Rio was a blur of coconuts, bikinis, meetings and odd foods leading up to our race. Sighted guide Lindsey Cook of Hanover Indiana and I were one of 11 athletes (9 athletes and two guides for blind athletes) to be selected for this very important ‘Test Event’ on the actual course that the Paralympics will be held on in 2016. We were honored to be selected based on our world ITU (International Triathlon Union) ranking and the number of points we had earned this season of racing together.
Most of the athletes met in Houston from all over the country, then hopped an overnight United Airlines flight to Rio. Surprisingly, all of our bikes and equipment arrived without incident and we headed to the Marriott that would be our home for the week. The hotel was the nicest we had stayed at for a race, located about a half mile from the race venue on the beach. We were treated like celebrities from the moment we got to Rio, with locals asking us to take selfies and photos with their kids. It was awesome.
The morning started with an official Team USA photo shoot on the beach. I laughed, because it’s the first time I’ve brought a hairbrush or makeup to a race. lol! Once the bike was assembled, we had our first meeting and discussed meals and logistics for the week. The following day Lindsey and I got to run with our United Airlines flight attendant who happened to be a triathlete from Texas. She was a great tour guide on the busy streets to Ipanema. After hydrating with fresh coconut water, we headed over to the Futbol Club to a gorgeous 50 meter salt water pool to stretch out the arms for a quick swim. The view from the pool of the Christ statue and Mount Sugar Loaf were breathtaking. From there, coach Wesley took us to an incredible buffet with all you can eat pizza for some pre race carb loading.
We were seeing all over social media the reports on the water quality in Rio, and had meetings with the team doctor to discuss our swim warmup plans before the race. Several athletes were taking antibiotics prophylactically, but I was allergic to the drug that had been recommended. Lindsey and I discussed our plan, and decided to wait on getting into the bay until just before the race to be safe. Although the risk was only 5% of getting sick, it would be devastating to take the chance and lose with so much at stake. We opted to walk the line from the water’s edge to the bike transition area, and scope out the swim while others practiced on the course.
The day before the race was busy and electric. We rode a large section of the bike course and practiced the 180 degree turns on Bomber until we were comfortable with how the bike handled and our plan for where to push the pace. Being bike specialists, Lindsey and I felt confident we could have a very fast bike split on this flat course. I was disappointed we didn’t get the chance to run on the course, but according to the map, it was a two loop run that was very straightforward.
We headed to the athlete briefing after lunch with the team overlooking the course. It was fantastic to see my friends from Spain, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom all there for the race. After lots of giggles and hugs, we settled in for the race director’s briefing which proved very informative.
Race day was a lot of hurry up and wait. Our race was not until 2:14 pm, so we headed down to the venue at 7:30 am for the full bike course preview to get in a lap or two then put our feet up. We got to hang out in the gorgeous Athlete Lounge that had air conditioning, Wifi, snacks, water and even giant showers and bathrooms. I put on my headphones, pressed ‘Play’ on my ‘Pre-race Pump Up’ Playlist, laid on the floor and put my legs up on a chair, and closed my eyes.
10:30 began check-in, where they measure our bikes, tether and check our helmets and uniforms to be sure they are legal. We racked Bomber on the stunning blue carpet in the transition area, then lined up for our formal athlete introduction to the huge crowds. Hearing our names called out over the loudspeaker and the cheers of ‘USA! USA!’ was intoxicating. Lindsey and I gave each other a knowing look and said, “let’s remember this moment,” as we squeezed each other’s hand.
The sun was getting very hot, and we continued to hydrate and stay inside, with the occasional jump outdoors to cheer on our teammates who were racing earlier than us. We were getting more excited with each athlete that crossed the line, knowing our turn would be up soon. I was growing a little anxious as the temperatures continued to climb, but I planned on doing my best to stay cool.
Our swim was unique in that we would be starting off of a floating pontoon about 200 meters off shore. We were given the option of being transported there via boat or swimming. We opted to swim as our warmup to test the water before the actual race. It was a murky green like stewed pea soup, and had a strange taste for salt water. Nonetheless, we made our way out to the dock and climbed up the ladder, ready to start.
As I stood on the rocking pontoon, a sudden queasiness took over me. I went and found a chair and started to panic. Motion sickness. I have struggled with it on sailboats and ferries before, but it had been some time since I’d experienced it. Sitting wasn’t much better, and I forced myself to stare at the horizon to gain my equilibrium. It wasn’t helping. Lindsey noticed I became suddenly quiet and asked me what was wrong. I started taking sips of cold water to soothe my churning stomach as the minutes ticked away. Ten minutes before I could get into the water. If only I could jump in, I would feel better. So I thought…..
The B1 athletes (totally blind) are given a 3 minute and 48 second head start on the partially sighted athletes like myself. I stood on the dock staring at the churning waters as they took off into the distance, wondering aloud how the heck I was supposed to make up that time given how I felt currently.
We dropped into the green water and held onto a rope until the starting gun went off. I felt smooth and fast the first 50 meters, where Lindsey and I hung on someone’s feet. Then the burping started. “DAMMIT!” I thought to myself. I struggled for air with each rotation of my body, burping aloud with each breathe. By the second buoy I realized that this was going to turn into something else entirely. My brain became unraveled. “Was I sick? Was it possible to get sick from the limited exposure I had to the water? No, this was definitely that damn dock. Now what? Well, swim girl! Motion sickness is just that, motion sickness. You’re not gonna die. Just swim. You’ll be fine on the bike. Just get out of this ocean as fast as you can and stay with Lindsey,” I thought to myself. And then I vomited.
I actually smiled to myself that I managed to do it while still maintaining forward movement. I tucked my chin under my armpit and tossed my cookies. The burping stopped for about 200 meters. Something hit my hand. And I vomited again. The sun shone directly in my face and I could no longer see Lindsey, with the exception of the shine off the water on her tan shoulder. I looked for it with every breathe and fought to keep swimming despite the vomiting.
We ran up the shore and the ramp where coach Mark for Team USA called out to us, “Nice job ladies! You’re currently in 6th place. GO!” I shook my head at my misfortune with the swim, but was proud of myself that I still managed to beat the other women out and knew that I could really hurt them on the bike. If I could bike……We arrived at Bomber in transition and I started to cry. “I can’t get my wetsuit off!” I screamed to Lindsey, as I struggled to get the ankles off over the bulky timing chips strapped around my calves. I kicked and pulled furiously, and Lindsey finally grabbed and helped me get it off. I fumbled with the clasp on my race bib and noticed my hands shaking as I put on my sunglasses and helmet. With that, we took off, running along the bike to the mount line to begin.
We were smooth on the bike and I could hear the announcer talking about the Canadians who were hot on our tails. Lindsey asked how I was doing and I shook my head with disappointment. “I’m so sorry Linds. I’m sick.” “That’s ok- do what you can. And breathe, girl. Love you,” she said. With that, she changed gears and we began hammering away on the bike. My mouth felt like a salty swamp, so I reached down for my water bottle to rinse it out. “YUCK!” I yelled angrily. I had grabbed the bottle containing my salty electrolyte tablets, and the water inside was blistering hot thanks to the outside temperatures. I spit out hot, salty water all over my Kiwami uniform. “Disgusting!” I resolved that I would just have to fight through the nausea and pray it all came together by the time I got to the run.
We had a solid bike, but I had nowhere near the gas that we did in Mexico, although we did manage to pass two athletes and no one passed us, so I knew things weren’t going too badly. We heard dozens of friends cheering for us from the sidelines and spun a high cadence on the bike to keep me from blowing up. Our plan was to get out of our shoes when we sighted the carpet, but somehow we missed the opportunity and started getting out of our cycling shoes a little late. In our confusion, poor Lindsey missed the turn off the bike course to get us into transition for the run. With incredible strength, she stopped the bike, and yelled, “Go backwards Amy!” as we ran back about 20 feet and then darted down the chute towards our bike rack.
I grabbed the run tether out of my pocket as we neared the rack, which then got tangled in the spokes of our rear wheel. Once I resolved it, we took off running like our hair was on fire out of T2. Lindsey immediately started apologizing profusely. “Amy I’m so sorry I missed that turn. I’ll look on this lap to see if we get a penalty. I’m sure we do.” . I knew Lindsey took her job extremely seriously and was mentally flogging herself for the error. I reassured her immediately. “Girl- shit happens. Move on. We’re ok. It could just as easily been something that I did. It’s ok Lindsey. Let’s run. Love you!” And with that, she informed me I was running a 6 minute mile, and she ordered me to slow down so I didn’t blow up. I felt better instantly.
The first lap of the run I felt like a rock star. The blocks were whirring past quickly, my breathing was steady and my legs felt strong. I backed off to 8 minute pace on the second lap, with the plan to ease onto the gas pedal and finish as fast as I could. I realized that my goal of catching the other USA athlete was now out of reach thanks to my illness, so the plan B was to maintain my current position in 5th. With that, I heard footsteps behind me, then my heart sank as I saw Christine, the Canadian, trot past me looking effortless on her run. ‘Dammit!” I said to Lindsey. “Amy, it’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You’re doing fine.” I was crushed. With that, I felt heartburn begin and the belching come back. “DAMMIT!”
I began to chase her, and made the decision that today just wasn’t the day. The faster I ran, the worse the nausea was. At 8 minute pace, I knew I would finish. Anything faster would be a puke fest, and I didn’t want anyone else to pass me. Better to maintain where I was than to risk not finishing at all. The cheers from our Teammates lifted my spirits. They were going crazy and made me smile, and run a tiny bit faster. We crossed the finish line and I hugged Lindsey with all my might. It was over. 6th place on a tough day on the same course I hope to race next year in the Paralympics? I’ll take it. THANK YOU to everyone who has made this possible. Next up for team #blondesonbikes is ITU Detroit at 8am on August 16th. LOVE and GRATITUDE to you all.
If you want to help us with travel, training and racing expenses, we are entirely self-funded and have a tax -deductible 501c3 account set up for us through the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA). You can help by clicking here: www.amydixonusa.com/donate