Paralympic Cycling Camp Part 2



“Mike, your shorts are inside-out.  The bike chamois goes on the INSIDE,” Jimmy giggled aloud. The group gathered in the hallway of the Olympic training center dorms burst out into uncontrolled howls of laughter.  “Well, why didn’t you tell me sooner?  You know I’m BLIND, don’t you?” Mike started to crack up himself.  One of the other cyclists chimed in, “Come on, Mike, you can’t FEEL that it’s wrong? Chamois; INSIDE.”

We stifled our giggles as the coach began his morning speech.  “Riders; eyes and ears!” The crowded hallway fell silent.  “Your bikes are loaded into the vans.  We are going to drive out to the desert and ride 3 or 4 loops of tomorrow’s Time Trial Course.   Be sure to ask lots of questions of the more experienced tandem teams, and note all the turns, lines, and opportunities to make up some speed.  Any questions?  Let’s roll.” And with that, ten Para Cycling teams made their way out into the Colorado cool spring air.  Through my tiny pinhole of remaining eyesight, I could see the sun was just starting to strike the tip of Pike’s Peak, located another 8,000 feet above the Olympic Training Center of Colorado Springs.

Each team was made up of a sighted person piloting the front of the tandem bike, where they were left in charge of steering, braking, and shifting this elaborate racing bike built for two people.   The second half of the team was a blind “stoker’, referring to the blind or visually impaired individual who helped power or ‘stoke’ the bike from the rear position.  All of the pilots were volunteers with extensive cycling experience who had been recruited to this Para Cycling Development Camp in preparation for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio.  The stokers, myself included, had been recruited from both military and civilian backgrounds as people who had shown an aptitude for tandem cycling and might have some interest in trying a racing career.  It was an incredible honor to be surrounded by such a group.

Riding in the van, I because I have a tiny bit of vision left, I took the time to describe to my fellow blind stokers the terrain as we neared the course.  “The mountains are to our West, covered in snow at the top, and the view around us is nothing but flat plains as far as the eye can see, dotted with cattle and the occasional new housing development and the Air Force Base, surrounded by high wire fencing.”  We began to drive on the course, and the coaches began describing the turns to the riders without sight.  “Here, you have a 110 degree turn, so take advantage of the shoulder, and you can afford to stay tight there.” Although the blind cyclists wouldn’t be in charge of steering the bike on any of the turns, it instilled confidence in each of us to know what was coming at every bend in the road, and how to stay in sync with our pilots to maintain the best aerodynamic position.

The van finally pulled over on a dead end street next to a tiny grouping of new homes.  Our bikes were already being unloaded from the cargo van by our amazing volunteer mechanic, Dan.  After making some last minute adjustments to our seat, my pilot Lindsey and I took our loaner CoMotion bike, “Palomino” out for a test ride.  The air was frigid.  Barely 45 degrees, and the flat plain made the wind chill absolutely biting.  Where was the 70 degree weather of the day before?  I prayed for the sun to hit this street, and soon.  Over my bike shorts I had thermal tights, two long sleeve shirts, a wind jacket, and fuzzy gloves. I looked more prepared for skiing than going for a bike ride.

After three days of being together 24/7 and a good ten hours of time in the saddle, my pilot Lindsey and I were starting to really mesh as a team.  We chatted like old friends, and had shortened our on-bike communications to mono-syllabic words to convey exactly what we either needed or were about to do.  “Drinking!” I would pronounce before I carefully and smoothly leaned forward to grab my water bottle. “Shifting,” Lindsey would announce before an impending hill climb.  “Right,” should would shout before a turn, or “bump!” before a giant pothole bruised my seat-bones.  We became fluid, smooth and closer and closer to that singular unit that we knew we could achieve with simply more time spent together on the bike.

On our first climb of the 4 loop, rectangular 5km race course, our friend and mentor Greg Miller and his blind stoker pulled up alongside.  With his Tennessee southern drawl, Greg explained the necessary strategy to ride the course most efficiently and safely.  “You’ve just got to pick this line, drifting from out to in on these turns and push hard on this first uphill.  With the tailwind, you should be hitting no less than 20mph here.” Lindsey and I listened intently as we softly pedaled alongside for our lesson.

The course turned right up a steeper incline, and he advised that we maintain this speed by standing up on the bike for a short burst.  Lindsey and I both sighed as we hit the long gradual downhill.  “Hey Greg this seems like a great spot to catch our breath after that hill!” I offered.  “No way, man, “ said Greg, rather emphatically.  “This is where you make up some speed.  USE this hill to get going on the course.  There is no rest in bike racing, young lady.”  Both Lindsey and I couldn’t hide our disappointment, as it must have been written all over our faces. “Hey, ladies.  If you want to make the time, you’re going to have to ride the shit out of this.”  And with that, he pedaled forcefully ahead.

We finished our third loop, and were about to head out for one more, when my fingers finally went numb.  Thankfully, Lindsey felt the same way, so we decided that we’d had enough of riding the windy, chilly course, and would go warm up in the waiting vans.  Several other riders must have concurred, as there was a pretty large group gathered back on the side street as we arrived.  We all chatted nervously, discussing strategy and info on the course, hoping that someone might offer new insight.

This time trial meant a lot to many of us.  The USA Paracycling team has written standards in order to achieve recognition and funding for budding athletes.  There is a military standard, an emerging standard, a talent pool standard, and finally a national standard, with the latter being the fastest.  If we could hit the talent pool time standard after only 3 days of training as a team, Lindsey and I could get some much needed financial assistance and coaching to go further in the sport.  After handing our ‘Palomino’ off to Dan for transport, we high-fived each other.  “We’ve got this” we both said at once.  “Jinx!”

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Paralympic Pursuits at the Olympic Training Center- part 1



“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.





I am a Para-Triathlete Officially!


I have no idea how to put into the words the flood of feelings that I’m experiencing right now.  I’m at the 8 hour mark after finishing my very first triathlon as a Visually Impaired Athlete, and I’m just buzzing- with adrenaline, exhaustion, joy, incredulity, gratitude, and a sense of awe.  NEVER five years ago, when my diagnosis was made horrifically clear would I have imagined this day.  Never would I have imagined that my impending blindness would actually open me to a whole new culture, lifestyle and group of amazing friends from such a diverse and wonderful group of people. 

My most recent of 11 eye surgeries was back in August of last year, only ten short months ago.  The chronic pain, multiple follow up appointments, and stress took a major toll on my body, leaving me with Addison’s Disease, (a malfunctioning of the adrenal system, and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, where my metabolism simply shut down.  A 45 pound weight gain in only three short months left me depressed, and feeling hopeless that my life would return to normal.  Because of the weight gain, and a broken foot, my exercise was strictly limited.  I couldn’t bike or run with the ankle, and I couldn’t swim because I couldn’t run the risk of infection or injury to my eye.  I felt trapped in a body I didn’t ask for.

An ‘Aqua Fit’ class at the local YMCA was the beginning of a life-changing event for me.  I could ‘jog’ in the deep part of the pool without getting my eyes wet or needing goggles, and I could wear a belt that kept the impact from my legs!  Perfect!  After dropping the first 8 pounds in the pool, and getting stronger on my foot, I snuck upstairs at the Y to the spin class room.  There I started slowly cycling 20 minutes a couple times a week while the classes were not in session, so I could embarass myself in private.

As my spin sessions grew longer, and my fitness began to slowly come back, I was brave enough to try a full hour spin.  I felt like I might expire then and there, but I was doing it.  I happened in on a Saturday morning class, and was absolutely stoked that my favorite instructor from New York Sports Club had joined the team at the Y, and couldn’t wait to start sweating to her great energy and fantastic music. 

Quickly the weight began to come off, and I crossed the 10 pound threshold.  I was going to do this if it killed me.  Through the power of Facebook, I met a woman who works for a veteran’s advocacy group called Team RWB who specializes in guiding visually impaired and blind athletes all around the country.  I wanted to start running with someone, but was afraid that no one would know how to help me as well as Elvis, my guide dog could.  Caroline was from New York City, and suggested we meet up at a local veteran’s fundraiser for a spin-a-thon, where she could introduce me to some local RWB athletes that might want to help.

I met a passionate woman named Laurie Hollander, the co-founder of Help Our Military Heros Charity, who has two sons in the military.  The event was so incredibly inspiring, as I got to meet combat wounded veterans who were being given their freedom back thanks to the power of exercise with adaptive technology, and the handicap adapted vans that this charity helped buy for them.  I was hooked.  I had to meet more guys like this and help however I could.  They were amazing!

I started spinning like a mad-woman and tried my first attempt at laps in the Y pool with special goggles to protect my precious new glaucoma valve that had just been surgically implanted.  I re-developed an old fear of deep water that I had had as a child, and worked hard at only swimming on days that the pool was set up with shallow lanes to keep me from freaking out.  It worked, and I was suddenly swimming- first ten, then 20, then 40, then 66 laps/ 1 mile!  I told Caroline I was ready to put my money where my mouth is and sign up for a triathlon this spring.


Caroline and her boyfriend Jared came up on Saturday, the day before the race to help me go over any last minute issues and get the bike ready to go.  We grabbed a bite to eat with my mom and headed home for an early bed after we loaded my tandem bike onto the custom roof mounted bike rack on mom’s car.  So we thought…..

The bike was a generous gift to me by a former US Paratriathlon Director.  This tandem cycle has been to two Paralympics and is more than 30 years old.  It is an amazing piece of equipment of which the guys at the bike shop are in awe.  As we sat down to take the front wheel off the bike, it became painfully clear at 9pm in my dark condo parking lot that this wheel had not been off the bike for a very long time.  It was also not planning on coming off any time soon.  Lacking the proper tools, we began calling and texting to anyone I knew locally who knew bikes or may have the proper tools.  A trip to Home Depot was discussed, but at this point they were about to close.  Dammit.

After an emergency call to my good friend Alan, we drove to his house at 10:15 5o retrieve needle-nose pliers.  On the way there, we were frantically texting other Team RWB folks and my coach to see if someone had an SUV that could come get the bike at 5:30am if we couldn’t make it fit onto the bike rack. My head was pounding, my chest started to hurt, and I was ready to lose it.   Laurie Hollander came through like a champ, and was already coming to cheer me on at the race, and offered to pick up the bike en route to the race.  Perfect!

The next morning, Laurie showed up bright and early and off we caravaned to the race in Westchester on the Hudson River.  I was nervous about the swim, but had practiced with my coach a few days prior, and felt that other than the gross brown water, I would be ok, as long as I could spot Caroline occasionally beside me and knew that the tether would keep me safe.  The drama with the bike had actually settled my nerves, as I had hopes that this was the end of my bad luck for the race, and it would be smooth sailing from here on.

We arrived early and my stomach was in knots.  The parking lot was a mile from the nearest porta potty, and Caroline and I hustled along while our ‘crew’ grabbed the bike and our gear and followed behind.  I met the race organizer, an Aussie gentleman, who I had been emailing regarding my needs for the race.  He had been so helpful in making sure that I was starting in my own wave, safely away from other athletes who might unknowingly interfere with our race by getting tangled in my tether in the swim, or getting frustrated trying to pass us on the run as Caroline and I ran side by side.  There were already hundreds of athletes there, and it was electrifying with loads of adrenaline and nerves!

The Bike mechanics were our first stop, who did an amazing job working with my troublesome front wheel, and adjusting our seat height and handlebars.  We headed off to transition, where I went through my checklist and hit the porta-potty for the second time.  The nerves were kicking in.  We walked over to the pre-race meeting where the organizer gave a great pep talk to all of us first timers.  I was incredibly grateful my swim coach had convinced me to buy a pair of neoprene booties, as we had a long walk from transition to the swim start over lots of ruts, tree roots and grass.

Watching the first swim wave head out, I stopped and realized how incredibly beautiful the scenery was.  A lighthouse jutted the shore, the sun was shining, and the outlines of the Catskills were off in the distance.  The water appeared much clearer than my swim 4 days prior, and I started to settle down.  I would be the final wave to go- with no one else in our wave but Caroline and myself.  It relieved my fear of being swum over, but I felt a little sad that I would have no one to ‘chase’.  I reminded myself that this was my first race, and there would be no chasing, just FINISH.  I also told myself that it would be kind of fun to catch people in the swim wave that left 2 minutes before me.  I could be fast in the water, so anything was possible.  Judging by some of the really beginner swimming I was seeing out there, I totally had this covered.

We waded into the water, which was surprisingly warm, although I was grateful for my borrowed wetsuit from my coach.  I reminded myself to get my face in as quickly as possible to check my goggles for leakage.  We were good.  Caroline and I had never actually practiced swimming together, so we got down in the water and did a few strokes parallel to the shore.  Done.  The gun went off.

I told myself, ‘head straight to the buoy. Trust her- she knows where the heck we’re going. Get a rhythm and be steady- just like a regular pool swim.  Let the suit work its magic to help me float, and conserve my energy for the bike and run where I would be needing it most.”  I could still be faster than most and go at a slow steady pace.  The current kept pushing me to my right and towards Caroline. I was grateful she had used my bright yellow Achilles swim cap so I could see her.  The race officials had given us a BROWN swim cap in brown water.  Not conducive for a blind athlete to be visible or have visibility.  I pulled hard with my left arm with each stroke to keep from getting pushed into Caroline.  She pulled up twice to adjust her goggles, which had started leaking along the route.  Within 15 minutes, we were out of the water.  I was a little shocked when i got to my feet and saw dry land.  Even more shocked when Caroline told me there would be stairs coming up out of the water.  WHAT?  A challenge to say the least.  I got to work right away unzipping my suit, as I knew that was going to be a challenge.  It was really snug. As we jogged hand in hand towards the transition area, we were routed up a long dark staircase to get to the park.  We laughed at how insane this was, and kept jogging as my stepfather and coach and mother cheered us along. 

I gulped down some water, and fortunately got some help from Caroline getting out of my wetsuit, which was stuck on my timing chip on my left leg.  Great.  We grabbed our helmet, shoes, glasses and my bike and headed out of transition, which no one seemed to know the way out of.  We yelled at a couple of folks to help and they finally pointed us out.  A little stressful, but we were clear. 

Once we clipped in, we wound our way out of the park, and into the town of Sleepy Hollow NY.  Police had closed some roads and were stopping traffic for us as we flew around the first series of pretty tight turns.  One was so tight, we saw a guy go flying into someone’s yard!  Laughing, we peddled on.  A fellow competitor had warned us that the course was 5 miles uphill , then 5 miles back down.

Not 5 minutes into our ride, we were on the first decent sized hill, and our chain suddenly came off.  Crap.  So much for that bad luck running out last night. We coordinated clipping out of our pedals, and worked on getting the chain back again.  Dammit.  It slipped again.  Caroline rides competitively, so mechanics are nothing new to her.  I felt confident she would get it working again.  After the derailment, the bike began to skip gears any time we tried to use an easier gear.  We decided to stay in the hard, tougher gears, and just figure it out as we went.  Man I was grateful at that moment for my strong pilot!

We were getting frustrated as the climb continued, and the bike just kept skipping around from gear to gear.  It made it incredibly hard to push the chain as hard as we needed to climb.  So I did what I do when I get stressed.  I laughed and I prayed.  “OH PLEASE dear lovely bike of mine, PLEASE help us!  Please let us finish this race!  I LOVE you bike!  Oh BIKE! you’re the BEST!  I promise to give you love and attention and a SPA DAY at the bike shop when we get back!  ANYTHING for you!  Just PLEASE let me finish this race!  PLEASE! I Love you bike!  you’re the BEST!”  Caroline and I began to laugh.  We were going to DO this!

Well, laughing and praying work, because the bike started skipping less, and behaving more.  I crossed my heart, and got pumped as we began to pass people.  First one, then 4 , then 6.  It was a pretty amazing feeling.  I felt invincible!  I knew the run was going to suck, so I wanted to make up as much time on the bike as I could.  Around mile 8 we began to have a series of tight turns- no easy feat on a bike that is as long as a limousine.  As we came barreling down on one street, it appeared that we continue straight.  However, two volunteers were standing in the middle of the road chatting, oblivious to our impending collision.  We began to shout at them.  “WHICH WAY?”  To which they just stared!  Again, louder we yelled.  Suddenly, right before we missed the turn, they pointed to Caroline.  We wooshed by their bodies, and narrowly missed a street sign, and cursed out loud.  “HOLY SHIT”, said Caroline.  “What the hell was that?”  She said she had never seen an incident like that in her racing career.  These people were practically asleep at the wheel.  We agreed to be vigilent and slowed down for the upcoming series of tighter turns. 

As we rolled into the bike finish, I could hear my family shouting our names.  I was beaming.  We did it, and the ornery bike agreed to let us finish.  I saw Elvis wagging close by and smiled again.  This was amazing.  I love him, but there’s nothing like having your hands totally free to just run, bike and swim to make you feel independent again.  Elvis gave me my life and my freedom back, and Caroline was making me fly.

We dashed into transition and it felt fast.  Bike shoes off, run shoes on, visor and race number on, and off we jogged to the exit.  We were laughing the whole way.  I realized very quickly how critical Caroline’s guiding skills were going to be on the run. 

The run began on a grassy area under the shade of a grove of old pine and oak trees alongside the Hudson River.  Shade and running for blind people is not helpful.  While the temperature was lovely in there, it was going to be one horrific stumble after another.  I began to doubt myself.  At the first big tree root, Caroline grabbed my arm.  We had an awesome elastic running tether to connect our wrists, but in this hairy situation I was going to need a little more help.  I lifted my knees and toes up high, and pranced through our little forest run. Phew!

We then continued to a concrete pier, which zigged and zagged its way out to an old lighthouse.  There was a tiny metal footbridge to get out there, only wide enough for people to run single file.  We were laughing our butts off at the absurdity and difficulty of this portion of the race, and I dropped behind Caroline to keep from getting clothes-lined.

Once clear of the obstacle course, it was a beautiful run along the pier by the Hudson through wildflowers and parks.  I was quickly regretting my decision not to carry water on the bike portion of the race, and my head started to pound with the 80 degree heat and dehydration. “Stupid Idiot” I thought to myself.  Well, lesson learned.  I got this.

We were desperate for water, and looking forward to the water station.  the first was barely a sip of water.  We told ourselves to tank up at the next one.  Well the next station was OUT of water! What?  OUT?  They handed us a precious cup of ice, which I promptly dumped down my sports bra to cool off.  My knee began to protest after the challenge of the slipping gears on the bike, and I wondered if I could finish.  The answer was absolutely.  It would be silly to stop now.  The knee could wait.  I focused on my form, attempting to lean forward and take short strides to keep my momentum steady.  I felt good.  The pace was comfortable, and my breathing was ok despite the dryness of my throat.

All along the route people shouted for us, saying, “Great job! or “Way to go”!  It felt amazing having these other athletes take the time out to urge me on, and I felt amazing and so lucky to be there and have this moment.  Caroline started talking more to me as I think she realized I was fading mentally.  She suggested that once we hit the grass, let’s turn on the sprint.  I wondered if I had it in me.

As we rounded the final turn to the grassy finish line, I knew I did.  My family, friends, Guide Dog, and hundreds of other folks had gathered there to bring us in for our epic moment.  The smile that had faded at the empty water trough came back ten-fold. I was about to be a triathlete.  And a darned fast one at that.  Caroline said, “when we get to the orange, hit it girl!”  Another gear that I didn’t know existed came out.

I grabbed her hand for both moral and physical support (the grass was still full of tree roots) and held it tight.  The crowd roared as we came down the finish shute.  This was all for us!  Oh my god!  We crossed the line, our hands held together high in the air, and I nearly stumbled. Not from exhaustion, but from relief and joy and disbelief.  Instead, I grabbed Caroline and gave her the biggest hug, holding on until I felt I could stop the tears from flowing.  In typical Amy fashion, I started to laugh. 

The finish line volunteers laid our medals on our necks, and I was greeted immediately by one very happy Labrador, ready to serve and with a huge supply of congratulatory kisses.  My mom, Rick, friends Jared and Laurie were all there to welcome us back and give a big hug of congratulations.  My coach came by for a high five, and photos of me and my fellow Greenwich CT triathletes.  OMG- I just said the word triathlete!  Oh YEAH!?  That’s ME!

I’ve never had a harder time holding back tears.  The race director presented me with an award, even though I wasn’t being timed against other para-athletes.  He even insisted on doing it as the first award of the ceremony so that everyone in the entire race could be there to cheer us on and help celebrate.  I was so grateful for the hundreds of people who watched Elvis, Caroline and I go up to receive that award.  It meant more to me than he’ll ever know.  As it turned out, we put in a pretty awesome time.  We passed people on the swim, bike, and the run.  It felt amazing to blow past people even after being started two minutes after the very last competitor had gone out on course.  1:34 was the official time.  We took a peek to see what that would be against my age group of 30-39.  16th place!  Hey- I’ll take a top 20 finish for my first tri!  That was like the cherry on top of the sundae!  I was just shooting to have a safe, fun, easy race- to finish fast was simply intoxicating to feel. 

For the first time in 5 years I felt STRONG and Able-bodied.  Not disabled.  Not Visually impaired.  Not ‘less than’ or ‘broken’.   I felt alive and like I could fly and be fast.  What an amazing feeling. After 5 years of surgeries, chemotherapy, a new guide dog, changing jobs, moving and heartbreak, this was absolutely one of the greatest moments of my life. I cannot think of a better person than Caroline Gaynor to share it with. 

I am Amy Dixon, and I am off to do my first Olympic Distance Triathlon in 5 weeks in NYC!  Go Team RWB and Team Achilles!  My name is Amy Dixon, and I am a TRIATHLETE!