So Others May Live: A Conversation with Mary Ann and Bob (B-Dad) Blais of The Blazeman Foundation
Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles…brag for the rest of your life. The challenge is daunting enough on itʼs own. Add on having to race while suffering from ALS or more commonly known as Lou Gehrigʼs Disease and it becomes almost incomprehensible. If you are an Ironman or a serious fan of triathlon, you know this very scenario occurred in 2005 at the Ironman World Championships at Kailua-Kona Hawaii. It is the courageous story of Jon Blais, a remarkable young man who made his final fight against ALS so that others may live. You may know someone who did “The Blazeman” at an Ironman finish or even you yourself paid tribute by rolling over a finish line in celebration of Jonʼs fight against ALS. In fact, NBC Sports in their Ironman World Championships coverage spent 2 years telling Jonʼs story.
What follows here are the recollections and thoughts from Jonʼs parents Mary Ann and Bob Blais. They have lovingly and loyally carried on Jonʼs mission of fighting The War on ALS. Their devotion to their sons cause and memory is most admirable and noteworthy. It is indeed a love so complete and one the world will talk about forever.
2005 was an important year for Jon, his family and the sport of triathlon. In May of 2005 Jon was diagnosed with ALS and after vowing to fight on like the ALS Warrior Poet he became, he declared A War on ALS. In October 2005, a mere 5 months after his diagnosis Jon racked his bike and entered the waters of Kailua Kona Hawaii to race in the Ironman World Championships. Like a preview of the days to come for him, Jon braved through the pain and the technical difficulties with a level of strength and commitment that captured the respect and imagination of triathletes everywhere. On the bike when he was at risk of missing the cut-off, he knew he had to carry on as failure was not an option and he needed to be leading from the front in his War on ALS. He made the bike cut off with 45 minutes to spare. When he was on the run out by the Energy Lab with midnight drawing ever nearer, he summoned the strength and determination that only a man on a mission may possess and as he came down Aliʼi Drive he made a decision that would reverberate and define Ironman Charity and Compassion. Entering the chute, Jon remembered his interview with Mike Reilly and his “roll my ass across the finish line” comment and decided he would now roll himself across the finish line. The “Blazeman Roll” was born and is now performed by athletes all around the world. The promise Jon made to himself years before was finally kept at 16:38:02 after entering the waters of Kailua Bay when Mike Reilly announced to the world “Jon Blais, You Are An Ironman!!!!”. To this day, Jon remains the only athlete to complete an Ironman distance race while suffering from ALS.
As Mary Ann and Bob tell it, it was Mike Reilly who was partially responsible for the creation of the “Blazeman Roll” . Mike Reilly had hosted a sports TV show and decided to interview Jon. During the course of the interview he asked Jon what they should do in the case of Jon being up at the top of the hill on Aliʼi Drive and midnight closing in. Jon responded with “Why donʼt you roll my sorry ass across the finish line”. I donʼt believe Jon ever thought that his roll at the finish line would become such a widely recognized symbol of being a warrior actively fighting the War on ALS. I am sure he is looking down, smiling and thinking “oh yeah!!!”
“If You Want To Do It For A Cause Bigger Than Yourself Then We Can Do Something The World Can Hear” – Jon Blais
In 2007 The Blazeman Foundation really began to take off and Jonʼs vision of a constant and tireless War on ALS became a reality. The ALS Warrior Poet had set a course for his new foundation so that when his passing came on May 27 2007, Mary Ann and Bob already had the road map laid out before them. It wasnʼt an easy journey to get to that point. One of Jonʼs original plans was to join an already existing foundation and work from there. By July of 2007, it was clear that a suitable charity did not already exist to suit their purposes and thus The Blazeman Foundation was born.
According to Bob, the Blazeman Foundation is exactly as Jon had envisioned. Jon once said “If athletes could walk into this room and realize they could contract this disease, they would want to join this war”. Because of that belief, Jon had always said to become a combatant in The War on ALS “the decision must be immediate, the commitment must be total”. In 2008 it was clear the world did in fact hear as folks were ready to take on a cause bigger than themselves in the War on ALS and follow Brian Greenʼs lead to become Blazeman Warriors. Since then, Ironman greats such as Leanda Cave, Chrissie Wellington, Andy Potts, Mirinda Carfrae, Matt Reed, Bryan Rhodes and Scott Tinley have all lent their support to become warriors fighting The War on ALS.
The Blazeman Foundation has 4 pillars upon which The War on ALS is fought. The first is Education. Currently the foundation has awarded 2 post doctoral fellowships to enhance research. One of the fellowships is currently conducting research in Wake Forest University. The second pillar is Research. Currently the foundation is funding research projects at several universities and facilities in order to find a compound where they can try to find the root of ALS. Currently they have received new investigative approval on one such compound. The third is Collecting Diseased Tissue through the University of Maryland. Currently the only way to study ALS damaged tissue is through postmortem examination and research. The University of Maryland has a Tissue Acquisition Project where they collect tissue destroyed by ALS to conduct research on how the tissue got that way. Currently the University of Maryland is one of the few facilities in the world doing such research. The fourth pillar is earmarking funds that were donated to go into a community fund to assist foundations currently helping ALS patients with their own unique set of needs. In 2013, The Blazeman Foundation distributed over $10,000 to other worthy ALS charities.
By following The 4 Pillars of The Blazeman Foundation Mary Ann and Bob have been able to keep the Foundation on a steady, solid path. MaryAnn and Bob have done fine work in keeping the Blazeman Foundation a charity completely in line with the vision of their son.
So Others May Live – Challenge
In 2013, the Challenge Family finalized an agreement with Robert “Vigo” Vigorito a well respected and experienced race director to bring the Challenge Family to the United States. Vigo then partnered up with Stephen “Delmo” Delmonte and Challenge Atlantic City was born. Challenge Atlantic City would provide Mr. Vigorito an opportunity to further his work and support as a Blazeman Warrior himself by making Challenge Atlantic City an ALS Warrior race. This would make 2 races where Vigo and The Blazeman Foundation were working together to raise funds for The War on ALS. The other race is the Eagleman 70.3 race in Columbia Maryland.
The Challenge Family has decided that Challenge Atlantic City would be a participant in the 179 Program where bib number 179 would be an honorific number that was awarded to a deserving athlete who best exemplified the traits and beliefs of Jon Blais. Currently Challenge Atlantic City is accepting submissions for athletes would would like to wear Jonʼs 179 bib number. Challenge Atlantic City joins the Ironman World Championships and Ironman Hawaii 70.3 as races where you can apply to wear 179. You can go to challengeatlanticcity.com to apply for this great honor.
If you are ready to race for something bigger than yourself, the Blazeman Foundation would be happy to welcome you. The Blazeman Foundation knows that people race for their own reasons and they have set up their fundraising as such. They know that some athletes will want to become Blazeman Warriors, wear the gear, raise the funds and become active combatants in the War on ALS. For that athlete, you can go to active.com/donate/teamblazeman. A $50 minimum donation will allow you to join Team Blazeman and purchase the Team Blazeman tri kit. Some people race for themselves or their tri club but are motivated and inspired by Jonʼs tremendous story and so they will become active combatants in the War on ALS by raising funds but wearing their own tri gear on race day. Those athletes can go to challengeatlanticcity.com/donate-2. The Blazeman Foundation has also set up a donation arrangement on The Challenge Atlantic City race site where you can donate to The Tissue Foundation at the University of Maryland directly. However you choose to participate, I am sure Jon, his family and his foundation all thank you for making “an immediate decision on total commitment” in the War on ALS.
By the end of our conversation, it was clear that a call to action was necessary as Mary Ann and Bob told me that researchers are no further along today then they were on June 19 1939 when Lou Gehrig was diagnosed. I spent a little while longer with them, listened to a few more stories of Jon and then thanked them for their time. I could tell by the end of the interview that for Mary Ann and Bob Blais The Blazeman Foundation was a duty they felt responsible in upholding. For them, it was a calling they answered so that others may live. Before we end here, I would like to leave you with one more quote from Jon; “We only go around once. There’s really no time to be afraid. So stop. Try something youʼve never tried. Teach it. Do it. Risk it.”