Paralympic Pursuits at the Olympic Training Center- part 1

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“Up on two, back on one, forward on Go,” I repeated to my tandem cycling pilot as the countdown started.  The announcer began his countdown.  “Fifteen,” he shouted into the microphone.  I rubbed Lindsey’s back with my gloved hand.  “We’ve got this girl.  Just like we practiced.  Same thing, but faster.” “Love you!” was her muffled response over the cool mountain air of the Velodrome.” “Ladies, that’s Five, Four, Three, two, one- BEEP!  The man holding our bike upright released his grip on our bike tire and seat-post.  The bike was in the heaviest gear possible for the maximum amount of speed on the track, forcing us to bear down with every ounce of our combined nearly 300 lbs on the pedal.  “Woosh” went our deep exhale as we breathed the air into our strained quadriceps muscles, pushing with as much torque as our bodies could manage. 

It went dead quiet.  The cheering spectators and coaches were instantly muted.  The bike sped silently forward and I closed my eyes, leaning forward, pressing my head against the back of Lindsey’s jersey.  “Breathe, Amy, just breathe” I thought to myself.  As if emerging from a submerged concrete bunker, the world came flooding back- light; flickering, the track a grey blur with a thin red line below us.  “Go girls!” I could hear Jimmy screaming from the infield of the track. “Nice work ladies” I heard in quiet praise from Coach Mike as we passed the starting line for our first hot lap.  “Eight more,” I thought to myself, and I began to wonder how I could possibly hold on. 

My breathe went from loud, powerful, forced exhales to ragged, desperate gasps.  “Fucking asthma,” was all I could manage to think of.  “Don’t panic, just breathe” I begged myself, remembering Mike’s advice and wisdom that asthma can be sometimes more mental than physical.  I could do this.  I forced a labored, searing breathe from my lungs. My legs were nearing the anaerobic phase of the sprint, left spent with no oxygenated blood to keep them supplied at this pace, with lactic acid building by the second.  “Strong; you are STRONG” I pleaded with myself, looking for that ‘other gear’ I knew existed somewhere in my trained athlete’s body.  With that mantra repeating on endless loop, the final lap bell rang, “Clang!”  “Go Amy and Lindsey!” I heard as we crossed the start line at lap 8 for our final push. 

Blood.  I tasted blood.  That distinctive iron-infused, dry ,tannic, meaty feeling like having your teeth cleaned at the dentist.  I started to panic.  “Why blood?” I wondered to myself. Was this dangerous?  What could be happening?  I went deaf again. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore, but I was aware that they were moving; WE were moving- nearly 40mph on the Velodrome at the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado.  I wondered if this was the moment I would pass out, and who would contact my family if I ended up in the hospital after the resulting horrific crash that was about to ensue. 

I was snapped back to the present when I felt the pedals suddenly become slack and Lindsey slumped forward, mumbling, “I have tunnel vision.  Don’t worry.  It’s ok.  I have the bike,” she gasped, breathless.  I reached forward with my shaky right hand, rubbing the small of her back.  “I love you! You’re amazing!” and I fell forward, resting my head on my forearms, trying to reach for the breathe that was escaping my lungs.  “I taste blood,” I wheezed, between deep, deliberate forced exhales.  “Why do I taste blood?”  “Me too,” Lindsey offered.  “That was hard.”

Training at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is a dream only a handful of athletes ever get to experience.  Being chosen for the Paracycling Development Camp by the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA), is an honor and privilege I wasn’t prepared to accept.  Initially I was prepared to say no, feeling the airfare and cost of the camp was prohibitive for one unemployed disabled triathlete (meaning me) and that it would simply have to wait for another time.  When Pam Fernandes, the head of the camp announced to me that a fellow Team Red, White and Blue Teammate who I knew via Facebook for guiding my blind friend in a recent Ironman triathlon had been selected as my pilot on the tandem bike, I jumped at the chance.  Lindsey and I had spoken via Facebook Message regarding potentially racing together this season in triathlon.  While ParaCycling was not in my wheelhouse, I figured I’d give it a try, and if nothing else, it would make that leg of my triathlon even stronger going forward.  I owed it to myself and my season to give it a fair shake. 

Arriving at the OTC (Olympic Training Center) was not only like heading to sleep-away camp, but like going back to college.  We would be living in dorms, eating from the cafeteria, and have a full schedule each day from 8:30 am to 8:30pm, with lights out by ten.  It became real the moment I hopped onto my connecting from Dallas to Colorado Springs airport, and was seated next to one of my many facebook idols, Miss Kathy Felice Champion, a blind triathlete, motivational speaker, and combat wounded veteran.  She and her fairly new Guide Dog, a black Labrador named George were headed out to the same camp and we finally had the chance to catch up in person.  I knew my week was about to become amazing. 

At the airport, we were on a long, flat desert plain, with huge snow-covered mountains to the west.  As we stepped out into the warm sunshine, we were greeted by a uniformed USA Olympic Training Center employee, who helped us with our gear as we loaded into the OTC’s shuttle bus.  We met two more blind athletes, and one sighted tandem pilot, and got to introducing ourselves on the ride to camp.  We pulled through a security gate, where the driver scanned her pass with the guard, and stopped in front of the Athlete Center, our social center for the next seven days.  After posing for some photos in front of the OTC sign and the American flag, we each received our security badges and photo IDs, then headed to our dorms.

The OTC was a former Air Force military base, with long concrete three-story buildings, housing hundreds of soldiers, the perfect solution for the great many athletes that resided here both full and part time.  As I entered the long corridor after scanning my ID, I heard my name from a tall blonde athlete at the far end of the hallway, “You’re HERE!!” Lindsey shrieked, as I dropped my bags and my guide dog’s harness handle and we ran to each other, like long lost family after months of missing each other.  We hugged tightly, and started giggling and chatting like old friends.  But we had never actually met.  But I knew her instantly.  Lindsey gave me the grand tour of our room, helping me unpack each carefully rolled pair of cycling shorts, jerseys, and sneakers that packed my 46 pound suitcase.  My guide dog Elvis gulped down two full bowls of water after our long journey, and we sat on the bed, gossiping and chatting like we had been doing this our whole lives. 

Pam Fernandes, our blind camp director and her guide dog Cameron appeared in the doorway.  “Welcome Ladies!” she heartily announced.  “After you’re settled in, I want you to head next door to the bike room.  Check on your bike, get your pedals on, and we are going to meet in the courtyard at 2pm for a shake-down ride, ok?”  Lindsey and I jumped up and down on our beds. “OK!” we said in unison.  I scrambled, fingers shaking to get on my gear, tightening the Velcro on my cycling shoes, then headed out the side door to the bike storage room.  There I met Dan, who would become the single most important person (other than my pilot for my bike) of the week.  My beautiful borrowed $10,000 CoMotion Tandem bike had arrived safely.  She had been fully assembled by Dan, and Lindsey and I set to installing our pedals and seats on the bike to our desired length and height.  Anxious to mount up, we straddled the middle bar for our first effort as a team.  We had to communicate which pedal we wished to start with on the upstroke, and decide in advance what our key words or phrases were going to be on the bike. 

Riding the tandem is extremely difficult, because for the blind athlete, you can’t see where the pedals are to lock your cleat into them, nor can you anticipate stopping, sharp turns or obstacles ahead.  Everything is either verbalized or completed by feel.  You have to have complete trust and faith in your pilot’s abilities, and being the ‘Type A’ personality I am, this has been no easy task.  Stopping and starting are really the toughest part of tandem riding.  You have to click out of your pedals at precisely the same moment, and catch yourself, your partner and the bike on one slippery, metal spiked shoe, in a smooth, controlled motion.  This takes practice, and with our first push-off, “Three, Two, One, Go!” we were off.  Lindsey was very skilled as a pilot, having guided my friend Tina to a strong Ironman finish, so I had complete confidence that she would ultimately take care of me and my beautiful loaner bike. 

I was in bike heaven.  Typically, when I race, I’m one of only 3 or 4 blind athletes.  Here were ten seriously talented blind athletes, mostly veterans, all biking in a tight circle on the courtyard, each riding magnificent pieces of equipment, costing more than many cars.  A gentleman with rectangular glasses, spiky ‘California Cool’ hair, and a deep tan called the group over.  “Riders!  Eyes and ears!”  he shouted, as we chatted noisily with each other.  After the group settled, the man introduced himself as Michael Heitz, the US Junior National Cycling Coach and our mentor for the week.  To his right was a gorgeous, muscle-bound, tan cyclist, who straddled his sweet Felt-branded road bike.  His name was apparently Matt.  Lindsey and I pinched each other, as we both quietly giggled and blushed at the same time.  We would be riding what was known as a ‘crit’ or criterium course this afternoon, used for bike racing in a separate area of downtown Colorado Springs, a short few miles off campus.  As we started off, two by two, each of us let out a “Whoo-hoo!” and we were off. 

I focused hard on relaxing my arms and upper body, trying with all my willpower to convey to Lindsey my complete trust in her skills on the bike.  I knew stiffness on my part made her job even more difficult, and that I simply needed to pedal hard and remain motionless and fluid.  And then we fell.  It happened so fast.  We were at the stoplight headed towards the course, and my left foot got stuck in my pedal that was adjusted too tightly to my cleat.  The bike listed sharply to the right, and we took out our neighboring cyclists, my elbow landing hard on someone’s thigh.  Embarrassed and mostly unscathed, we righted ourselves, checked on our confused blind neighbor who unfortunately didn’t see us coming, then remounted.  Each of us took a deep breathe.  “You ok?” Lindsey shakily asked.“Yup.  Let’s get that left pedal up and push hard when the light changes.  Ok, 3, 2, 1. Go”  The bike propelled slowly forward up the incline.  I looked down to see a spot of blood on my shorts, and wondered if it had come from me or my neighbor’s unsuspecting leg. 

That night, we showered and headed for our first meal together.  The dining hall was elaborate, with motivational quotes posted along the rafters and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the entire complex of gyms, shooting ranges, pools and the hall of fame.  It was difficult not to point at the other athletes, as both Lindsey and I were a little awestruck.  There were weightlifters, wrestlers, Volleyball players, Pent-athletes, figure skaters, and cyclists all living on this incredible campus.  There was no shortage of eye candy for two young blondes women to ogle all week.  We laughed upon entering the cafeteria.  McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are the two largest sponsors of the US Olympic Team, and to see those two brands so prominently displayed in a cafeteria filled with athletes on strict training diets was ironic, to say the least.  We were relieved however, once we saw the giant buffet and grill that greeted us.  We could literally have anything we asked for, and it was simply overwhelming with all of the choices.  We quickly discovered that the only things Coke and McDonalds supplied were the beverage fountains and coffee machine.  It was just too weird. 

After grabbing our trays, we meandered over to a large table filled with both sighted and blind cyclists.  This would be our group for the week, and we began with the introductions while dining, each of us excitedly talking about our first ride of the week, eager for what was yet to come.  Dinner was followed by a meeting in one of the many classrooms located in the aquatic center.  Lindsey and I both squealed as we passed the gigantic pool, pressing our faces up against the glass, eager to dive in and check it out.  For now, it would have to wait.  Although we are both triathletes, Pam had urged us to put our running and swimming on hold for the week and focus strictly on cycling.  They were investing a lot of time and money into our coaching, and wanted us to reap the maximum benefit, with the possibility that we could then try to meet the time standards to become part of the US ParaCycling Team. 

Our meeting formally introduced each of the pilots, coaches, mechanic, athletic trainer and blind athletes, known as ‘stokers’ due to their rear position on the bike, where we ‘stoke’ the power to the equipment.  It was fascinating to hear why each and every one of the athletes were interested in the sport, and their background.  Most of them were combat wounded veterans or suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa, an eye disease with a similar progression to mine.  Even more impressive were the resumes of the pilots.  Some had been to the Paralympics, others were Army Cycling Coaches, some were engineers who had a passion for tandem bikes, and others were there to simply learn a little more about helping blind people pursue competition.  Little did I know how each and every person in this room would forever change the course of both my life and athletic career. By Friday, I would become a Para-Cyclist.

IF YOU WANT TO HELP LINDSEY AND I GET TO A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP THIS JULY AND MAKE TEAM USA, PLEASE HELP HERE:

https://usaba.myetap.org/athletedevelopmentaccounts/individual.do?etapCacheBuster=1399865747593&participationRef=849.0.453599289&shareMedium=label.facebook

 

 

 

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