Growing up, Evelyn Rodriguez never knew how to swim or ride a bike and was often left out of gym class because she was born with one arm. On Sunday, the 44-year-old grandmother raced in her third New York City Triathlon.
"The heat and amount of bikes out there made it very challenging when I hit those hills. I felt that I should maybe get off my bike and walk," Rodriguez said after the race. "Instead, I reminded myself that I had trained for this."
Rodriguez, who’s granddaughter Katalina was born just a week before her race, was a part of a relay team competing in the Olympic triathlon. She did the run and cycling portion, and her relay team finished the race at 3:59:22.
"I dedicated my finish to my new granddaughter," she said.
Rodriguez told InsideEdition.com she was born without a left arm due to unknown complications at birth. Her mom immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua when she was pregnant, and doctors believe her birth defect may be a result of poor prenatal care.
“We don’t really know how it happened,” she told InsideEdition.com. “I tried to get some testing, but we can’t really figure it out.”
Her family settled in the Bronx, and while her single mother gave her and her siblings the best life she could, Rodriguez remembered feeling different at school.
"Other kids would often make fun of me," she said. "I wasn’t allowed to participate in gym. A lot of things weren’t understood back then, and I often time sat in the back of the classroom."
As a result, Rodriguez was self-conscious for most of her life, including when she became a mom at just 16 years old, and was embarrassed to take her son Josph to the playground.
“Even just going to the park with my son — I didn’t feel comfortable," she explained. "I was a teen parent, and that was hard within itself […] My day-to-day was difficult. I still had to finish school. I had to be a caregiver and there were a lot of responsibilities. Taking your son to appointments, making sure he’s fine, that I’m fine. We basically grew up together."
She said her embarrassment of her disability lasted well into adulthood and developed into depression, until four years ago when she joined Achilles International, an athletics team for people with disabilities, where she was encouraged to try different sports, including triathlon.
"I didn’t know how to swim or ride a bike," Rodriguez said. “[My friend] said, 'Don’t worry, you can learn to swim. You can learn to ride a bicycle. You can do it all.' And ever since then, my life has changed."
After receiving a grant for an adaptive bike, she quickly discovered triathlon was her favorite sport.
“It’s a different world," she said. "You have swimming, you have biking, you have running and all those disciplines. How can I say it? It’s just so much to do, you don’t get bored. You don’t have time to get bored."
She eventually began training daily, rotating between indoor biking, swimming laps at a community pool and doing evening runs in Central Park as she prepared for race day.
“I wish I say to my younger self, 'It’s going to get better. Things will get better. Hang in there and stay positive,'" Rodriguez said. "I can’t wait to teach my granddaughter how to ride a bike."