Jun 1, 2023
The power of community: Harnessing the human spirit with Achilles International

Quick Take

  • David Cordani convened a panel discussion with athletes from the Achilles Freedom Team.
  • The group explored ways to push the boundaries of physical and mental achievement.
  • The event celebrated Achilles' 40th anniversary and coincided with the 500-mile 2023 Achilles Relay.

The true power of community starts on an individual and human level, said David Cordani, chairman and CEO of The Cigna Group, during a panel discussion he hosted last week with long-standing partner Achilles International.

Achilles International transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connection, and allows them to rediscover their potential – breaking down barriers to participation in mainstream athletic events and fostering a community of support. The panel of speakers, which comprised of military veterans of the Achilles Freedom Team as well as an employee resource group (ERG) co-lead from The Cigna Group, discussed the power of community, exploring ways to push the boundaries of physical and mental achievement and how to foster a sense of belonging.

The event celebrated the organization’s 40th anniversary and coincided with the 2023 Achilles Relay, a 500-mile running, walking, and wheeling journey from Boston, Massachusetts, to Washington, D.C., for more than 100 athletes and veterans with and without disabilities.

“The relay is completed individual to individual – but it illustrates the power of community,” said Emily Glasser, president and CEO of Achilles International. “It represents the importance of focusing on one relationship at a time, to create and empower ambassadors for positive change.” She said the relay also represents the power of partnership, remarking on the 10+ year partnership between Achilles and The Cigna Group.

Difficult times lead to growth

Cedric King, a retired U.S. Army master sergeant and Achilles athlete, described how his experience with Cordani at the 2015 Boston Marathon shaped him. King is a double-leg amputee, injured while serving on his second tour in Afghanistan, and he ran the marathon alongside Cordani – a longtime friend and Achilles guide.

“I’ve been to combat three or four times, and the [weather] conditions were right up there with this, 26 miles to run in driving rain, sleet, 40 degrees.” He reflected on how the community pushed him through, cheering him and Cordani up the hardest section of the course, affectionately known as “Heartbreak Hill.” King noted, however, that the role of community is also to encourage strength and accountability.

Cordani and King reflect on their experience running the 2015 Boston Marathon

“You have to have people that aren’t going to take it easy on you just because the storm is pushing on you,” King said, adding that people learn and grow most through adversity.  

King shared his experience waking up from a coma following his injury and amputation in 2012. He said he had wished he could just go back to way things were before his injury, not realizing that place no longer existed. With the help of Achilles, King was able to push forward.

“[The community] can’t give me my legs back, but it gave me something even more important, a sense of identity,” King said. “You can take my legs, you can take my hands, you could have taken my eyesight – I would still be me. And that's what I needed to know.”

Lifelong learning and a sense of belonging

Mike Sprouse, a retired U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor and Achilles athlete, shared how Achilles has ignited his ability to continue to learn – about himself and about the community around him. “For us, the community gets you back into the world, it gives you meaning and purpose in life," he said. “When I got injured, I was angry at the whole world and thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’ But the Achilles community brought back the spirit in me.” Sprouse now mentors veterans who have gone through similar challenges.

Achilles athletes prepare to run a segment of the 500-mile Achilles Relay

Active listening and sharing are key to the power of community, Sprouse said. His advice was to share your personal story with people and to listen to the stories of others, because sharing and listening help build bonds between people.  

Ayanna Bernard, U.S. Army veteran and co-lead of The Cigna Group’s Salute ERG for veterans and military families, added that anyone can support a community like Achilles – no matter their circumstances or experience.  She reflected on her involvement with Achilles in a support capacity and helping to foster a sense of belonging. “Being a veteran and knowing people that have served, passed, and come back disabled, I knew I wanted to get involved – and although I’m not a runner, I am able to cheer on every person that goes by and help push them to the finish line.”

Celebrating the Achilles Freedom Team

Following the panel, Cordani and the athletes took to the road to join a 13-mile leg of the Achilles Relay. Cordani guided the Freedom Team, a group within Achilles comprised of wounded military personnel and veterans, from The Cigna Group’s headquarters in Bloomfield, CT through downtown Hartford. Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont met Cordani and the athletes at the State Capitol and presented the Freedom Team with the Connecticut state flag.

Cordani and Governor Lamont celebrate Achilles athletes at the Connecticut State Capitol

“We congratulate Achilles International on their 40th anniversary and continue to celebrate this organization for creating supportive communities and lifting up so many lives,” Cordani said at the State Capitol. “Our ride this week, like everything Achilles does, shows how they have such a positive impact on athletes and those who cheer them on. We’re inspired by the way they continue proving anything is achievable when you bring together like-minded individuals who share the same vision and goals.”

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