the summit of 20,075 foot Lobuche East, a rugged ice-covered peak in Nepal near Everest Base Camp. Overcoming obstacles along their trek, the team successfully summitted Lobuche and returned safely to the United States. The expedition generated two documentaries, Conquering the Climb, on the Pentagon Channel that debuted in March, 2011, and a theatrical release, “High Ground,” by Stone Circle Pictures and Serac Adventure Films, which debuted in February, 2012 and on cable television in November, 2013.
In 2011, two new events on the World T.E.A.M. Sports schedule debuted – the Adventure Teen Challenge in August and the Family Day Out in November, both in Washington, DC. The Adventure Teen Challenge brought together teenaged disabled and able-bodied athletes for a day of outdoor recreational sports, including hiking, bicycling and canoeing. The Family Day Out offered an afternoon of cycling for wounded veterans and their families in Washington, an opportunity for recreation away from the veterans hospitals. World T.E.A.M. Sports athletes also participated in several triathlons and in the Warrior 100K, an invitational mountain biking event in Texas in 2011, 2012, and 2013, hosted by former President George W. Bush.
In late February 2012, World T.E.A.M. Sports hosted the second Soldiers to the Summit event, a winter camp at the Snowbird Resort in Utah. This World T.E.A.M. Sports Military Initiative event provided an opportunity for injured veterans to learn and experience winter snow sports such as skiing and snowboarding.
The summer of 2012 also saw the return of the Sea to Shining Sea cross-country bicycle ride with disabled veterans from our nation’s military. Sponsored by State Farm, the ride traveled a distance of nearly 4,000 miles in two months. A team of 14 disabled veterans participated in the ride, using handcyles, recumbent bicycles, tandems and standard touring bicycles. Participating veterans included individuals with blindness and lost limbs, as well as veterans with PTSD and TBI. Leaving San Francisco Bay on May 28, the team rode through snow showers in the high Nevada desert, across the Continental Divide in Colorado, into record heat in the American Midwest with temperatures approaching 110 degrees. Arriving in Virginia Beach on July 28, the team celebrated their achievement with a gala reception on the beach. A commemorative book, Shining Seas, was produced following the ride.
The April, 2013 Face of America event from the Pentagon to Gettysburg was the largest in a decade, with more than 100 injured veterans participating alongside more than 400 able-bodied civilians, active-duty and retired military. A team of military veterans from Canada’s Soldier On organization participated in the two day, 110-mile ride.
Developmentally disabled teens from the Washington, DC region participated in the second Adventure Teen Challenge in early August 2013. Held along the Potomac River, the one day event provided an opportunity for teens to hike, ride bicycles and canoe. In western Colorado, the Adventure TEAM Challenge provided disabled and able-bodied athletes from across the United States a three-stage course in the high desert west of Grand Junction. Following the 2012 Challenge in the same region, the 2013 event brought many new participants, including several military veterans with disabilities.
In the coming years, additional events will be added to the World T.E.A.M. Sports schedule.
Learn more about the history of World T.E.A.M. Sports
World T.E.A.M. Sports Events and Expeditions Videos
World Ride: The Possible Dream trailer, from CBS Emmy-Award-winning special on the 1995 AXA World Ride (QuickTime format). With Charles Kuralt.
President Bill Clinton message and endorsement of World T.E.A.M. Sports from 1995 AXA World Ride (QuickTime format).
Fox News report on World T.E.A.M. Sports from 2000 (QuickTime format). Includes AXA World Ride 1995, Vietnam Challenge 1998 and the 2000 Face of America ride. Includes past and current World T.E.A.M. Sports board members Christopher Reeve, Greg LeMond, and Erik Weihenmayer.
“Let Me Be Brave” is an Emmy-Award winning documentary about World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s 1990 climb of Africa’s Kilimanjaro. Here is the trailer for the film.
“Vietnam, Long Time Coming” is an Emmy-Award winning documentary about World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s 1998 cross-country ride in Vietnam.
The 2009 Adventure TEAM Challenge in Colorado was featured in a short report by filmmaker Bill Hanson.
“Conquering the Climb” from The Pentagon Channel reported on our October, 2010 Soldiers to the Summit expedition to climb 20,075-foot Lobuche East in Nepal.
Maryland Public Television produced the feature, “A Renewed Spirit,” for their series, Outdoors Maryland, in 2011. The short feature covered World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s 2011 Face of America ride.
Presenting sponsor Alteryx created a promotional video for World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s Adventure TEAM Challenge. This video, released in March 2012, includes video from the 2011 Challenge.
Stone Circle Pictures released Michael Brown’s documentary “High Ground” about World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s 2010 Soldiers to the Summit expedition to climb 20,075-foot Lobuche East in Nepal. Here is the trailer for the film.
Director Austin Smithard’s “Two Shining Seas” documentary about World T.E.A.M. Sports‘s 2010 Sea to Shining Sea cross-country ride began theatrical screenings nationally in the autumn of 2012.