Sean Burch

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(HOST) This summer commentator Brian Porto read a newspaper article that reminded him of why sports have a strong emotional appeal for him – and for countless other Americans.

(PORTO) We are an individualistic people, and we love the opportunities that sports provide to showcase the power of the human spirit. An athlete’s triumph over adversity is sure to warm the hearts and to earn the respect of American fans. After all, who among us was not touched and inspired in July while watching cyclist Lance Armstrong overcome cancer to win the Tour de France for the seventh time?

But Lance Armstrong is a famous professional athlete. The athlete who got me thinking about sports and individualism is Sean Burch of Oakton, Virginia. He is not famous, but his athletic achieve- ments are awe-inspiring.

On June 7 he set a world record by running up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 5 hours, 28 minutes, and 48 seconds. In so doing, he added one more superhuman feat to a list of athletic accomplish- ments that includes the world record for jumping rope at altitude and a victory at the North Pole Marathon in 2004.

Burch’s run up Mt. Kilimanjaro was a monumental accomplish- ment. The 20.4 mile trail requires no mountaineering skill or equipment, but demands prodigious intestinal fortitude, as it winds through five ecosystems ranging from a tropical rain forest to a glacier. The vertical gain from start to finish is nearly 15,000 feet, and the air at the 19,341-foot summit is painfully thin. Still, the 35-year-old Burch, who is 6’4″ tall and weighs 180 lbs., broke the previous record for the ascent of Kilimanjaro by nearly eight minutes.

To be sure, Burch paid a price for his achievement. At the summit, he vomited and his legs locked up in cramps so severe that he could barely move for an hour or so. Later, while he was descen- ding the mountain, fluid accumulated in his lungs, forcing him to stop until the condition subsided.

Sean Burch’s story is not about setbacks and obstacles, though. It is about the force and the resiliency of the human spirit. That spirit spurred him to train for Kilimanjaro by doing 30-minute stints on a Stairmaster with his nose pinched while he breathed through a straw in his mouth. Burch says of his unique training regimen, “You can take anybody and make them into an athlete or help them achieve a goal that they thought they couldn’t achieve.”

That quote captures one of the most endearing features of sports, namely, ordinary people achieving mind-boggling physical goals through extraordinary effort. Vermont and New Hampshire are home to many such people. May the examples set by Sean Burch and our vigorous neighbors inspire the rest of us to search for and to find the athlete within. Our lives and the public health will be better for it.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a free lance writer. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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