Supporting Each Other Across the Virtual Finish Line

Article | November 2020

Supporting Each Other Across the Virtual Finish Line

With many races switching to virtual formats this year, Achilles athletes and Team Cigna members find new ways to connect

Resilience – or our ability to quickly recover from life’s challenges – can be positively impacted by our connections to others. The Cigna Resilience Index found people who have a strong sense of community and support from family, friends, teammates and peers often report higher levels of resilience. 

For active military members and veterans, that support system includes fellow service men and women, and for veterans who are members of the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans, this extends to teammates, doctors, community members, and in many instances, Team Cigna guides. Achilles International is a global organization that transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connections, and their Freedom Team was adapted to the specific needs of wounded members of the U.S. military. Achilles has found that having the opportunity to be active and achieve in a mainstream marathon leads to increased confidence, enhanced physical wellness and goal setting in all areas of life. 

Over the years, Cigna has proudly sponsored the Walt Disney World® Marathon, the Hope and Possibility® 4 Mile Run and the Marine Corps Marathon® (MCM). At all of these events, Team Cigna guides and support runners were side-by-side with Achilles’ athletes, encouraging and matching them mile-for-mile to the finish line. Now, as presenting sponsor of the Achilles Freedom Team itself, Cigna has the opportunity make an even bigger impact. 

“Through encouragement and support, Team Cigna guides can take an impossible test and make it an incredible accomplishment,” said Michael Donnelly, Vice President and General Manager at Express Scripts, a Cigna company, and MCM executive sponsor. “Team Cigna guides and support runners get to be a part of such an exciting moment in the athlete’s lives, watching someone accomplish a goal that may once have seemed out of reach.” 

An Experience Shared Together While Thousands of Miles Apart 

Many of these races have been canceled or shifted to a virtual format due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but this hasn’t stopped Achilles athletes and Team Cigna guides from reaching the finish line together. In a virtual race format, guides and athletes must still make those meaningful connections to provide training accountability, emotional support and mutual motivation. It’s a very different experience for athletes and guides alike this year, and Mike Sprouse, an Achilles athlete, speaks to how it’s every bit as meaningful and rewarding. 

Mike Sprouse was a Marine and drill instructor for eight years. When he retired, he started a career in construction but suffered a spinal cord injury on the job. After his injury, he joined the Achilles Freedom Team as a hand cycle athlete in 2006 and met his wife, also an Achilles athlete, through the organization in 2007 at the Marine Corps Marathon. Sprouse has only missed one MCM event since 2007, and he wasn’t going to let the pandemic stop him from participating this year. 

“Virtual races and virtual tools that didn’t exist, or didn’t need to exist before now, have allowed us to find new ways to compete and connect,” said Sprouse. “I’m connecting with my fellow Achilles athletes for training, and it’s allowing us to push and motivate each other in ways we haven’t before.” 

So instead of traveling to the nation’s capital for this year’s MCM event – he completed the race near his hometown of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. 

And this year, he connected with Julia Huggins, senior vice president at Cigna, who also served as one of Cigna’s executive sponsors of the event, and supported Sprouse as a guide or better put, an accountability race partner. 

“The role of a guide is to encourage, uplift and support our assigned athlete physically, mentally and emotionally,” said Huggins. “But the relationship worked both ways. Mike encouraged, supported and motivated me as I prepared and finished my first half marathon as a cyclist.” 

The pair cycled together virtually with Sprouse in Florida and Huggins in Maryland. In preparation for the event, they encouraged and motivated each other. 

While the experience wasn’t the same as an in-person, side-by-side event, they both agree that virtually they accomplished more together than they would have individually. 

“This partnership works both ways, and I’m glad that I was able to use my experience to help Julia accomplish her goals,” said Sprouse. 

“Supporting another person, and watching them reach a goal they have set for themselves – even from a distance, is really special. A race – which can be both physically and mentally grueling – can be a great way to test and build our own resilience,” said Huggins. “Mike is an elite athlete and his determination is contagious. I’m incredibly honored to have gone through his experience with him.”

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