On most Thursday nights throughout the year, a group of runners meet at the home of Mikhail Gorbounov and his wife Olga in the Canada’s capital city. Runners of various speeds and abilities complete their runs along the canal or through the neighbourhood streets and then enjoy each other’s company around Mikhail’s table, sipping tea and nibbling on biscuits.
Who is Mikhail Gorbounov and what is this group??
This story starts in 1988 at the New York City Marathon where the worlds of two remarkable men collided. One was a citizen and a visually impaired distance and track runner from the then Soviet Union who would have qualified for the 1988 Summer Paralympics in Seoul, Korea, but was not invited. So, he made the trip to New York to compete in that city’s annual marathon with his wife Olga, also an accomplished visually impaired athlete. Not without adventure (which included being paired with a running guide who could not keep Mikhail’s pace), Mikhail completed the marathon in 3:21 and met a man who would shape his future.
Dick Traum, a wrestler who lost his leg at the age of 16 in a freak accident, decided that being an amputee would not stop him from athletics and competition. With the help of his coach, Dick became the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon in 1977. From that time onward, Dick became committed to supporting others with physical challenges to run. In 1983, he founded Achilles Track Club, now known as Achilles International. Over the years, the movement evolved to include all non-able-bodied athletes, including blind and visually impaired athletes. By the late 1980’s, Dick was competing outside the Unites States and seeking to set up Achilles chapters in as many countries as possible. He had met Mikhail at the marathon in New York in 1988 and realized that, with his help, the Soviet Union was a possible location.
Thus, the relationship between Dick Traum and Mikhail Gorbounov was forged.
Mikhail took the challenge. With his connections within the visually impaired community in Leningrad through the enterprise work he was doing, and a little bit of help from a TV show called “600 Seconds” which featured Mikhail and Olga’s accomplishments in New York City, the Soviet chapter was launched on March 29, 1989 in Leningrad. The initial chapter had a membership of seven, however in the ensuing years, the small but determined Achilles group convinced organizers of marathons all over the Soviet Union to accept visually impaired runners despite being told that the conditions were “too hot” or “too cold” or “too fast” for runners without sight! With Mikhail as Achilles president, he, Olga and their running friends entered more and more races and slowly began to raise awareness and change opinions about blind athletes.
As the involvement of visually impaired runners in national marathons grew, the Leningrad Achilles Chapter needed resources to allow athletes to attend races, some as far away as the Arctic Circle. Mikhail, always the entrepreneur, saw opportunity everywhere. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, western companies were striving to get a foothold in the country. Mikhail leveraged the Coca Cola logo on a knapsack Olga had received as a competitor in the Winter Paralympics in Albertville in 1992 (where she claimed gold in cross country skiing) to convince the two Coke representatives in St. Petersburg (whose office was in a room in a local hotel) to sponsor the Achilles group. For the next six years, Achilles members handed out flyers advertising Coke in every community in which they raced and wore the Coke logo on their shirts in return for sponsorship. Similarly, Mikhail managed to “strike a deal” with a Czech airline to obtain free trips for the Achilles group to New York City marathons, a group which eventually grew to 23! By 1995, because of the success Mikhail was achieving, Dick Traum was imploring him to start up Achilles chapters in other countries.
It took a cross-country skiing event in Saskatoon in 1998 (and a bit of encouragement from Olga) to get Mikhail to Canada. Olga’s involvement in the skiing world as a highly accomplished athlete meant that they moved in those circles as well as in the runners’ world. Mikhail recalls his first impressions of Canada as a country with: “amazing hospitality with cookies and tea” and “gas stations and lots of trees”. Mikhail and Olga fell in love with Canada and in 1999, found themselves in Toronto, with daughter Margarita in tow. A 5k walk event in that city with the whole family sporting Achilles T-shirts attracted attention and it was no time before a Toronto chapter of Achilles was born and then one in neighbouring Peterborough. Achilles had arrived in Canada thanks to Mikhail and his family!
In 2001, Mikhail met a young man at a track event in Oshawa and again in Quebec City and was immediately impressed by his blazing speed. Little did he know that he was being passed on the track by Jason Dunkerley, the Paralympian who has represented Canada in four Paralympic Games bringing home five medals in the 1500- and 5000-metre distances. When Mikhail and his family moved to Ottawa in 2005, Mikhail knew he needed to get Jason involved in the Achilles movement. After five years, the Ottawa chapter of Achilles was founded – “a running club committed to providing runners who are blind and visually impaired with a community of support. Athletes with a visual impairment of all levels and backgrounds are encouraged to train and compete alongside sighted guide runners in a supportive team environment”. In the years since, the chapter has continued to grow and now includes a membership of about 20.
This is the story of an amazing man with a passion for running and a commitment to supporting those with visual impairments who want to run. This is the story of a man whose strength of spirit and character and whose unwavering determination means that so many have been afforded the opportunity to enjoy and excel in the sport of running. Mikhail Gorbounov currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Chapter of Achilles and provides training advice and encouragement to Ottawa Achilles members. And of course, he opens up his home every week for all of us to meet. Thank you, Mikhail.