“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.