And my final time was 14 hours and 39 minutes. For the first time in the 35-year history, a female wheelchair athlete completed the Ironman World Championship. And it wasn’t just any female athlete. It was me.
A paralyzed orphan from India. Against all odds, I achieved my dream, and through this very personal commitment to myself, I slowly realized that completing the Ironman was about more than conquering Kona. It was about conquering polio and other disabling but preventable diseases, not only for myself, but for the millions of children who have been and still will be afflicted by vaccine-preventable diseases.
Today, we are closer than ever to eliminating one of those diseases everywhere in the world. In the mid-1980s, polio once paralyzed more than 350,000 children a year in more than 125 countries. That amounted to a staggering 40 cases an hour.
By contrast, so far this year, the last endemic countries have reported a total of only 12 cases. Since 1988, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio, and an estimated 16 million children, who otherwise would have been paralyzed like me, are walking.
Despite this incredible progress, we know that until it’s eradicated, polio remains a very real threat, especially to children in the poorest communities of the world. It can reemerge in some of the most remote and dangerous places, and from there, it can spread.
And so this is my new Ironman: to end polio. And I am reminded every day, when I look at my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Maya. She is able to climb a ladder in the park, push her scooter or kick a ball across the grass.
Almost everything that I see her do at her age reminds me of what I could not do at that age. And when she was two months old, I took her to get her first polio vaccine. And when the doctor came in the room to prepare the shot, I asked him if I could take a picture to document the moment. When we left the room, I could feel my eyes welling up with tears.
I cried the entire way home. It was in that moment that I realized that my daughter’s life would be very different from mine. She will never be faced with the crippling disability of polio, because a vaccine was available, and I chose to get her immunized. She can do anything she wants, as can each of you.
Now I’d like to leave you all with one question: what is your Ironman?