Caring for those in Need

Minda Dentler: The First Female Wheelchair Athlete Ironman Finisher

Minda is the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship. She contracted polio as an infant in India, which resulted in the paralysis of her legs. Left in the care of an orphanage, Minda was later adopted by an American family from Washington state. She underwent multiple surgeries on her hips, legs and back, and became an independent, educated woman who was inspired to overcome the many obstacles life has placed in her way. I spoke with her recently and share my interview with her here.

BY Faye Simon, Editor In Chief | May 2024 | Category: Mobility

Minda Dentler: The First Female Wheelchair Athlete Ironman Finisher

Faye: Hi Minda. Why don’t you start with some background about you?

Minda: I was born in India. When I was six months old, I contracted polio, because we didn’t have access to the vaccine. As a result, my legs were paralyzed from the hips down. My birth mother, I’ve been told, was a domestic worker, a single mom. She realized she couldn’t take care of me, so she left me at an orphanage. Three and a half years later, I was adopted by an American family, and moved to Spokane, Washington, where I was able to get the medical care necessary to walk with leg braces and crutches.

Faye: How did the American family find you in India?

Minda: They went through an adoption agency that showed them a book of children. When they saw my picture, they decided that they would adopt me, even though I had a disability.

Faye: What do you remember of your early childhood?

Minda: I have pictures to reinforce memories, but I don’t remember much until maybe I was five. I didn’t know English and had to learn the language. I was quiet. Because of my disability, I crawled on the floor. After I got a number of surgeries back-to-back to straighten out my ankles and my hips, I was fitted with leg braces and crutches. People would stare at me when my mom took me shopping. People would talk over me, like I didn’t have a brain. I was really self-conscious about wearing leg braces and using crutches. It was definitely difficult. My parents had high expectations of me, and they really helped me internalize the belief that my disability shouldn’t hold me back. It really didn’t. They expected me to do the same chores as my siblings. I dragged that mop around the kitchen, slipping and falling with my crutches, and washing the bathrooms. I even learned to play piano. A lot of my growing up was about trying to fit in and trying to do things like my siblings.

Faye: It sounds like your parents understood the importance of helping you have confidence to reach your potential and be as independent as possible. That is what I tried to do with my students, as an early childhood teacher.

Minda: My mom is also an educator. I’m sure that played a part. She taught elementary school when I was younger. She took some time off, and then became a teacher of ESL. We had a lot of foreign exchange students stay with us. It’s like they brought diversity to us.

Faye: Before you were fitted for braces, were you in a wheelchair when you were little?

Minda: When I came, I didn’t have a proper wheelchair. I think I was just crawling, and I see they had a stroller, when I look back at pictures.

Faye: What was it like in elementary school, having a physical disability?

Minda: During my elementary school years, I really struggled. I was quite different from a physical standpoint, and in many ways, I felt like I didn’t fit in. Fortunately, the school was on one level, so I only had to crutch up a couple of stairs to get into the building. Because I had a sister the same age as me, and two older brothers, they didn’t separate me from the classroom. I did start school a year behind my sister, when I came to America, but I was able to catch up by skipping third grade. I was in fourth grade the same year she was. Playing with other kids, I often felt left out. I couldn’t play sports like the other kids. At recess time, I would stand against the wall, watching, not thinking that I could participate. I did have to take the short bus for kids with disabilities. I took that for a couple of years. But I worked hard to learn how to crutch up the bus stairs myself, so I could take the school bus with my sister. I just wanted to be like her.

Your question about what it was like, I think at the beginning people didn’t understand that having a physical disability didn’t mean I couldn’t participate in the classroom. I knew that education was my ticket to my future, and I really did well in school. Even at a young age, I was very motivated. I just wanted to be and do something. I just didn’t know what that was, yet.

Faye: Did you have friends in elementary school?

Minda: I had a few friends. Also, my mom was a Girl Scout troop leader, so I was a girl scout all through elementary school. That really helped to build friendships. Outside of school, since my sister was the same age, I would hang out with her the most.

Faye: In high school, what were your thoughts on what you wanted to do?

Minda: I was very keen on going to college. I was as involved as a person with a disability could be. I did everything outside of sports to demonstrate that I was very driven, wanted to go places, and be successful, so I could get into a good college. I played piano, was a class officer, and was in a business group called DECA, where I was a regional president. I also focused on good grades and becoming a good candidate for college.

Faye: Did you have a major in mind when you were in high school?

Minda: I had wanted to do pre-law, and then after I participated in DECA, I decided I wanted to work in international business. I went to the University of Washington business school where I majored in business. I ended up dropping international and got a degree in Management Information Systems.

Faye: What did you do when you graduated?

Minda: I got a job in management consulting with a large global consulting firm. I wanted to move to the East Coast, so they moved me to New York City. For a couple of years, I consulted with pharmaceutical and retail clients.

Faye: Are you doing that now?

Minda: No. I’ve had various roles in corporate management. I’ve managed client and technology, and now, people programs for a large global insurer, full time.

Faye: How did you get into doing Ironman?

Minda: When I was 28, one of my friends in business school was training for her first marathon in New York City. She said, “You can do it, too. There’s a club for athletes with disabilities, and they train in Central Park.” She gave me a brochure, which I sat on for six months. February of 2005, I attended my first practice of Achilles International in Central Park. The founder, Dick Traum loaned me a hand cycle, and I got to ride a bike fast, for the first time. I remember the wind in my hair, going what I thought was fast. I just loved it. I really wanted to do it again. The founder challenged me to do a race, like a marathon, so I trained for it. I did my first marathon about five months later. It was exciting. It was like my whole life changed, because now I could be a part of this thing called sports.

Faye: You used the hand bike for the marathon, the whole 26 miles?

Minda: Yes.

Faye: You have strong arms! As a child, when you were living at home, did you do any kind of physical activities?

Minda: I didn’t do many physical activities. My parents did buy me a tricycle, but I kept falling, and so I couldn’t go very far. It was a hand-powered tricycle, but it’s more upright. I kept tipping over because I’m stronger on one side. My family is super athletic, but I participated from the sidelines. I remember volunteering at local races. I even ran the potato bar at a local bike race for five years, with my friends. At the finish line you prepare potatoes and put all the stuff on it.

I never thought I could be biking or running with them. I never thought that could be the case. It wasn’t until I saw other disabled athletes in Central Park and tried the hand cycle that I thought, “Maybe I could be doing this too.”

Faye: What did you do after the first marathon?

Minda: The journey is actually quite long. I started sports at 28. I started hand cycling. A couple of years later, I was really inspired by watching a wheelchair complete the New York City Triathlon. I thought, “Man, I’d love to do that, too,” but I didn’t know how to swim, and I didn’t have a racing wheelchair. I signed up for the race anyway, for the following year. I also signed up for swimming lessons so I could learn how to swim. I was able to get a racing chair from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Within six months I did my first triathlon. It’s funny looking back on it. I was so slow.

Faye: But you did it!

Minda: Yeah. It took me 4 hours and 35 minutes to do an Olympic-distance triathlon. I was probably near the last finisher, but I was just so happy that I had done it. Because I’m a very goal-oriented person, I wanted to do it again, but I wanted to be better and faster. I wanted to do another triathlon. I went to a camp for athletes with disabilities training for triathlon. I met a guy named Jason Fowler, an Ironman world champion in the hand cycle division. He put a bug in my ear, “Maybe you should go after Kona one day.” Kona is where the Ironman World Championship is. It’s a long endurance race where you swim, bike, and run, all day, for someone like me. This is another example of seeing somebody else who did it. Our legs are paralyzed. We share a similar disability. His telling me “Maybe you should go after this” inspired me. I knew I couldn’t go from a 26-mile race to 140-mile race overnight. It took five years. I joined a triathlon club in New York City with able-bodied athletes, but I really enjoyed being with a community of like-minded athletes that were achieving great things. They were going after longer distance triathlons. It wasn’t weird to hear, “I have my long 4-hour plus bike ride that I’m doing this Saturday.” I got really inspired to do the same. I worked with a coach, and I started signing up for longer-distance races. By age 34, I did my first Ironman in Louisville.

Faye: When you do a triathlon, are you using the hand cycle for the running and the biking?

Minda: I use a hand cycle for the bike portion, which is a recumbent bike. It’s powered by your arms and low to the ground, with three wheels. It has gears and crank arms to propel it forward. I use a racing wheelchair for the run. It’s distinct from an everyday wheelchair. It’s made for racing, and it has two large side wheels. It’s cambered (curved upward in the middle), and you have a smaller front wheel. You propel it forward by pushing on your rims with racing gloves. It doesn’t have any gears.

Faye: Ironman is such an accomplishment. You do realize that most people can’t even do one part of Ironman, including me.

Minda: I’ve been a triathlete for 16 years now, but I’m further and further away from that achievement of crossing the Ironman finish line. Having a family and different priorities, I really appreciate that accomplishment, and all the work it took to get it done. This isn’t about everyone taking on an Ironman. I think for me, it was something that I wanted to do, just for myself. I think the message to everyone is: Set goals and just start. Find something that you enjoy doing that gets you out of bed and excited.

Faye: That’s a great message. When was your last Ironman?

Minda: My last Ironman was 2016. I’ve done four Ironman distance races. In 2016, I completed Ironman Florida. Since then I’ve been doing a Half Ironman, probably one a year.

Faye: Oh, that’s all, a Half Ironman? (Laughs)

Minda: (Laughs) It’s 70 miles instead of 140. I had a personal goal that I set after doing Ironman. It was to do a Half Ironman on every continent. Obviously, not Antarctica. I did a Half Ironman on six continents. My daughter went with us to every one of them. She’s been to six continents, and she’s only nine now.

Faye: What do you do now, besides being a mom and working full time?

Minda: I wrote a children’s book based on my own personal journey. I have done motivational speaking, where I talk about what I learned in completing the Ironman World Championship, and how that can apply to everyone and hopefully inspire others to take on their personal “Ironman challenge.” Another thing that’s really important to me came out of completing this race. It is, being an advocate for global immunizations and polio eradication. Polio is a disease that I was impacted with because I did not have access to the vaccine. I feel strongly about sharing why it is important that we end this vaccine-preventable disease by making sure that children around the world have access to it. It’s something that I’m passionate about.

Faye: Tell me more about your journey to Ironman.

Minda: I’ve actually been to that race multiple times. My first time, I failed. I didn’t make the time cut-off. You have to make time limits. For example, you have to swim 2.4 miles under 2 hours and 20 minutes, then you have to do the 112-mile bike ride, in 10 and a half hours. As a wheelchair or hand cycle athlete, it was difficult for me to make the second cut-off time, because I’m pushing my bike with only the use of my arms. I can’t push with the amount of power that somebody with their legs can. My first time in Kona, I failed, because I wasn’t going to make the intermediate cut-off time. That was devastating. I was told to stop the race. I thought “Maybe triathlon isn’t for me.” That happened in October of 2012. Over the Christmas holiday, I talked to my husband, and he said “We should try this again.” We made a commitment to each other that we would do everything possible to figure it out, and help me cross that finish line. I was going up against history because no female wheelchair athlete had ever done it. That whole nine months leading up to the race, training was outside of our day jobs. We focused on figuring out what to do to get that race done. When I think about it, it involved a lot. It was us, putting our full focus on it. I put the effort into training early in the mornings, even when I didn’t want to get up, I had to do long training rides indoors on my hand cycle, six-plus hours, when it was raining outside. My husband drove me (two hours each way) to upstate New York to go open water swimming, so I could practice getting comfortable in the water. I had friends that would ride next to me on the highway to help keep me safe, because I rode so low to the ground. This allowed me to get my miles done outside. There was a lot of hard work, planning and preparation that went into getting prepared for race day.

Another thing that I really worked on that year was the idea of self-belief. It’s hard to think about trying to break a record, especially someone like me, who wasn’t a professional athlete. I was doing my best. I began to transform the way I thought about my journey and myself. I had read this article that talked about how you have to think about self-belief. Even if people think you can’t do it, you have to believe you can. You have to be the one to believe it. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks or says.

When it came to race day, it was having that ultimate drive and perseverance to continue going even when things got hard, over the course of 14-plus hours, to get this race done. I was up against a few challenges. I had to make sure that I was focused on what was in front of me. For example, when I was in the water, I didn’t think about the enormity of the race. I thought “How do I get to the next buoy?” When I got onto the bike, I thought “How do I make sure that I keep myself hydrated and eat on a regular basis?” Things got hard. It got really hot, humid, and miserable. There was a headwind I had to push through on a 15-mile hill. I kept thinking “I have to focus on what I can control.” In many ways, it’s my attitude and my effort that gets me through. Sometimes those negative thoughts creep in, like “Maybe you can’t make this cut-off time.” I had to tell those thoughts to stop, because on that day, I had to do everything I could to get it done. I only made the bike cut-off by three minutes, When I finally got on to the run course, I just remember thinking “Man. I’m finally gonna finish this race.” When I crossed that Ironman finish line, it was the realization of a dream come true. I was able to do it in front of my friends and family who had supported me along the entire journey. It showed that I could do it, and now, I’ve paved the way for other women wheelchair athletes who want to conquer this course. My husband is the reason that I was able to do this. He believed in me before I believed in myself. He was the one that said “I think we can do this.”

Faye: I love your message that no matter what goal people have, it’s the same process: finding self-motivation, friends and family who will support you, and a way to push away negative thoughts. Also, you took the huge endeavor and broke it into smaller, more accessible steps. “I have to get to the next buoy,” not, “I have to swim several miles.” That is so important when taking on any kind of challenge, at any level. What you’re saying, can be so helpful to our audience, and to anyone who reads about you.

Minda: These concepts can be applied in everyday life.

Faye: What are some of the challenges you have in everyday life, and how do you handle them?

Minda: I spent 20 years in New York City. It was not the most accessible city. I found ways to make it work for me. It would take me twice as long to get anywhere. I would crutch around, and I had to crutch up and down the stairs to the subway to get to work. Sometimes, if I was too tired, I would take the bus, which took two hours each way. Going swimming, there was only one pool that was wheelchair accessible that I could go to, but it was an hour each way. I would get up at 4:00 a.m. to go train. From an accessibility standpoint, it was definitely a challenge for somebody with a physical disability. Another thing is becoming a mom. It’s one thing to be able to take care of yourself, understand how your body works, and deal with the accessibility challenges, then tack on being a mom. It was super challenging. I really had to get comfortable asking for help. In New York, we wanted a daycare that didn’t have stairs so I could help with the pickup and drop off. Finding a school that was wheelchair accessible was difficult. Also, living in the city when my daughter was two, I got really nervous because she would run away. We lived on a major avenue where there were a lot of cars and people. I ended up using a bracelet. It’s like a leash she put on her wrist, and I would attach it to my wheelchair so she couldn’t run away from me. Now, I live in Arizona, which is the complete opposite. It’s probably built for older people, but everything’s wheelchair accessible, like the school. I’m not stressed out about taking my daughter places, because there are no stairs. A lot of her friends live in single-story homes, which I guess happens when you live in an area where there’s a lot of space.

I think that the biggest challenge is related to accessibility. I needed to realize “There are going to be some limitations, I’m going to need to ask for help, and I’m going to have to advocate more.”

Faye: How do you decide when you use a wheelchair and when you use crutches?

Minda: I started using my wheelchair more when I became a mom. Also, with polio, you can have post-polio syndrome. I find I’m being impacted by it, and I get tired more easily. I find that using a wheelchair is less difficult on my arms, in an everyday sense. I use my wheelchair almost exclusively now.

Faye: How did you get your arms so strong?

Minda: Especially, leading up to Ironman, I did any activity that would increase my strength. I spent time in the gym building muscles, managed my food and went to physical therapy every week. I tried to do everything I could to get myself in the best possible condition.

Faye: When you swim do your legs help at all?

Minda: No. They’re like weights. Everything is upper body.

Faye: Does your daughter ask you questions, about your braces and wheelchair?

Minda: This is all she knows. “Mom has always been like this.” She asks questions like “Why are people staring at us?” “How come your legs don’t work?” It’s just part of who her mom is.

Faye: For a parent who has a child asking those questions, do you have advice on how to explain it?

Minda: Just be yourself. Just say the truth. Talk about the positives and the negatives.

Faye: When your daughter asked why people were staring, what would you say to her?

Minda: “They’re probably curious about why I can’t walk like they do or wondering why I use a wheelchair. They’re probably identifying the differences that they see.” One thing I don’t like is people thinking I’m a hero for doing everyday things. That really bothers me. Just because I’m crutching to go on the subway to work does not make me any better or worse than someone else.

Faye: I think what people are seeing is that you are not sitting home feeling sorry for yourself, and they’re not sure that they would be as strong. I think they respect what you’re doing, because it’s not as easy as without crutches or braces.

Minda: That’s interesting. Okay, I hear what you’re saying.

Faye: People I talk to that have a disability don’t like people to assume that they can’t do something and try to do it for them. I ask people (with a disability or not) if they would like help. I don’t just do it for them.

Minda: Yes. I appreciate it when someone asks. In every situation, you should act like you would with a friend, with or without a disability. Then it doesn’t become awkward. I know it could be hard to watch, like when I push my suitcase up a hill in the airport. But, if they ask if they can help and I say “No, I’m good,” even if they feel helping me would take less time, it’s about respecting the person.

Faye: You are inspiring. Like you said, it’s not about being a hero. It’s that not everybody has that self-motivation, that strength, nor that ability to push away negative thoughts.

Minda: It’s something you learn. I make mistakes. I don’t feel super motivated every single day. I went back to that race twice. I failed again and again. But to me it was about trying. We’re not always going to achieve our goals, but I think it’s about trying. I learned more about myself in my failures than I did in my successes. To have success and then go back and fail a couple more times, that’s hard, too. It makes us grow. I’m demonstrating to my daughter that I’m setting goals and going after them. I’m working hard. She sees me practicing for presentations that I’m giving. She sees me go to the gym. She sees me preparing for things. She saw me work through all the drafts of the book. I think being a good example is super important. The way I’m being an example is by doing.

I feel like sports is a great metaphor for life, because you go through all the emotions. You go after something, you get it, you’re happy. You don’t get it, you’re sad, or you get hurt, and you have to recover. You work hard. My daughter’s a swimmer. She has many opportunities to fail and try again. They are great lessons for her. In my book, I talk about how I overcome challenges. I set small goals for myself. When learning how to walk with braces and crutches, I fell and then I had to get back up and keep trying. When learning to do my chores, I would sometimes fall on the mop and then I’d have to get up again. There’s this refrain in the book where I say “Afterwards, I was stronger, I was smarter, and I was more confident.” We’re all going to be facing struggles or setbacks. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to experience failure. That shouldn’t hold us back. Experiences where we’re falling down and trying to figure it out are opportunities to grow and become more resilient. We can use those experiences to become better at whatever we’re trying to do.

My daughter was at a roller-skating rink with eight- and nine-year-olds at different levels learning how to skate. Within an hour, the kids learned how to roller skate. They fell multiple times but got back up. Some used a skate walker aid. They were trying to keep their balance. It was a great opportunity for them to learn from failure and grow at the same time.

Faye: On the days you are not motivated, how do you handle it?

Minda: I think, sometimes you just got to do it. You know you’re going to feel better after you get it done. You don’t feel motivated to do it, but you just do it. Try to focus on being in it while you’re doing it. Once you start, it may suck at the beginning, but you get through it and then you’re happy that you did it. You’re not going to feel 100% motivated every day, and it’s not going to be the all-time best performance, but I think sometimes it’s just about doing it. It sounds so basic, but it’s better to do it than not do it.

Faye: Do you ever find yourself so unmotivated that you don’t do something you had scheduled?

Minda: Oh, of course. I’m not perfect. I get mad at myself for not being able to do something, but then, we can only do so much. I think sometimes if you don’t have the right energy, you don’t do it, because you know you’re going to be more productive when you have the right energy. You have to allow yourself some grace.The idea is if you have a goal, be consistent in your effort. Just keep doing it. It’s okay if you miss here and there, but it’s better to have more days of doing than not doing. It’s a lesson that I’m learning myself. I am super goal-oriented, and sometimes, I can’t relax. I feel like I have to be doing something all the time towards a goal. I do have to stop and chill and allow myself to not get everything done on my so-called checklist. For me, as I get older, especially with polio, it forces me to stop. If I don’t have a lot of energy, I have to stop. That’s been a hard realization for me. I can’t just keep going because my body, literally, shuts down. Now, I’m realizing that if there are certain things I want to do, I have to do it when I have the optimal energy. In time, we can do a lot of things. It’s about prioritizing, making certain choices and just doing it, even sometimes when you don’t want to, and allowing yourself grace if you can’t.

Faye: I think it’s important to have realistic personal goals and not compare ourselves to others.

Minda: We’re human. The compare game is strong, especially with social media. You need to get comfortable with living your life. Find something that you want to do. Genuinely wanting it is important to achieve a goal and go the distance. If not, then it’s easier to blow it off or not do the work. The idea of self-belief is really important. You have to get rid of the doubters, really believe in yourself and take away that negative noise. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t believe in you. Believing in yourself is key to achieving anything that you want.

Faye: You shared that you were inspired by others you saw do something. I’m hoping that our audience will be inspired by you.

Minda: I hope so. I am so inspired by other people. Even to this day, I’ll read a story, or I’ll meet somebody. I think by sharing ourselves and who we are and what we do can be a point of inspiration for each other.

Faye: How and when did you get the idea to write the book?

Minda: A friend of mine told me to read this book called Fauja Singh Keeps Going. He said “You should write one, too,” and so I did. I had always wanted a way to be able to share my story with my daughter and her peers. I feel like it’s important for them and for everyone to be exposed to people who are different. One way we can do that is through books and stories.

There’s power in connection and community. A lot of my inspiration came from watching and seeing other people do cool things. I got involved in organizations like Achilles International, Challenged Athletes Foundation and Move United. I think it’s important to connect with other people who share a similar disability, because there’s a lot to be learned from your shared experiences. When I became a mom, I reached out to people who were moms in wheelchairs to get advice. I would encourage people with and without disabilities to identify communities where you can connect, share, and learn from each other. 

Read the article here.