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
Sent from my iPad
Please excuse typos as this message was dictated using Siri