Blind Travel

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Planning, logistics and networking.  These are the three buzz words on every person with vision impairments’ brains.   Gone are spontaneity.  Gone forever from your lips is the phrase, “I’ll stop by.”  I can’t ‘run to the store to pick-up bananas’ without assistance.  Relinquished from your ‘Type A’ personality is the control over your own schedule, and doing ‘what you want; when you want to.”  But it’s not all bad. It just takes a village.

7 years ago, on December 11th, I drove a car for the last time.  It was a day like any other monday, and I turned the key to my beautiful brand new convertible, and made my 30 minute commute to my job as the Fine Wine Director for Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk CT.   I pulled into our parking lot, and stared straight out the windshield.  Something was wrong.  I turned my head to grab my lunch on the passenger’s seat, and suddenly the world began a terrible tailspin, a blur of light, color and bending, wavy lines.

I called our Administrative Assistant, whom I knew arrived before me from my car.  “Kerry, I can’t get up.  I’m outside in the parking lot and I need your help.”  “Yes, I can see you out there.  What are you doing?  It’s freezing, get inside.” “I can’t.  My legs won’t work.” “What do you mean, your legs won’t work?”  “I started chemo today.”  “Oh, I’ll be right out.  Hold tight.”

Hours passed and my dizziness and vertigo went from bad to worse.  December in the wine retail business, at CT’s largest wine store meant non-stop 14 hour days, with no sitting, no bathroom breaks and limited opportunities to eat.  There I sat, draped on my office chair, unable to move or turn my eyes or head without throwing up. I cried uncle, and the security guard half-carried me to his truck and took me back to my couch in Fairfield, where I remained for three months.

For three months I cried, was terribly ill, and stared hopelessly out the window at my shiny black hard-top convertible, with its handsome white leather seats and brilliant chrome trim and rims.  It taunted me from my new home, the sofa, where I needed to sleep, eat and attempt to check in with work between vomiting and attempting to lift my head from the pillow.  I lusted for the feel of the burled wood steering wheel between my hands.  The thought of running to the pharmacy to pick up yet another anti-nausea medication made me salivate with anticipation.  But it was not to be.

I had officially crossed the threshold of being ‘legally blind’, which means that you trade in your driver’s license for a social security disability card, a discount bus and train pass, a handicap placard for the people that will now be carting you to doctor’s appointments, you get a free snazzy white cane to attempt to walk from point a to point B, and a free fishing license.  Yup!  Apparently in CT you get your own laminated fishing license to spend your days now trying to catch your own dinner.  Sounded like fun.

It took me about 3 months and two car-pedestrian accidents before I realized that I was much better suited to a dog than a cane.  While the cane was great at telling you WHAT it was you were about to run into, it didn’t do a great job with silent hybrid vehicles that seemed to have a way of getting in my way.  Enter Guiding Eyes Elvis, the first and best good decision I made as someone living with vision loss.

After a lot of false starts and being stranded living in Suburbia, I realized that there really is an art to traveling while disabled.  I lived in a bad community for a visually impaired person.  The trains were sporadic, the busses more so, and the sidewalks were often uncleared in the winter-time, forcing my guide dog to navigate me in the street, playing chicken against distracted drivers in poorly lit areas at night.  When I finally reached the bus stop, often there was no access to the street curb due to huge mounds of snow plowed against the sidewalk, leaving Elvis and I unable to board our bus.  If we didn’t stand at the EXACT bus-stop sign, drivers would cruise right past us, spraying us head to toe with muddy snow and salt, thinking that I didn’t “Look” blind, and must just be some lady walking my dog.  In a harness.

After being left by the even more unreliable handicap transit in a dark office park with no cell phone service one night in Trumbull, freezing in the cold, I made the decision that it was no longer safe for me to live in an area where these horrors kept happening.  I’m not a city girl, having grown up on a horse farm, so a large town with good walking access and transit would be the goal.  So I moved to Greenwich.

After getting my guide dog, moving to Greenwich was the SECOND good decision I made for myself.  While it’s not financially accessible for someone living on fixed social security disability pay, it was ideally set up for someone living with vision loss.  So, at the ripe age of 35, I would get my first roommate.  The streets have cross-walk lights, there’s grocery, pharmacy and retail access, a beautiful YMCA with a pool, and a huge infrastructure for pubic transit thanks to the wealth of the hedge fund businesses that reside here.  I found a new home.

I’m now a visually impaired Paratriathlete, racing and training with Team USA for the Paralympics in Rio 2016.  My life is dramatically different, and I’ve become savvy at making all the moving parts of my busy life work, between selling wine, working out, public speaking, and traveling to races all over the world.  I make it work.  How?  PLANNING, NETWORKING AND LOGISTIC management.

Prior to my vision loss, I had the luxury of being late for appointments and meetings.  Now, my life is relegated to public transit or the kindness of my many friends and Facebook aquaintances who help ‘Team Dixon’ get to doctor’s appointments more than 40 miles away in New Haven, Danbury, Boston, and all the spots that public or handicap transit cannot get me to.  The countless emergency eye surgeries and exams on the weekends have all been made possible due to my network of incredibly kind, loving and generous men and women.

For surgery, I’m not allowed to take public transit, and someone has to be arranged to assist me with my dog and cooking for a few days, as I’m usually too medicated to do normal functions, and not allowed to bend over while my eyes are bandaged.  16 surgeries in 5 years, and it has taken at least a dozen people to help me with transit to follow-up appointments and procedures.

When traveling for triathlon and cycling races, a lot goes into planning.  Glaucoma and Uveitis are nasty diseases, and the thought of losing my $800 per month medications in checked luggage frightens the Dickens out of me. So, carry-on luggage becomes an art.  I need someone to help me find my hotel when I land, and plan how to get to my race or watch Elvis while I run with my guide. My guide dog needs to remain on his strict diet of Iams’ Lamb and rice, each day at 6 am and 6pm.  These need to be packed in individual baggies, with extra in case of flight cancellations.  When traveling abroad, I need to call the hotel and ship the food and confirm its arrival in advance in order to avoid heavy baggage fees for more extensive stays. Plus, there’s the paperwork with Elvis.  He needs a health certificate and exam within ten days of travel, adding a visit to Westchester to Guiding Eyes on my ‘to-do’ list.

Finally, I have a GIANT bike.  My tandem racing bike (borrowed by a generous team Dixon supporter) is 8 feet long, weighing 36 pounds on its own and about 55 with the bike case it flies in.  I’ve been restricted to getting to the airport via friends and family with SuVs and Mini-vans due to the cumbersome size, as regular shuttles simply won’t take me.  When I GET to the airport, someone has to fetch a gate agent to come out and assist me with luggage, bike and dog as I drag my triathlon gear onto the plane.  Our coaches ask that we carry on all race essentials- uniform, helmet, shoes and pedals, in case of luggage loss.  I basically look like a hiker ready for Kilimanjaro.

Elvis is easy.  I feed him as normal on the day of our flight, and do one last potty-break before going through security.  I try to get direct flights when I can, but when I have a layover, I prefer it be at least two hours so he gets a chance to go out in between flights.  He travels beautifully, and gets lots of admiration from flight attendants and other travelers as he sleeps his way through a 5 hour flight with ease.

Finally, each Sunday night, I look at my calendar, check the bus and train schedule, and set reminders on my phone for each bus or train I need to take, allowing time to walk to the station and stopping for coffee.  The alerts keep me on track, and force me to stay organized with my time.  I look at my training schedule and hit facebook, email and text to line up guides for my runs, bike rides on the tandem, and open water swims at the beach.  My roster of guides builds each month, and I’m delighted that I now know more than 15 fantastic local guides willing to donate their precious time to help me achieve my athletic goals.

Monday morning, I try to fill in the gaps in transit with lining up rides to dr appointments by calling or texting friends and relatives, and using handicap transit as my last resort due to its unreliable nature.  Sometimes, you get what you pay for.  And lastly, when the plan all goes out the window, and I forget my phone on the dresser at home?  It’s an expensive taxi ride home to get it.  It’s like running a full-time ‘driving Miss Amy’ business, as my family likes to call it.

I’m blessed that I have a charge account with the local taxi service and wince each month, especially during the cold winter months, as I look at my statement.  I use it so much that they send me a box of chocolate each Christmas.  Apparently, I need to walk more.  Even with networking, facebook, and planning, sometimes you’ve just GOT to go get bananas at the store at 9pm.  Hey, I may be a blind athlete and sommelier, but I AM human.

Thank you to my friends and family for making my days a blessing and all of this success possible.  LOVE and Gratitude.

paratriathlon World Championships Part Two

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The electricity of having more than 7,000 athletes from every nation watching you and the tens of thousands of spectators roaring as our starting gun went off was like nothing I’ve ever felt. I started breathing to my right and getting face-fuls of water tossed at me with force, causing me to choke. As I gasped for air and coughed underwater with each Ragged breathe, I tried to calm myself. I searched through the water for Lindsey’s shiny reflective mirrored goggles and began to relax as each rotation of my arm matched hers, stroke for stroke. If I could just stay swimming, I knew Lindsey would keep me safe.

I so badly wanted to quit before the first buoy at the 200 m mark, but something in me snapped back to reality. I was at the world fucking championships and there is no way I was going to quit. I kept telling myself, “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. I kept thinking “power, power, power” with each rotation of my shoulders. My other mantra made me laugh into the green lake. “Beauty on the top and business on the bottom”, meaning I had to lift my elbows high out of the water with ease and smoothness, and be powerful and raw under the water. It worked and my speed quickly came back.

As I came up out of the water at the finish I tried to stand up. I was unsuccessful. I tried again, and discovered that I needed Lindsey for help standing. Running seemed out of the question. The bright blue carpet that stretched out before me suddenly started to wiggle and jiggle before my eyes. Vertigo. Crap. I stumbled/ran into transition managing somehow to stay upright. I kept telling myself, “I can do this, I can do this, I just need to get to the bike to hold onto something. Get to the bike Amy!” While I didn’t set the world on fire with blistering run speed to get to my bike we did have a smooth transition and headed off onto the hilly bike course.

The bike flew by in 39 minutes. It was our slowest time of the season for that length of course, but the hill at the beginning really humbled us, along with some very technical left-hand turns at the top of the course. Lindsay did an amazing job shifting and handling the bike. She terrified me with our tremendous speed heading down the giant hill but I was so proud of how we finished.

The transition was a bit of a disaster for me. Where we dismounted the bike beautifully, when I got to my running shoes I discovered that my feet were cold and wet and numb. The international triathlon union rules state that we are not allowed to have a towel in the transition area. I desperately trying to wipe my feet off on the carpet with no success. I tried putting on my shoes but the insoles kept bunching up. “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” I said aloud to myself yet again. Lindsay waited patiently holding my run tether and off we went.

Within the first 600 m of the run the Canadian team and the team from the Netherlands passed us. I had no idea that they were behind us. Christine robins from Canada was an incredibly fast runner so I knew there would be no hope of running her down. I knew that the other teams would be manageable to beat. Lindsay was encouraging me and telling me that my pace was eight minutes and 40 seconds per mile. I felt surprisingly good despite the fact that I was going out at a faster pace than I had intended but I was determined to stick with the ladies in front of me for as long as my asthma would allow.

We passed by the grandstands to complete our first of two laps, packed with adoring fans from every country, and I spotted my mom. I tried hard not to get choked up. I focused on dropping my shoulders, lifting my chin, and stepping faster and higher. I hung with the Hungarian women until the final mile of the run, where she pulled out of sight. I began to think about slowing my painful pace and changed my mind very quickly. The race was not over yet and there was still another team to beat.

Within minutes the blue carpet stretched out before me. The blue carpet for the most elite para Triathletes in the entire world. We were each the best in our nation and about to show the world what we could do on an extremely challenging course. I said to Lindsey, “this is a celebration. This is OUR celebration.” I lifted my head with pride and did everything I could to not cry for the final 100 m of the run. Every lonely treadmill and bike trainer workout, every early-morning guided run, bike or swim, every bottle of Advil, every surgery, every penny, every carefully thought out meal plan, and every race had all added up to this moment.

Lindsey said, “I’m so damn proud of you,” as we hugged tightly across the finish archway. I don’t think I could love a person more than I do miss Lindsey Cook. While we only met 3 1/2 short months ago in Colorado for para cycling camp, she is more of a true friend to me than I could ever possibly ask for. Her spirit and generosity for several blind athletes knows no bounds. I can’t imagine anyone else that could’ve gotten that same result out of me this weekend. Her raw power on the bike, her giggling bubbly energy leading right up to the moment we started, and her true belief and encouragement in my athletic ability never wavered for even a millisecond.

I staggered to the medical tent and sat down. I’m not sure if it was my nutrition, the physical effort I just put out, or the emotion of the moment, but I began to get extremely nauseous. I just sat there shaking my head back-and-forth as I sipped on Gatorade. 18 months ago I was fat, depressed and losing my sight. Now I am an elite triathlete who is ranked #8 in the entire world, with the 2016 Paralympics in Rio as a realistic goal.

I have three weeks to take everything I learned this past weekend and use it to my advantage at national championships in Tempe Arizona. I will be smarter, faster, more confident and healthier going into this next race. Everything that went well at this race happened because I have an incredible team of supporters; my family, my friends, my guides, and my amazingly generous coach and sponsors make all of this possible. Thank you and god bless.
If you or your business would like to be part of helping me get to the Paralympics, you can help by clicking here:

https://usaba.myetap.org/fundraiser/athletedevelopmentaccounts/individual.do?etapCacheBuster=1399865747593&participationRef=849.0.453599289&shareMedium=label.facebook
donate to team dixon here

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Triathlon World Championships Part One

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Lindsey and I sat on the edge of the starting dock, dangling our feet onto the sandy beach overlooking the lake. I pushed my toes into the cool sand and remarked that I wished I had changed my toenail polish to match our American flag. At that moment Lindsay giggled and pointed off to our right where the Japanese team and the Hungarian women sat awaiting the start of the race. The Japanese girls had their flag painted on their toes and the Hungarian girls had their flag on their fingers. Although neither team spoke a word of English we all compared manicures and pedicures like giggly teenagers. I showed them my rather ambitious bronze painted fingernails.

We laughed as the paparazzi gathered to our left photographed us repeatedly, and at ourselves for not taking this moment more seriously. I squeezed Lindsey’s hand as we stared at the buoy off in the distance in the crystal clear Canadian lake. “we are at the World fucking championships. Holy shit. Love and gratitude”. My stomach did a somersault and I secured my goggles down onto my face. Game time.

It started with that fateful email two short weeks ago from the head of Team USA stating that I’d been selected to represent my country. This was immediately followed by an excited phone call to my friend and guide Lindsey Cook to ask that she’d do me the honor of taking me around the course in front of the entire world. She said yes.

Fast forward two weeks, and my mom had bought her ticket to come watch me compete, and I was planning to meet her on a connecting flight to Edmonton Canada in Toronto. As I approached my gate, I saw the most wonderful vision. My sweetheart 13 year old niece was there to surprise me with mom and to cheer me and my teammates on. I thought the weekend couldn’t get better.

My swim coach made transit arrangements and would be sharing a hotel with Lindsey and I for the weekend. Joanne was racing with team USA herself, and was excited to have the company, and we were grateful for the much needed extra set of hands with so many logistics in a foreign country with a giant bike and guide dog to tote around from city to race venue and mandatory briefings.

We awoke our first morning pleasantly surprised that our tandem racing bike had been fully assembled by the team mechanic. We giggled at the celebrity team perks we were already getting, including our beautiful uniforms we were required to wear (and proud to do so) around the clock when out in public.

We met ten other athletes out front of our hotel for the 3 mile downhill ride to our race venue where there would be a 12:00 police-escorted bike course preview ride, followed by a swim in lake Hawrelak. 100 disabled athletes from every county imaginable lined up behind the motorcade, and we took off in groups of about 20 at one minute intervals. A giant hill immediately greeted our travel-weary legs, and everyone around us began to grumble. “Good thing we like hills” said Lindsey. I laughed, and patted her back from my position on the rear of the bike and prepared my legs for a significant effort. In the race in two days, we would be doing this loop four times. I sighed and got to work.

Coming back down the hill was fun, but difficult to gauge speed due to the pack surrounding us, leaving us unable to go as quickly as we would have liked. We finished the 5k loop and dismounted to grab our wetsuits for a chilly swim.

The air temps were not much higher than 50, so the idea of jumping into a 60 degree lake seemed ridiculous, and I remarked aloud to Lindsey how lucky we were that our race didn’t start until nearly 4pm Saturday when the temps would be warmest. It took me nearly ten minutes to put my face into the water, despite my feeble attempts to splash it on my cheeks to acclimate myself to the bracing cold. I thanked god and Xterra for sending me a brand new full sleeve wetsuit for the race. Sleeveless would have been a most unpleasant option.

Much to my surprise, the lake was shallow, clean and chlorinated the entire way around the course. It was like a giant pool with a few weeds on the bottom. This would be a lovely swim, surrounded by tall pine trees, winding our way around a peaceful little island in the center. The true Canadian wilderness.

I had my first official classification appointment with the ITU doctors’ panel who would confirm or deny my current classification as a visually impaired athlete. I wasn’t nervous, as all of my extensive testing had been submitted by my team of ophthalmologists at Yale and yes, I am definitely visually impaired. The doctors at my classification appointment even patted me on the shoulder and said in their British accents “dear, you’ve had a rough go of it with all these bloody surgeries, haven’t you? Well we hope you continue to have some usable vision for years to come, and have a fantastic race.” With that, I was a confirmed B3 athlete (no peripheral vision) and I trotted off for dinner and team meetings.

Friday we had a run practice on the course and the pre race briefing that went over the extensive rules for itu. You could be disqualified for even the slightest infraction. Drafting on the bike, a guide ‘leading’ a blind athlete on the swim or run, accepting water from outside help, dropping your swim cap outside of your designated box in the transition area and more. Vigilance was key for both guide and athlete.

My nerves started working their way in a downward spiral into my intestines. it was time for an intervention. I remembered one of the many pieces of advice that coach Jon had told me. “Worry about the things you CAN control.” So Lindsey and I set off in a parking lot near the hotel with my mom and Claire to time us, and we worked on our transitions for over an hour. By the end of the session Lindsey and I had knocked off 15 seconds on our transition. We were very pleased with each other and gave ourselves a big high five, then trotted off to dinner.

That night at our mandatory team meeting the weight of what we were about to do started to sink in. The coaches insisted we focus and prepare ourselves mentally and physically as best as possible for the next days effort. They wanted every ounce we could give on the course. I began to worry more and more about my asthma and prayed that it behaved to allow me to have my best race ever. My mind started to wonder whether I really deserved to be here. But I stopped myself and looked at each of the athletes that surrounded me. Each of us had Earned points and had podium finishes at the three elite races this season on the ITU circuit. We were team USA, The best damn country in the world!

part two comes tomorrow

Amy Dixon CSW
The Blind Sommelier
http://www.blindsommelier.wordpress.com
Sent from my iPad
Please excuse typos as this message was dictated using Siri

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Community vs. depression. Who is helping who?

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Robin William’s death really hit a chord with me. While he was one of the greatest entertainers of our generation, it was his love of the Challenged Athletes Foundation that really rang true to me. Each and every year, Robin would come and show his love of cycling and spread his wonder, his laughs and his heart with each and every Challenged Athlete performing in the triathlon. It is no secret that throughout his life, Robin Williams suffered from depression and a long history of drug abuse. After giving it some thought I realized there is a legitimate connection here between those suffering with visible wounds, and those suffering with invisible wounds.

I have been a member of Team Red White and Blue for the past two years now. Team Red White and Blue is a nonprofit that serves veterans returning from war. Our primary mission is to help them reintegrate into society and civilian life through social and physical activity. Our goal is to prevent more tragedies like Robin Williams, from from ever happening again. I believe the horrifying statistic is that a veteran commits suicide every 22 minutes.

After giving it some more serious thought, I realize that Team Red White and Blue and the veterans that we serve have actually done more for me than I have ever, ever done for them. While I have not served in Afghanistan or Iraq, I have endured a great deal of physical and emotional pain over the past seven years while going through my vision loss. 16 surgeries and countless procedures along with chemotherapy really took its toll. I was overweight, depressed, and with no eye on the horizon.

As I began to meet more and more people through Team Red White and Blue I realized that many of the civilian members have gone through invisible tragedies. As I got to know these men and women that became bonded to the  many veterans we were serving, it became very clear that these men and women had gravitated towards these veterans for a reason. I cannot begin to tell you the number of civilian men and women that I have met through this organization who have gone through assault, battery, sexual assault, physical abuse at the hands of a spouse or parent, the loss of a child, or a terrible lifelong illness. Why were all of these people seeking out the veteran community for love and support? Why were they bonded together?

Fast forward to present day and I have now spent a great deal of time with my friends at the Challenged Athletes Foundation, as did our friend Robin Williams. Many athletes for the Challenge Athletes Foundation are veterans suffering from amputations, paralysis, traumatic brain injury and more. And others have undergone painful surgeries, terrible illnesses, born without limbs,and many other manifestations of illness and injury. Their reasons for being there are just as varied as their faces.

So why did I gravitate towards this organization? Why does it help me so much? As a disabled athlete that answer seems to be obvious. But it’s not. I take great comfort and strength by working alongside each and everyone of these incredible athletes. Their stories inspire me and lift me to greater heights than I could ever achieve on my own. I have a community. I have support. With them, I am not disabled. I can achieve. I am not alone.

So to answer my question, why did Robin Williams gravitate towards this great organization? Because he too was suffering. He had invisible wounds. He needed a sense of community. He needed those endorphins that we emit as athletes to feel good. He needed these athletes to lift his spirits and make him feel whole. These athletes and veterans understood him and his struggle and helped him heal a broken self worth.

So I want you to think about this the next time you volunteer with a nonprofit. Who is helping who? Take a closer look at that volunteer shoveling dirt at the new playground you’re building. Get to know them. Find out what their story is. You may find out that the people that you are serving at an organization are not only being helped, but they are helping you too. RIP Robin. And thank you on behalf of CAF.

“Untethered” Feeling Free as a blind woman

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Tonight I was inspired by a painting while walking home from the grocery store with my cane.  It hung in a gallery window, illuminated by brilliant light.  It really made me think…..

Every moment I lock that front door, and step bravely out into the unpredictable world, I am being taken care of by someone or something else.  Each day, my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador Elvis, ‘takes me’ to and from the places I need to go, finding curbs, stairs, doors, crosswalk buttons and navigating obstacles and people in my path to keep me safe.  On days I’m running with friends, I’m tethered by my wrist to theirs, and they ‘tell’ me where to turn and give me verbal instructions on how to navigate my surroundings without falling.  And finally, I use ‘the stick’, my dreaded cane, that ‘feels’ things on the ground before I knock into them, and warns other pedestrians and cars that I’m unable to see them clearly.  I am ‘tethered’ to these forms of navigation, each and every time I leave the safety and comfort of my home. 

So as a blind/ visually impaired person, you can imagine how wonderful those moments are when i DON’T ‘have’ have to be ‘tied’ to something or someone.  The moments when I’m in an empty ball-field surrounded by nothing but grass, and I can run care-free like a kid without worry or risk of injury.  The times I’m at a familiar friend’s or family member’s house, and I can walk unassisted.  Or finally, when I get into the water at my YMCA.

This painting tonight was of two women in a commercial pool.  It was from the perspective of being underwater, watching one woman gracefully swimming underwater, the smile and bubbles rising to the surface.  The other woman was mid-dive into the cool, clear blue waters.  It hit a part of me that was so visceral and full of raw, uncomfortable emotion.  I wanted that painting.  I craved that feeling of being free, even if only for a second.

I’ve been a ‘fish’ long before I was walking.  My family owned an above-ground pool, and every waking hour that I wasn’t in the barn with my pony, you could find me in there.  I would swim ALL day, getting completely ‘pruned up’ until dinner time when we’d have to call it quits.  Hours of sharks and minnows, underwater breathe-holding contests, diving for pennies, sprint races, and fantastic somersaults filled my days, and it was all I ever wanted to do.  I started on the local swim team at age 6, finishing my swimming career as a senior in high school.

My hair was constantly green, I smelled of chlorine, and my muscles always ached, but I loved every moment of it.  I loved the camaraderie of suffering through early season outdoor swim workouts at the local pool, where the cool air caused a fog to rise over the water, as we shivered in our suits.  Eventually, I was recruited to the diving team, where I got to use my love of showmanship to flip, twist and dive into the vast, deep water.  I developed a fear of the deep end of the pool, remembering that the vastness of the giant aquatic space felt dizzying to me, and caused panic attacks.  Still, I didn’t quit.  Little did I realize that it was likely my eyes ‘playing tricks on me’ as my eye disease was beginning its slow and steady progression towards blindness. Eventually, I used my swimming skills to save money for college, by becoming a lifeguard.  It frightens me now to think that I probably was vision impaired even back then. 

Fast forward to present day, and I’m a triathlete training for the Paralympics.  My ONLY advantage as a ‘newbie’ to this sport is my love and affinity for the water.  It is my home.  I can go to the pool, tie up my guide dog to the lane marker and dive right in- no help needed.  I know I reach the end of a 25 meter pool in 17 strokes, like clockwork each and every time.  I can do it while humming a tune in my head, going over my mental grocery list, contemplating quantum physics, you name it- I can ‘space out’ to it.  The water is my ‘safe’ place.  

When my eyes hurt after yet another glaucoma surgery, I can close them, and STILL feel safe and free in that water.  I feel light, almost elegant, something I would FAR from describe myself on land.  I feel powerful.  I love thinking about ‘grabbing’ the water with my triceps engaging all the way until my hand touches my thigh.  I like to imagine that I’m 6 feet tall, and can stretch my body infinitely to reach the other side.  I love staring down into the vast blue waters, and watching the tiles go by, faster and faster with each building speed set, until they all blur together.  And I do this BY MYSELF.

So, when you see me at the pool next time, and wonder why I’ve dropped my goggles to the bottom, and am doing a hand-stand while fetching them ‘for fun’ or when you see me doing flips in the middle of the deep-end because I CAN, or ponder as I just lay there on my back like a starfish and stare up into the vast white ceiling while giggling, realize that I’m not crazy.  I’m in my happy place.  The one place I won’t hurt myself and the only place I don’t need your help.  I’m ‘un-tethered’.  I think I may have just bought my first painting…….

‘A one-legged Colonel and a Blind Sommelier’ hit the podium in NYC

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After coming down from the ‘triathlon-high’ that is and will always be my favorite race, I’ve had some moments to reflect and here’s what I’ve surmised.  In my bull-like single-minded focus to pursue points towards Rio in 2016, somewhere I lost a little of the ‘fun’ that this sport so beautifully represents.  Having the ‘luxury’ of racing in my home state of NY, with a fellow Challenged Athlete and dear friend as my guide, in a race that represented only my SECOND RACE EVER at this time last year, made for the perfect setup to have a fantastic day. 

Going into the NYC Triathlon, the pressures of competing at the international level with Team USA Paratriathlon were taken completely off the table.  While NYC Triathlon is the ONLY Paratriathlon race in the world that offers prize money to Challenged Athletes thanks to CAF and Accenture, the notion of making the podium against some world class para-athletes didn’t even register with me.  This race wasn’t counted in any way towards Rio.  My goal?  To beat last year’s time.  Given that I’ve had a full year of racing, training and intense coaching behind me, I was confident going in that Patty, my guide, and I were going to have a PR (personal record) and have a TON of fun on the challenging course.  

Prior to the race, Colonel Patty Collins, herself an amputee active duty Army Officer at the Pentagon, and myself, a visually impaired triathlete, somehow became the ‘media darlings’ for the entire race.  The entire weekend involved television interviews, camera-men filming documentaries, USA Today doing an article on us and much, much more.  We were given the royal treatment, a FAR cry from the ITU (International Triathlon Union) Circuit that is the pipeline for the Paralympics, where it’s sort of ‘every man for himself’.  

The miserable weather actually ended up being a god-send for the two of us, taking some of the pressure off of us to perform on the bike.  I was coming off a bronze-medal performance at Cycling Nationals, and Patty is headed to both Leadville 100 AND Paracycling World Championships.  If conditions were ideal, we were prepared to throw down a serious bike split.  Given the fact that my borrowed bike is not fit for either of us, and the pouring rain, combined with 4,000 athletes, many of whom were total bike-novices riding the West Side Highway, lined with deep puddles and nasty concrete seams, we determined that finishing upright was faster than finishing horizontal.  So, safe and smooth we went, giving shout-outs and whooping loudly to our friends on the course as we passed them (hehe) and some newer cyclists who needed some encouragement on the steep climbs.  In other words, we went out and had FUN.  

In our transition area, a DJ was spinning dance tracks.  So guess what?  I DANCED in transition!  I figured, hey, why not?  I’m having fun and we’re about to go suffer in Central Park!  I thought it would be the last time I would smile for the entire day, given my not-so-fast run-speed.  I was mistaken.

 Along the run, it was electrifying to be able to take in the crowds on 72nd street, screaming our names and cheering us on into Central Park.  Having the confidence to know that I had tackled this hilly run only 4 days prior with a friend guiding me while chatting the entire time, made me relax and absorb all the good vibes from the runners surrounding us.  Men would pull up next to us and tell us, “You’re so inspiring!” or “Way to go!” “Keep it up”.  It was physically impossible not to smile.  I think I said more than once, “I’m blind, she’s got one leg, and we’re having the time of our lives out here!” 

Having the luxury of taking my time on the course, and knowing that no matter what, I was going to PR by at least 5-10 minutes took every ounce of stress from my body.  We were joking, laughing, smiling and teasing each other and fellow runners the entire 6.2 miles.  As we climbed the final ascent before the finish chute, I saw a sea of red shirts to my right.  Team Red, White and Blue, just as they had promised, were there waiting to cheer us in, and handed Patty the American Flag to run the final half mile with.  I screamed out loud like a crazy person, and hopped in the air with excitement.  I couldn’t believe how STRONG I felt.  My lungs breathed easy.  My legs felt light and fresh, and my arms felt like pistons propelling me forward.  

I glanced at my watch.  2:52.  Well-within my goal of sub three hours, and on target for a sub one hour 10K run.  I didn’t need to sprint to get the coveted medal and Paralympic points.  I could smile, high-five the crowd and dance-run my way into the finish chute.  My jersey said ‘Dixon USA” on the front and back, and people were shouting for us, but what made my heart swell was hearing people who KNEW me, cheering me home, saying “Go Amy and Patty! You’re killing it!”  As we entered the final red-carpeted straight-away, the crowd roared.  I threw my arms up, telling them to get even louder, shouting, “YES!” the whole way down the stretch.  Under the finish line was a long black finish tape, reading CAF and Accenture.  I was  in disbelief. “Patty, I think they made a mistake.  There’s no way I’m in first place.  I was not fast today!?”  “Just keep running!  I think it IS for you.” “No way.” “worry about it later- enjoy this!”  

So I did.  I managed to smile, dance, and laugh my way through 33 miles with one of my most dear friends and managed to still pull off the win in the Visually Impaired Category in one of the largest races in the world.  The lesson?  Sometimes just having fun can lead to its own rewards.  Thank you to my guide for making it the most fun I have ever had while doing something I love so very much.  Love you Colonel Collins! 

 

Two ladies, Three legs, and one set of eyes

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“Don’t let me forget to start my watch in the swim tomorrow.” Patty replied, “ok, no matter what happens, don’t let me forget my leg.”  We giggled.  “No seriously, I’ll be distracted, and this shit happens!”  We howled as we packed our transition bags for the VERY early alarm for the New York City Triathlon.  Elvis happily thumped his tail on the luxurious hotel bedding in agreement, and snuggled up against Colonel Collins, my guide for the race.

Patty and I met exactly one year ago this week at a USA Paratriathlon development Camp in Baltimore Maryland.  She was the reigning World Champion Amputee Triathlete, a world Record holder in the Ironman 70.3 distance and a Colonel at the Pentagon.  Kind of badass.  I had no idea of her résumé when we met, and was simply told at the camp that a volunteer had come to guide me for the run test on the track.  When I asked where she was located, you can imagine my surprise at our first meeting.

“How does this work?” I asked sheepishly after an initial greeting while I stared at her prosthetic. “I run, you follow.  Right?”  We both laughed.  “I mean with the leg and everything.”  “I promise not to kick you,” Patty joked.  From that moment on, we were fast friends.  Two months later, she guided me to a second place finish at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Paratriathlon Championships.  We were hooked.  “Hey, let’s do NYC Triathlon together!  It will be epic! Two girls, three legs, and two eyes!”  And the rest is history……

My Friday before the race started with the tradition for Para-athletes and able bodied crazy-persons, the “NYC Underwear Run” where 600 people run in their undies around Central Park.  My friend Karen had chosen a super-hero theme for me, and “Batgirl” had a nice ring to it, so off I trotted in my skivvies for a laugh and a jaunt, all while being filmed for a TV spot on how the Veteran’s Non-profit, Team Red, White and Blue, changed my life.  Fortunately I got to do the interview CLOTHED before I dropped trow.

The next day, Patty and I got to play ‘media darlings’, as we dressed up in NYC Triathlon promotional gear and were interviewed in the ballroom of the hotel for an hour about how we met, and why the NYC Triathlon was so special for each of this unique duo.  Patty is a Jersey girl, and I’m from Westchester, so NYC seems like our ‘home-town’ race, (along with 4,000 other participants!)  Once the rain stopped, we were filmed jogging the streets along Bryant Park while the cameramen ran skillfully backwards with the camera.  After more than a dozen jogs, they had what they came for, and we headed to the hotel for our pre-race briefing and got to catch up with more than 50 friends with various disabilities who would be racing this weekend for Paratriathlon’s ONLY Big-money prize payout.  The room was electric!

On race morning, we set up our transition area at 5am, pumped up ‘Palomino’s’ (my bike’s nickname) tires, and began the mile-long walk to the swim start along the mighty Hudson River.  Thousands of athletes gathered against the railing, watching the first swimmers starting at 6am, the pros who swam so swiftly with the fast current.  Elvis guided me through the packed crowd to the Para-athlete tent, where more camera crews awaited us from a local news station.  The morning drizzle turned to a steadier rain, and I lamented leaving my bike and run shoes out in transition uncovered, where they were undoubtedly filling with water.  As the rain began in earnest, a reporter asked me what my goal for the race was.  “Finishing vertical” I half-joked nervously.

At the sound of the air-horn, Patty and I held hands and dropped into the murky water.  I bobbed to the surface, and desperately searched for Patty.  “Where are you?” I begged, as I darted my head around in a circle, searching the water for her.  I saw bubbles arise next to me, and grabbed for them, thinking she had sunk below the surface, when suddenly I felt a tug on my tether out in front of me.  “Phew!” I said aloud as I stuck my head in the water and started the swim.  The pace was good, and my pull felt strong, until about  a third of the way  into the swim, when I felt the current keep pushing me out towards Patty.  She elbowed me back to my left, and I got the drill pretty quickly.  I would need to pull HARD with my left arm to keep from drifting out to New Jersey.  This might hurt a little.

As we neared the exit dock, the water became choppy, and I started exhaling more forcefully, praying I didn’t ingest or inhale any of the disgusting brown water.  As I spotted the swim exit ramp, someone to my left grabbed my head forcefully as they panicked on their swim.  Using both of my hands, I treaded water and pried them from my scalp and paddled harder to get away from the person.  That was the LAST thing I needed.  Justin Model assisted me up the stairs, and he very sweetly wiped the “Hudson Beard” that is so famous for us as we exit the water.  I thanked him, grabbed my wetsuit from the volunteer who stripped me down to my uniform, took Patty’s hand, and we trotted off to transition, a good half mile away.

We were laughing and smiling as I danced to the music playing by our bike.  It was a smooth easy transition, and we were off quickly and efficiently.  The West Side Highway was WET.  Large puddles dotted the lanes, and huge seams in the concrete threaten to eat our racing wheels.  Patty not only is a triathlete, but is headed to World Championships as a cyclist.  Really, is there anything she can’t do? Her scary ‘Army chick’ voice came out as she screamed to the hundreds of bikers we passed, “BIKE LEFT!  ON YOUR LEFT!  MOVE RIGHT!  STAY! GET OVER!”  The NYC Triathlon is a great race that involves both pros and first-timers.  Sadly, most of the latter group was completely clueless to bike safety and presented not only a challenge to two disabled athletes on a 36 pound tandem bike, but a major safety concern as well.  Between that and the puddles, we stayed safe, and upright.  While it wasn’t a fast bike for either of us, it was a respectable time given the conditions in 1:25 for 40km.

We pulled into transition, and it felt like a party.  We laughed as I accidentally blocked Patty from her chair so she could sit and swap out her bike prosthetic for her running leg, to which she asked, “What are you, BLIND or something?”  Everyone, including the guys filming us for the race cracked up.  We grabbed our gear, and started trotting through the sea of bikes towards the run course.  We began to sing.  “And we’re running, and we’re running, and we’re running!”  Giddy like college girls, we hit the first hill and began the grind that would be our 10K run.  I took a blast of my inhaler after the short, steep climb to 72nd street, where thousands of people lined the barricaded streets, cheering us all on, as the sun broke through the clouds.

“Go Dixon!  Go USA! Way to go Girls!  Amazing!”  I smiled for the energy of the crowd, and blew kisses and fist-pumped  to the incredibly supportive folks that clapped and cheered as we entered Central Park.  The short downhill gave me the needed break to re-set my lungs, and I began to settle into a rhythm.  The cameras were waiting for us on the final stretch of flat road before we would begin the steady climb up Harlem Hill.  I did my best to ‘smile through the pain’ as my blind triathlete friend Aaron Scheidies suggests, but it was becoming increasingly difficult, and I was grateful for the water station and a quick break with my inhaler to re-group and tackle the remainder of the course.

As we started to climb, I suddenly felt better.  The age-group men began to overtake us on the run and each congratulated us, calling me by my last name on the uniform, or taking the time to tell us that we inspired them.  It gave me the energy I needed, and the can-do attitude that I knew needed to get back on track to finish strong.  At mile three, it was like someone flipped a switch, and I suddenly felt great.  My lungs calmed down, my posture straightened, and my legs felt lighter; the smile returned.

As we made the final turn for the finish, I spotted more than a dozen Team RWB athletes waiting for us on a bridge, holding out the American Flag for Patty to carry across the finish line.  My heart soared, and I got choked up as people who knew us gathered by the dozens to cheer Patty and I into our history-making finish at one of the country’s biggest races.  I said to Patty. “We did it! And I feel good!  I feel REALLY GOOD!” I remarked, surprised at how much gas I had left in the tank.  I threw my hands up as we entered the final chute, and the red carpet stretched out before us.  The crowd roared and I spotted a TAPE draped across the finish line, with the words CAF and Accenture on it.  “Patty, that must be a mistake?  That’s impossible?  It can’t be for us.  There’s no way I’m in first place?”  “Who knows?  Just keep running.  You got this!” she smiled.

During the post -race interview with the TV cameras rolling, they asked me my proudest moment of the day.  I asked if sharing with the world that I was able to FINALLY learn to pee while riding on the bike qualified as a proud moment,  and the reporter said, “No.  TMI.”  Patty rolled her eyes.  So I changed my answer.  “Two ladies, Three Legs, and one set of eyes.  Fun, safe, and on the podium at our home-town race on the greatest stage.”  What more can this blind chick ask for?

THANK YOU to everyone who made this weekend happen. Patty Collins, YOU are a saint, a rock-star,  a confidante,  a jokester, and an all-around incredible person.  To the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation, Accenture, Coach Jon Stellwagen, EHS TRI, Laura Moretti, Monica Garrido, Bob LaBanca, and Signature Cycles of Greenwich.  It takes a village.  Bless you all. 

 

IF THIS POST INSPIRES YOU, YOU CAN HELP AMY REACH HER GOALS AS A BLIND ATHLETE BY MAKING A TAX DEDUCTIBLE DONATION TO THE USA BLIND ATHLETE ASSOCIATION IN HER NAME HERE

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