My First International Triathlon (Recap Part 1 of 2 of Pan Am Championship)

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As I entered the doorway to drop off my heavy luggage, the leash suddenly became taut.  Elvis, my Guide Dog, had firmly planted his feet in the vestibule, and was attempting to back out of the hallway as quickly as possible.  “Shit!” I yelled to Shelly, as I dropped one of my bags on her condo floor.  “What is he DOING?” Shelly asked.  “being a turd, that’s what.  I guess the issue with the shiny floors has reared its ugly head again.  Dammit.  Not today, Elvis.  Not today, “ I impatiently begged. 

My poor guide dog had wiped out on the hospital floor last fall while in the waiting room, as he was being watched by my mother during  yet another surgery for my eye disease.  Afterwards, he had refused to walk on shiny linoleum floors, and the trainer had come out to work with us to get him over his fear.  Apparently it was back.  Well, honestly I couldn’t really blame the poor guy.  We had just had a long flight from New York to Dallas, where I was nervously preparing for my first international  race as a blind triathlete.  His stress was a direct reflection of my mood, so I gave him a well- deserved break and took his working guide harness off to go play with Shelly’s Pugs.

 

Shelly is my best friend who I lived with more than 15 years ago who then relocated after having a family, back to her hometown in Dallas, Texas.  The International Triathlon Union (ITU) Pan American Triathlon Championships was being held just minutes from her house, and I was there to compete with the USA Paratriathlon Team.  My morning had started off rather rough.  My borrowed, $8,000 custom tandem bicycle had arrived via the shipper, terribly damaged.  I received the email shortly before boarding my flight, and was frantically calling every carbon fiber bike parts dealer in the country, desperate to repair the bike in time for the biggest race of my life.  I was literally a basket case.  The local shop that had received the shipment of my bike  was miraculously able to locate the part and have it overnighted.  I could breathe.  At least for now….

Thursday I hung out at the bike shop, watching the nice mechanics do their important work on “Palomino”, my aptly named blonde Co-Motion Cycles tandem bike.  My tandem partner, Lindsey Cook and I had come up with the name after we made the realization that we were two blondes, with a blonde guide dog, and a blonde bike.  My bike needed a fast sounding name, and we combined our love of horses and speed for the perfect name, Palomino.  I was blessed that the founder of C Different, a non- profit focused on blind athletes, lived right around the corner from the shop, and we took her out for a test ride around a gorgeous lake.  She rode beautifully, and I slept well, eager for Caroline Gaynor, my triathlon guide, and Triathlon Director for the veteran’s charity, Team RWB to arrive the next day. 

 

One of the cool things about this trip was being shadowed for the week by an award-winning photographer who had taken photos of me earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal article that was published about my triathlon and wine careers.  Kate Lord is a sweet young, vibrant blonde, who is freckled and upbeat at every turn.  I was delighted to have her shooting me for my big race.  When Caroline arrived at Shelly’s, we hugged like long- lost college roommates, and got down to business right away with the bike.  We did a 20 mile loop in some nasty heat, and got the bike as adjusted as possible for the best speed and comfort for the both of us.  After a quick, ‘loosen up the legs’ jog on a hot High School track, we settled in to discuss the intricate ITU rules and our race plan for Sunday.  It was starting to get real and my nerves oddly settled.

 

Saturday morning I woke up a little stiff, and stood to stretch.  “SHIT!  OW!” I screamed as my back seized up in a knife-like pain, causing me to catch my breathe.  “What is it?  What happened?” Caroline was up, immediately concerned.  “My damn back!  I should NEVER have gone kayaking last week!  I’m an IDIOT!  Who does something like that 6 days prior to a big race?  Dammit!”  I slowly lowered myself into a painful catcher’s squat, with my head tucked between my legs. I let out a deep exhale and slowly stood, hobbling into the shower to attempt to loosen it with hot water.  This was not the start to my day prior to the triathlon that I had planned. 

The Marriott in Las Colinas was packed to the gills with fit, gorgeous athletes from all over the United States and South America.   There were the able-bodied pros, who were finishing the race today, the junior elites, and us disabled, or ‘para-triathletes’ all milling about.  The Pan Am ITU Championships was one of the first races in the United States to count towards points for the Olympics.  All of the athletes competing at this race had been hand selected by the USA Triathlon organization or by their host country’s governing sports body.  There were animated Brazilian athletes, singing and dancing around the patio overlooking our swim course in the canal.  The Argentine folks were more quiet and serious.  The Canadians were on the floor, surround in red and white top-of-the –line triathlon gear, stretching and chatting about their race.  And the few Mexican athletes were glued to the lobby’s flat screen TV, watching a soccer match.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars -worth of bikes lined the walls of the Marriott lobby.  I drooled with bike envy.   The energy and excitement was palpable.

Caroline and I ran into several other disabled athletes there from team USA in the lobby.  We were awaiting instructions from our team managers and the head of USA Paratriathlon regarding our swim practice in the canal.  It was intimidating and awesome to meet all of the athletes I had known through Facebook, several of whom had been to the Olympics in other sports, such as swimming or cycling.  Rio in 2016 would be the debut of Paratriathlon at the Paralympics, and every single athlete, from the amputees, paraplegics, and us blind athletes wanted one of the coveted spots on the team headed to Rio.  Tomorrow would begin our journey. 

While none of us was thrilled about jumping into a muddy, giant canal of 80 degree water, it was still cooler than the 88 degree air temperatures that threatened to bake us to the flagstone patio that lined its sides.  The wheelchair athletes wheeled down to the water’s edge, and their designated ‘handlers’ would help get them both out of and into their chairs before and after the swim began.  For the amputees, their handlers would take their prosthetic arms or legs from the start of the swim to the swim finish line, exactly 750 meters away.  For us blind and visually impaired athletes, we would be tethered by an elastic 1 meter cord tied around our waists to our chosen guides, who would swim alongside us, calling out verbal instructions, and helping to choose a safe path if we got into a lot of traffic or needed to pass slower swimmers. 

Caroline explained the layout of the course in the water.  It was a giant triangle, with two orange buoys far off in the hazy distance.  We decided to forgo the allowed wetsuits for our practice due to the extreme heat, but chose to wait and see how hot we felt after completing the swim and to see what our competition was doing in the morning.  Wetsuits are a HUGE advantage over a regular bathing suit.  It provides both buoyancy and speed; to the tune of gaining 5 seconds per 25 meters of distance, which in a long race, really adds up.   However, you run the risk of raising your heart-rate and overheating if the water temperature is above 82, the legal cutoff for allowing wetsuits in the race.   Our swim was relaxed and smooth, and I focused on staying long and smooth in the water, as my coach had taught me so well.  Caroline safely guided me past some slower swimmers, and we ended up at the finishing dock, where carpeted stairs would then lead us to our bikes and the transition area in the hotel parking garage.  We walked the area on foot, mapping out the route in our heads, so that the morning would leave us with no surprises.  I felt ready. 

My friend Tom Lee, an Army veteran who is also an amputee triathlete, his handler, Jared, and Caroline and I prepared for our pre-race briefing in a mandatory meeting to be held at the hotel.  After the swim, we were starving, so we did what an good athlete will do, we ATE!  I watched Tom inhale a giant steak, and Caroline worked on a burger like a champ.  Knowing all too well the extent of my gastro-intestinal issues, I opted for Salmon and sweet potato fries.  Somewhat safe.  For nearly two hours, more than one hundred athletes, handlers, coaches, and guides hung out in the hotel conference area’s hallway.  Athletes were Facebooking, Tweeting, and sharing photos from the practice today, and lined up to take endless selfies to take up the downtime.  Our meeting was supposed to begin at 6.  It was now 7:15, and we were getting anxious.  I had booked a massage for 8pm, with the hopes that it would fix my back before the race.  It was becoming clear I needed to cancel.

 

After nearly 90 minutes of a vague PowerPoint presentation, each of the more than 90 athletes had more questions than answers in regards to the race and the very specific new rules.  There were dozens of them, and it was like learning an entire language in one sitting.  Near impossible.  Each of us was more confused than when we entered, and the four of us agreed that we would hop in Jared’s car and go drive the bike course so that we could be clear on where the turns were and how the elevation would change.  We waited on line, and received our coveted race numbers, race tattoos to mark our bodies, and bike stickers before bolting down to the car, rushing to beat the dwindling sunset.  We were about to see what tomorrow would bring for each of us in the Texas heat and hills.  

If you want to help Amy Dixon Compete towards Rio in 2016, you can make a tax deductible donation here:

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

 

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