Some Like it Hot- Mexico delivers
The text went something like this. “Hey Christy, I’m looking for a fast guide for Aquathlon World Championships on 9/17. Interested?” Within seconds, “Yes! Is it a sprint? How will I ever fill Susanne’s shoes? What’s your Run pace? Yikes!” And with that, our adventure began. Two and a half weeks later, we met at Cancun airport, ready to tackle our first time together as guide and athlete, and our first career Aquathlon (Run, swim, Run race).
Missing out on Rio selection is hard to describe adequately in words. Suffice to say that it was a confusing and difficult selection process. Despite being ranked 6th in the world, winning two ITU World Triathlon races, and finishing second at my Continental Championships, the selection committee determined that they would prefer to add athletes from other nations with rankings of 8,9, and 11th instead of adding another American female. There was a glimmer of hope when we determined that the ITU had somehow put in 31 men and 29 women despite the IPC’s published criteria of 30/30 split, but that ship had sailed and we were unsuccessful in appealing the decision. A final hope arrived in the form of the Russian federation getting banned, opening up three potential slots. But alas none of them were allocated to the blind category and none to the USA. It was done.
I struggled to find the energy to train. I couldn’t eat. Sleep was a series of bad recurring nightmares and a lot of angry imaginary arguments that jolted me awake, ready for a fight. Every Facebook posting from my friends and teammates headed to the Games was like a knife in my heart and made my head ache. Every time I left my house to try to train, neighbors and friends from my local YMCA would stop me and ask if I was getting excited to travel to Rio and compete for my country. Every day was a teary response of, “I’m not going.” While I was excited for my friends, it just felt devastating to me.
I tried hard to get perspective, stay busy, and found little solace in anything I did. I built and painted old furniture. My friends took me out for rides, swims and runs to get me off the couch. Sitting in my lonely apartment made me absolutely crazy with anxiety and sadness, so Woodstock and I played a ton of Frisbee and fetch. Thanks to my sports psychologist, Simon Marshall, I was able to get my head on a little straighter when he explained to me that I needed another goal and an outlet for all this built up fitness. Ending my season in July in Rotterdam just seemed too soon to call it a year. If it wasn’t Rio, what could it be? So I found myself in Mexico with an enthusiastic and willing partner after guide Susanne and I determined it was better for her to rest a small injury she had been rehabbing.
Since I had no bike to worry about, I knew that Christy could easily handle the guiding duties for swimming and running. A two time Xterra World Championships qualifier, I knew she could help me have a great day. Since we literally had no competition, with all my fellow elites racing in Rio, we could take our time, and focus on having a safe day without pressure to perform, and work most on getting me to a run personal record that I had wanted to achieve all season. While I felt a little guilty stealing the world title from my good British friend Melissa Reid, who held the World Champion title four years running, I knew she wouldn’t mind handing it over for a year given that she was hoping I’d be joining her in Rio. I honestly think she and the other athletes from Canada, Ireland, Spain and Japan were just as disappointed in my absence from the Games as I was. It was wonderful to have their support.
Christy and I swam with Dolphins, checked out the swim venue, and dined in our hotel for the first two days. We had the royal treatment from the organizing committee, and got to grab a photo with two time Olympic triathlon Champion Alistair Brownlee. The air was hotter than I could have ever imagined. The sun felt like it was searing my skin during my run warm-up at 7:30am. I prayed for clouds and cold water at the aid stations. Christie and I practiced a bunch of transitions the day before. It would be a 2.5 km Run, 1K Swim, and 2.5km Run. My goal was to run 10 minutes for each of the run portions and to just cruise and enjoy the swim, but to work it a little bit on the front half.
We went out super fast at 6:05 pace. I felt really comfortable, but told myself to slow the heck down because I wanted to save my gas for the second run after I was properly warmed up from a good long swim. Christy did an amazing job on the twisty, clover-leaf shaped course, calling out each turn and manhole cover, and we hit transition at my exact goal time. I ditched my shoes, visor and glasses, grabbed my cap and goggles, and we took off towards the water.
Halfway there, Christy stopped running and panicked. “My shoes!” I looked down at her feet and shook my head. She had her sneakers on. I laughed and said, “Well THAT was dumb!” We ran forward to the nearest official. “What should we do? Can we leave them here outside the swim platform and grab them when we get out?” “No. They have to be in transition or it’s a penalty or DQ.” “Shit.”
Christy took off at a sprint for the long run back to transition. I stood on the swim dock chuckling and chatting with the official, watching my Garmin as my Heart rate dropped precipitously. “Well, at least I’m getting a nice little rest break unexpectedly!” I said to him. Two minutes later, Christy reappeared, sprinting back to me sans shoes. I told her to take her time, catch her breath, and we could hop in once she was ready. No pressure. I wanted a calm swim and that’s exactly what we got.
It was like a giant aquarium! Even with my limited sight, I could see hundreds of bright blue fish, orange fish, striped yellow fish; a Moray Eel and endless fields of rock and coral in the clear aqua water. It was refreshing but still a little too warm at 80 degrees. I was grateful for not to be overheating in a wetsuit and for the saltiness of the water that allowed me to stay very buoyant. In about 20 minutes, we darted out of the water for our second run.
I was immediately aware of the heat and dialed it back on my pace. Even though I only had a mile and half to finish, I felt awful. My legs were heavy and my arms were sore from fighting the current. About half way into the run, the Age Group men caught us. It was like a pack of angry wolves passing us. We got physically pummeled as they invaded my space, hitting me with their shoulders and pointy elbows as they passed by. Our escort bicycle ducked behind us to try to fend them off to keep me from falling. It was no use. They kept coming. I slowed down and found the left side of the road to try to block them. I was determined not to trip and fall, taking Christy down with me.
After our race, in my delirium and excitement, I agreed to take on an obstacle course (check out my FB page for video- it’s hilarious). Christy and two of my friends talked me through each hurdle, and somehow I managed to finish with only a few bruises and scrapes. It made me acutely aware of my lack of upper body strength (something to work on this off season?). We followed that with shots of tequila, Belgian Waffles, and a quick decision to check out an adventure park that night. We capped off our trip with spelunking in caves while swimming underground below thousands of bats, driving ATVs in the jungle at night, and zip lining for miles across the forest. It was amazing and terrifying all at once.
Grabbing the tape at the line was satisfying and therapeutic in many ways. The gold medal and World Champion title didn’t hurt either. Simon was right in pushing me to go, despite my tantrum and demands to stay home to have a pity party alone on my couch. I had found a way to get my head back on straight after a devastating end to my road to Rio. I got brave enough to get back on social media and see what the athletes were up to in Rio without too much crying and could genuinely feel happy and proud for them. I found a way to smile again and enjoy my sport that I felt had let me down. I found the strength to look forward to a possible four more years and a Tokyo bid. And mostly? I found a way to be me again.