Growing up in Spokane, Minda Dentler competed in everything she could find that didn’t require the use of her legs.
Polio had essentially paralyzed both of her legs as an infant, but she volunteered, joined the debate team and even played a modified piano competitively.
She cheered on athletes at Bloomsday and supported her adopted sister and two brothers as they competed in various sports. But that world always seemed closed to her.
It wasn’t until a man handed her a hand cycle in New York’s Central Park that a new door opened.
Eight years later, Dentler has been nominated for an ESPY Award for the best female athlete with a disability after she became the first woman hand cyclist to complete the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and 26.2-mile marathon of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
“Even though I watched the wheelchair athletes in Bloomsday, I never connected the dots that I could do that, too,” Dentler said.
After she moved to New York, she met Dick Traum, who in 1976 became the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon and later founded Achilles International, an organization that helps disabled athletes find opportunities to compete.
Traum handed Dentler a hand cycle in 2006 and told her to go for it.
“I thought he was crazy. I remember calling my parents and telling them. Within three weeks or something, Dick Traum said, ‘Hey, you should try the marathon,’” Dentler said. “He basically planted the seed for me to have a goal. I did my first marathon that year.”
Playing with string
Minda was born in India and contracted polio as an infant. Unable to care for her ailing daughter, Dentler’s birth mother left her at an orphanage.
She remained there until Bruce and Ann Dentler, of Spokane, came to India and adopted Minda when she was 3.
“Her mother was a domestic worker. She couldn’t care for her,” Ann Dentler said. “She gave her up.”
The home where Minda lived was simple with few resources.
“It was common to see a child playing with a piece of string. There wasn’t much else,” Ann said. “But it clearly was a loving institution. They cared about the children who were there.”
Minda came to the Lilac City and underwent surgeries that allowed her to walk with braces and crutches. She attended Evergreen Elementary, Northwood Junior High and Mead High School, where she graduated in 1996.
Now 36, Minda is the director of operations in a multinational group for insurance giant AIG.
“Minda has always been a very determined person,” Ann said. “She gave every effort of her entire being to whatever she wanted accomplished. She learned to walk in braces and crutches when there was snow and ice on the ground.”
Minda wanted to play the piano, but she would have been limited because her legs couldn’t work the pedals.
“We found someone who invented a pedal connection that she could press with her knee. She played in competitions all the way up through high school,” Ann said. “She really thrived in that kind of environment. She just really loves to compete.”
Minda also volunteered a lot of her time encouraging her brothers and sister in their respective sports.
“She would have been a great athlete if she had her legs to work with,” Ann said. “Until she lived in New York City, she didn’t believe there was much hope to be an athlete competitively. Achilles opened a door.”
Having met Traum in March 2006, Minda competed in her first marathon that November.
“I’m sure it was terrible,” Minda said of her time. “But it was the first time I was able to set goals outside of my work and personal life. Having the athletic outlet has basically changed my life.”
With those first hand cranks, Dentler discovered triathlons and joined a club.
“These people are training for long distances, like Ironman. It made me want to raise my game, too,” she said. “These were able-bodied athletes. I wasn’t training with disabled people.”
She continued to work out, and six years later she did her first Ironman in Louisville in 2012.
“I wanted to do an Ironman before Kona because I wanted to know what it felt like to do the distance,” she said. “It’s always good to have that kind of experience under your belt.”
Minda failed to finish the race in the 101/2-hour cutoff time for the cycling portion of the event. Undaunted, she qualified for Kona the same year.
“I failed miserably,” she said. “That’s why so many women before me failed at Kona. It’s very difficult to get that bike done by 5:30 p.m.”
She then refocused everything.
“I basically got a new game plan. It was a combination of getting my mind right, my body right and having the right team,” she said. “I really worked on my mental game. When you are out there going against history, it’s easy to tell yourself that you can’t do it.”
Dentler started working with three coaches, a physical therapist and found volunteers, including her new husband, Shawn Hawkins, to ride with her on New Jersey highways.
“He wanted this as much as I wanted it,” Minda said of her husband. “He sacrifices a lot of time and he fixes my stuff. I would not be where I am without him.”
Ann and Bruce, who recently retired as a geriatrician, traveled from Spokane to Hawaii to watch Minda compete in the 2013 Ironman in Kona.
“I wish everybody could have the opportunity Bruce and I had to stand on the side of the race course and cheer for her,” Ann said. “It’s incredible to see how other people respond to her and see how hard she works to accomplish this particular race.”
But it wasn’t all roses.
The Dentlers waited at the transition period, expecting Minda to finish the hand cycle portion of the race at about 5:10 p.m. with the cutoff looming at 5:30 p.m. “She wasn’t coming,” Ann said.
Three minutes from the cutoff point, Minda came rolling down.
“She was not looking good,” Ann said. “We covered her with ice because she was so overheated. She got herself together and got back on the course.”
But coming out of the transition, and now in a racing wheelchair, Minda struggled to make it up the first hill.
“It was probably 7:30 p.m. and they had taken down most of the barriers. She was moving up the hill, one crank at a time,” Ann said. “This one man, he must have been from Germany, saw one of her foundation labels, the ‘I Will Foundation.’ He started yelling, ‘I Vill. I Vill.’
“Pretty soon all the people in the street started saying, ‘I Will.’ It was just too cool.”
Minda finished the race in 14:39:14 and became the first woman hand cyclist to complete Ironman in Kona. In late June, she received an invitation to travel to Los Angeles because she had been nominated for an ESPY award for best female athlete with a disability.
Voting for the awards, presented by ESPN, will remain open until 9 p.m. on Wednesday.
“I’m just so humbled to be in the presence of these athletes,” Minda said. “I think the recognition is great. But I hope people see me as an opportunity to get involved.
“There are all kinds of opportunities for people with disabilities to get involved with sports.”