ATLANTA — As the world’s largest 10K, competing in Atlanta’s AJC Peachtree Road Race is an achievement that people train for years to accomplish.
Unfortunately, for multiple Paralympic athletes Monday, their hard work went unseen when they were unable to participate in this year's race due to multiple airlines neglecting to send them their racing wheelchairs in time for the race.
Marcel Hug is a Paralympic wheelchair racer from Switzerland and this year, he was hoping to give now five-time wheelchair division winner, Daniel Romanchuk, a run for the title. However, when Hug arrived in Atlanta on Saturday, he was shocked to discover that his baggage, along with both his daily and racing wheelchairs, did not arrive with him.
“We waited there at the airport for about three hours or so, we were hoping to receive our baggage, but nothing was there,” he told 11Alive.
Hug flew the Swiss airline Lufthansa, and they informed him that both of his chairs were stuck in Frankfurt, Germany, but would be in town by Sunday.
The Paralympian held out hope for an entire day and luckily Peachtree Road Race organizers were able to lend him a daily wheelchair for use in the meantime.
However, by Monday morning, he was devastated when he realized the airline had received his baggage but had yet to receive his wheelchairs, and he would not be making it to the starting line.
“It's really bad. We really don't understand how it can happen,” Hug said. “I mean we are wheelchair athletes. We are people with disabilities, and we need our daily wheelchair and they just sent us the baggage.”
Paralympic wheelchair racer Hannah Babalola had a similar experience with her racing chair.
The Nigerian athlete flew Spirit Airlines to Atlanta out of New Jersey, but once she touched down, she was told by the airline that her wheelchair did not take the flight with her.
“I was devastated because four or five days ago I was in Atlanta, Georgia, for the Cedartown 5K, and I was the winner. I was going for either first position or second position, so for my racing chair not to be here, it’s not a good moment.”
When Babalola spoke to the airline, she said they originally did not know where the chair was located. However, by Sunday, she was informed that her chair would be in Atlanta by 9 a.m. Monday – three hours after her race was set to begin.
“I flew here, the last seven years, from out of the country, so I really want to race!” she said. “I’ve been training so hard and it’s one of my dream races that I love so much because everything about Peachtree is fun, and for the Fourth of July, you just want to race for Independence Day.”
To Babalola, not having her racing chair meant more than just missing out on the race. Although she said the airline apologized, it did not make up for the mistake.
“They apologized, but apologies are not enough for negligence,” she said.
Hug had similar sentiments concerning the airlines.
“It's holiday traveling right now, so it's difficult, which I really understand,” he said. “Normally it can happen that some bags don't arrive, but nothing arrived. It's just incredible. Not even the day after, and it's not the daily wheelchair. For us, it's not acceptable.”
This will not deter the athletes. Babalola said her dream is to beat the world record at the AJC Peachtree Road Race, and she will not stop until she does just that. She plans to start at next year’s race.
In a statement, Spirit Airlines told 11Alive they were saddened to hear that Babalola wasn't able to compete. A representative explained why the chair didn't make the flight.
"Spirit flight 1146 was scheduled to depart Newark at 5:25 p.m. ET, and the chair wasn’t released by TSA until 5:27 p.m. following the manual screening, which was the reason for it not making it to the plane. This situation has also been escalated to a supervisor to look into it further," the statement said.
11Alive also reached out to Lufthansa Airlines for comment, but they have yet to give a statement.