#2 in the United States has an incredible ring to it.
I’m still reeling from all the excitement and fun of a great weekend at the Paratriathlon National Championships in Tempe Arizona with Guide Caroline Gaynor. All of the early morning workouts, logistical nightmares in lining up training guides and partners, bike mechanical debacles and missed family obligations led up to this day. What came together on this hot early Sunday morning was far beyond my expectations and aspirations.
I had the pleasure of a home stay with fellow blind athlete Michael Somsan, a blind attorney I met at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this spring who was set to compete in his very first triathlon race. His hospitality and that of his friends, daughter and guide dog were incredible. Elvis enjoyed hanging out with his Seeing Eye Dog Dobson, who kept Elvis entertained in their gorgeous backyard pool with lots of swimming and fetching while we trained and prepared for our race.
Michael and I got some good swim time in at his gorgeous Lifetime Fitness Gym, complete with waterslide, which I OF COURSE begged the lifeguard to open early in the morning so I could complete my laps with a ceremonious splash. THE most fun I’ve had in a LONG time. I assembled my bike pretty well for a blind chick, and when Caroline arrived from Texas, we test-rode Palomino down to the local bike shop for some final pre-race adjustments. Michael rode with his pilot Marty, a talented cyclist who is a volunteer for a great veteran’s Non-profit called “Ride to Recovery”. We laughed, rode, ate and planned our strategy for our race this weekend; Michael’s first and my first National Championship. The plan? finish safe and leave it all out there on the course.
My nerves always win on race morning, going straight to my temperamental gut. While I’m getting better at managing the symptoms, let’s suffice to say, it makes getting ready to leave the house challenging at 4:30 am. My plan was to run the fastest I had yet run in a triathlon. I wanted that elusive sub 26 minute run badly.
The swim was a little scary. The race directors had sent out a notice that the Tempe Town Lake was contaminated with terrible amounts of E.Coli bacteria and that the swim would most likely be cancelled. I was devastated, as the swim is by far my strongest of the three disciplines, and this would force them to host a ‘Duathlon’ with a run, bike, run format, which would NOT be conducive to a fast race for me. I was also nervous that I might get sick from the water, and therefore miss my next big ITU race representing my country in Brazil in two weeks. More and more worries built up.
At the last minute, they declared the water safe to swim in, and we headed down the steep stairs into the Lake. It was brown like the Hudson River, and I told myself, “Just don’t swallow any, or get it in your eyes, and you’ll be ok.” Gulp. There was confusion in the water, as it appeared that we started the race right at the stairs, but apparently there were some green buoys about 100 meters away, and that was where I should have started my Garmin GPS watch. oops #1.
We had a nice smooth start from the buoy and were sailing along nicely until we hit the first pile of debris. A giant wad of storm debris in the form of prickly branches and weeds gathered en mass in front of me, and I struggled to clamor over the top of it without getting pulled under the water. Once I cleared it from my body, it then got caught in our elastic tether, which ripped it off my body. I paused to disentangle myself, and got back to business. This continued two more times throughout the swim, and I finally had to just laugh it off, and realize that I was probably not the only athlete who would be dealing with this challenge today.
The bike was going to be fun. I love riding with Caroline piloting the bike. It’s always super serious and focused. We take the turns at blistering speeds, laying Palomino on drastic angles, and Caroline somehow manages to keep the rubber to the road. There were three U-turns on the course, and a couple VERY poorly marked and attended spots where the race volunteers appeared to be sleeping or texting rather than directing us safely to where we needed to turn. After a few close calls, we started screaming ahead of time, “WHICH WAY” to get them to focus.
For the run, I had one of those “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans,” kind of race. My ‘plan’ was to go out at 8:40 pace and drop the hammer for the final two miles. Until I hit the first hill going up the bridge. I simply had little in the tank. I started to focus on how hot my feet were, every step getting warmer by the minute. We were in the blazing hot sun with nothing but concrete surrounding us, making me feel like I was in a giant Wok. Caroline reacted quickly, dousing me with water at the aid stations, and pushing me verbally when I started to talk myself out of running another step. It worked, and I finished with a great sprint to cross the finish line in my first National Championships in a very solid second place.
However, race celebrations would have to wait. A woman dressed in blue came over to congratulate me as they were placing my finisher’s medal and a cold wet towel around my neck. “Miss Dixon, Congratulations on finishing in the top of your category! You win a complimentary drug test! Please come with me.” I smiled and said, “I’ve never been so happy to pee in a cup in my whole life!”
What should have been a ten minute pit-stop became a two hour long ordeal, of being dehydrated and not producing enough ‘usable’ urine and filling out forms while chugging nauseating amounts of sugary Gatorade. While it was great fun and a lot of laughs hanging out with the other 5 athletes who had been selected, we were all eager to go celebrate at the post race party with our friends and teammates, and perhaps get something to eat. It was not to be. We weren’t allowed photos or food or physical contact with anyone outside of our little stifling hot tent. After two hours, as we were getting near the home stretch and our impending award ceremony, the USADA official had to go tell the race organizers that the top Para Athletes would be delayed in getting to the ceremony, and asked that they push it back a bit. We were stressed.
Relinquished from our tent prison, we were reunited with our teammates for a brief hug fest and a banana followed by the awards. I was SO excited to hear that teammate Thomas Lee, who had suffered severe heat stroke only 11 weeks prior in Dallas, had finished his race smartly and safely and that Michael had also completed his very first race with a smile on his face.
As if the weekend couldn’t have gotten any better, I ran into Taylor Kinney, the hot actor from NBC’s Chicago Fire and the recent film ‘The Other Woman’ with Cameron Diaz, on my flight home from AZ. I was seated with Elvis in the bulkhead, and the stewardess must have told him about my race, and he came back from First Class to give me a hug and a congratulations on the race. He even took the time to wait for me after our flight, grabbed a photo for me, and posted it from my phone to Twitter. What a cool guy. He asked all kinds of questions about my race, and we chatted while I walked to baggage claim. His girlfriend, Lady Gaga, retweeted it and mentioned that she thought my guide dog was sweet. A fairy-tale ending to a weekend that was truly a dream come true.
Thank you to the generosity of all my guides who helped me race and train this season to meet my goals. Each of you has sacrificed work and family obligations to voluntarily hop on a plane with 30 days notice or less, and race with me. Caroline wears many hats; bike racer, career woman, guide, cheerleader, and triathlon Director for the veteran’s non-profit, Team Red White and Blue. It’s mind-boggling to me that through the power of social media only 21 months ago, I met this firecracker who would inspire me to become my best self and pursue the world of Paratriathlon. Thank you Caroline. You change the lives of so many blind and visually impaired persons, and I’m so grateful for how you’ve changed mine.
To donate and help Amy and her guides reach the Paralympics in Rio 2016, please click below to make a tax deductible donation to her USABA account. Thank you!