Blind Chick Traincation UK Edition

 

Blind Chicks Traincation 2016

UK Edition

Me and my honorary little sister from the UK, Melissa Reid chase each other on the track

Me and my honorary little sister from the UK, Melissa Reid chase each other on the track

 

What do triathletes do in the ‘off season’ you might ask. Some might take a vacation to a non-sporty island or throw in a ski trip or hop on a plane to see family they’ve missed throughout the year. When that’s over, we focus on building up our weaknesses as athletes, and for me, that’s my brain, my swim, and my strength. So, once I got some good strength training sessions in at home, and a good chat with my sports psychologist, I booked my flight to London to go visit my friend and competitor, British Paralympic Triathlon Bronze medalist Melissa Reid and her amazing swim family.

Melissa, her father Allan, and I met two years ago at my first World Championships in Edmonton Canada. After getting to know her sarcastic and somewhat politically incorrect sense of humor, and her ‘take no shit from anyone’ attitude, I could see we were going to be fast friends. This past year we had hoped to toe the line together in Rio, planning all the fun we were going to have post-race, yet it was not meant to be. Melissa and her father were two of my most staunch advocates in trying to get an elective slot into the Paratriathlon Race there, despite us being from opposing nations. When Melissa won bronze, after knowing the incredible challenges she had faced personally leading up to the race, I couldn’t have been happier than if I had gone and medaled myself.

After Rio, we immediately decided that it was time she took some time off and visited sunny California with me last month, and then I would head across the pond to begin training with her in preparation for a big season ahead. Melissa and her sister Courtney are extremely accomplished swimmers from Cornwall, UK, a rugged, misty, lushly green coastal area of southwest England. Their father coaches dozens of swimmers in several swim clubs there, and has raised two really talented and hardworking athletes. Their approach to training is no-frills, methodical, and full of hard work. They train in any and all conditions and manage to be internationally successful at triathlon on the tightest of budgets. Why? Because it’s their whole life and they love it.

Melissa grew up visually impaired, but never got a break. Her dad did her a huge service by pushing her to be independent and to never use her vision as an excuse not to work hard or be successful in sports. When Melissa wanted to go to college 7 miles from home, and couldn’t afford a bus pass, her father, an expert bike mechanic, found her a single bike to ride and insist she learn to ride solo to get back and forth to school each day. Nothing has been handed to this tough young woman.

 

The first day I arrived, I was greeted by their pack of wonderful dogs, and my guide dog Woody immediately made new friends and settled in with a good session of fetch at the beach merely steps from their front door. The next day we hit the pool. I walked in with Woody by my side to the giggles and delights of more than a dozen kids around the age of ten and an equal amount of teens all ready to work hard for coach Allan in the pool. Woody supervised as I struggled to stay out of their way as we circle-swam clockwise for a few thousand meters. I was relieved and grateful to have Allan’s watchful eye to assess where I would need the most work for the next three weeks. I ended up with WAY more than I could have asked for.

After a great run with Allan and Melissa - warming up and drying off!

After a great run with Allan and Melissa – warming up and drying off!

I had Three weeks of nightly decadent home cooked dinners with meats from the local butcher who sponsors Melissa, three weeks of twice daily walks on the beach with Woodstock, three weeks of great wine shared after late night swim workouts, rehashing all the gossip from the kids, and going over what worked and didn’t work for me as an athlete during the sessions, and some magical moments.

 

Moments like running Kenyan hill repeats (sprinting downhill as fast as you can multiple reps) in the pitch dark with Allan talking me through every terrifying step, moments like running on the track with Melissa teasing and taunting me to get me to run faster while trying not to giggle despite the pain, getting to meet the adorable kids who had never ‘seen’ an American before, let alone a guide dog, and who wanted my autograph; moments where I got to sit in a local pub with dogs milling about, and the local rugby team comes in blitzed after their club Christmas party; eating my first Cornish pasty and sticky toffee pudding; getting to tandem for the most delicious hot cocoa at a cool little coffee shop in the countryside, surrounded by horses and sheep and fields for miles; watching in awe as my blind friend managed to safely ride a stationary bike on rollers and a single bike on the road as she followed us on the tandem; having a magnificent traditional Cornish breakfast on my birthday; racing relays with a bunch of ten year olds cheering you on at 41 years of age. THESE things I will remember forever. Especially this…

“Today was as a BIG historic day for me. Today marks the last time I ever drove a car. Today, 9 years ago, I hung up the keys to my brand new convertible that I could no longer drive. I cried for weeks, no months, staring at this gorgeous vehicle in my driveway, gathering snow with each passing day, mourning my loss of independence. I couldn’t see a way forward.
But TODAY I did something incredible and incredibly freeing thanks to my fellow blind athlete and friend Melissa Reid. I ran. I ran BY MYSELF for the first time since losing my vision. I’ve always known I could do it under the right conditions. Good lighting, even surface and no cars, with measurable markers to know where I was. The majestic seaside cliffs and quiet old carriage roads of Cornwall provided the perfect opportunity. Melissa showed me her favorite spot to do out and back repeats that equaled a perfectly flat and scenic 1km each rep. I put on my bright yellow Athleta knit, quietly place my ear buds in, and set out to do 8 miles. By myself. By the third km I was in tears with happiness and freedom, knowing that I was able to do something safely that I haven’t been able to manage for years because of where I live, and all the congestion and uncontrollables. The fields of cabbage sprawled out before me for miles, dotted with the occasional flock of sheep or wooly horses grazing in the distance. To my right, the Atlantic Ocean. Today I got to to RUN. I’m one VERY LUCKY blind woman. And today I got to “just be” a regular runner. Thank you missy for showing me it’s possible.“- Facebook post from my page
Woody savors his last walk along the ocean in Cornwall

Woody savors his last walk along the ocean in Cornwall

Of course it wouldn’t be a true ‘Blind Chick’ traincation without a little drama.  Let’s see- I lost two pairs of gloves, one dog bowl, a dog haltie, a shirt and a water bottle.  That’s what happens when you can’t see and aren’t organized!  Woody ended up in an unexpected six hour quarantine.  And I, in the middle of the night, nearly knocked myself out cold after  smashing my head on a dresser I didn’t see and causing a nasty bloody head wound.  Thank you to Courtney lee for staying calm despite the blood and my inability to communicate due to extreme pain.  Melissa then tried to injure me further by taking me to a trampouline facility.  That went better than expected…. And lastly, we got to tether ourselves to young swimmers and show them how to guide.  All was going well until we ended up nearly drowning while getting tangled all together at the buoy!  lol!

Did I achieve my goal to get faster in the water? Absolutely. My head spins with all the exciting new workouts I can share with my coach Ray Kelly and my friends back home. I now understand a little more behind the ‘why’ when training certain parts of the swim and how that affects my speed and ability as an athlete. I am overcome with gratitude that Allan, Courtney and Melissa opened their home to this wayward blind chick and her crazy guide dog for three weeks, taking me to see sights, cooking, cleaning, transporting, entertaining, taking time off, and making sure I had everything I needed to train and have fun. There are so many reasons I love competing as an international Paratriathlete, but certainly the best one is that it has opened my eyes to new friends. THANK YOU Reid Family! See you in Tokyo!

Teaching the next generation how to guide blind athletes was one of the highlights of my trip!

Teaching the next generation how to guide blind athletes was one of the highlights of my trip!

 

Golden Therapy in Mexico

Some Like it Hot- Mexico delivers

First Time guide Christie Fritts takes a leap of faith and flies to Mexico with me on a moment's notice

First Time guide Christy Fritts takes a leap of faith and flies to Mexico with me on a moment’s notice

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.

My new friends Tsunami and Noel could be my swim guides! Dolphins are FAST!!!

My new friends Tsunami and Noel could be my swim guides! Dolphins are FAST!!!

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.

GOLD is what we came for

GOLD is what we came for

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.

 

Guiding at the Pinnacle of Sport

11665421_10207792524466683_5062955601840108035_nI have been blessed this year to have former ITU pro, Ironman Kona Masters Champion, and USA Triathlon Master’s Athlete of the Year Susanne Davis, a mom of two and a wife, be my race guide.  We have traveled the country together for camps, races, training sessions and media obligations.  She put going back to Kona to the World Championships on HOLD for me this year to allow me to qualify and go to the Rio Paralympic Games.  Next year she will be back on her training plan for Kona, and with her husband’s new job, less likely to be able to drop everything and race with me. Finding Susanne as a guide took months of phone calls, emails, and research amongst top female athletes.  I will never find another Susanne, as she has pulled my best performances out of me ever thanks to her depth of knowledge and experience as a coach and a pro who has been racing at the elite level for more than 20 years. So what does being an ‘Elite Guide’ look like?

Want to travel the world and be someone’s eyes?  While the task of guiding a blind athlete may be emotionally fulfilling for those that are generous enough to do so, it can be a daunting time commitment once that athlete rises to the top of their sport.

It’s hard to believe that only three short years ago an amazing woman by the name of Caroline Gaynor, offered to guide me for my very first race.  She is known as the ‘guide’s guide’, happily offering her race guiding services to visually impaired athletes of all distances from sprints to Ironman, and training and recruiting new guides along the way.  These days there are dozens of wonderful organizations throughout the world pairing sighted running, biking, swimming, rowing, ski, and hiking guides.  Achilles International may be the largest globally, Team Red White and Blue thanks to their former triathlon director has been an integral guide resource, Challenged Athlete’s Foundation, the Blind Stoker’s Club, Ski for Light, and United In Stride (a guide database online) all have led the charge to get people with vision loss more physically active, able to do so safely with a sighted person by their side.

I now have dozens of friends all over the country thanks to being guided.  A simple Facebook post in a visually impaired running group, a log-in to United in Stride, and I have a guide for whatever paced workout is on my coach’s schedule that week when traveling.  Local triathlon and running clubs have been a valuable resource.  Four of my local female guides and all of my local guides were all met through my triathlon club or at my YMCA at the pool.  I get a ton out of these relationships.  Not only do they provide sight and a voice of safety while training or racing, but they have become incredibly helpful for the daily life of a blind athlete.

Transportation is the single biggest obstacle to persons with vision loss.  After a workout, a great amount of times my guides have driven to a doctor’s appointment, dropped my bike off for repairs, taken me grocery shopping, dropped me at the train.  With all of this generosity they have shown me, I often wonder; what’s in it for them?

When guiding for local races, it’s the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment, and the sense of knowing you are enabling someone to enjoy your sport who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do it without your help.  You might sacrifice some of your own weekend workouts or juggle kids’ schedules to fit in a local race.  Maybe you work full-time in NYC.  Your kids have camp, soccer, band practice.  Your husband travels for business.  So what happens when the athlete advances to an elite level?

After racing internationally for two seasons, I have met dozens of elite blind athletes in all types of sports.  The common thread?  Their guides are full-time guides.  As in “No other job”.  It was baffling to me.  How is this possible?  Then I realized.  It’s necessary.  The guides headed to Rio with their athletes this September all are full time professional athletes, personal trainers and coaches with no exception.  Some even live with their athletes.  When I expressed the desire to live and train full time at the Olympic Training Center in either Colorado or Chula Vista, USA Paratriathlon clearly expressed to me that they require guides to live there as well.  The expectation that a guide/ athlete team to train together full time is indicated.  Team USA Camps require we now bring our race guides to these camps rather than a backup guide or temporary guide.  You must be a team.

The British system of Paratriathlon has it right, or close to it.  They pay their guide athletes a monthly living stipend in order to afford food, sports medicine and training and travel expenses, just like the athlete.  Because they ARE half of the important equation.  Here in the USA, the burden of expense falls on the blind athlete to acquire and train and help transport their guide to training sessions.   Our race related travel is mostly covered for ourselves and our guides.  If we do not make the podium at a race, our reimbursement is less, and we therefore cover more out of our own pockets.

Guide and friend Debbie Ragals and I had a blast at the CAF Race and Braveheart Camp together!

Guide and friend Debbie Ragals and I had a blast at the CAF Race and Braveheart Camp together!

We do so for our guides out of gratitude for the time they commit to training, racing and being there for us.  Being a guide doesn’t just start when the gun goes off or end at the finish line.  Elite level racing guides are likely former or existing pros or coaches.  They help the blind athlete with sessions in training.  They impart their vast experience and play sports psychologist.  They help navigate a confusing set of rules and regulations of the ITU racing circuit. They maintain their own level of fitness at a 20% fitter level, and monitor injuries closely that can affect their athlete’s performance.  They schedule their races and recovery around the athlete’s ever-changing race calendar.  They drop everything to go to faraway races in Japan, the Netherlands, Canada with little rest in less-than-luxurious accommodations.  They work in conjunction with a barrage of coaches, sports psychologists, dieticians, bike-fitters, strength training specialists and more to help their athlete be the best they can be on race day.   They are available for phone, TV and radio interviews at the drop of a hat.  They make appearances at the non-profits who support them and their athlete.  They post on social media to attract and retain potential and current sponsorships.  They host and attend fundraisers for their athlete, helping to fund a dream of making it to the top of their sport.  And with the exception of Great Britain?  They do it all for free.

The sad thing?  Here in the USA, and also in Great Britain (although in the UK the guides are paid team members), Guides are considered ‘property’ of the team and not the athlete.  Although the athlete may spend thousands, even tens of thousands on equipment, travel and hundreds of hours of training with their guides, the federation reserves the right to take these guides and reassign them to another athlete if they feel it’s a better or more suitable match.  I’ve seen it happen twice to friends of mine, and more recently had it happen to me.  The guides become more than your eyes.  We form close friendships while staying in their homes, meeting their families, and sharing the common bond of group suffering together during tough workouts and grueling races.

My solution to all of this?  Because guides are so valuable at the elite level- they are highly skilled, extremely fit former or existing pros who are also likely coaches, they should be paid.  Handsomely.  In some ways I think even more so than the athlete.  I mean, what’s IN IT for them?  There’s none of the glory; guides rarely get recognized during major races or in the media, despite the fact that they just ran, biked, and swam the same distance as the athlete, all while keeping someone safe and communicating to them non-stop.  For the USA and other countries to attract the best race guides and to develop a team of elite level guides who are ready at the drop of a hat to attend a camp, a race, a training session, or media interviews, they need to pay them.  It is a huge sacrifice.  Elite guides need to either be single, fast and young without their own set of immediate professional athletic goals, a current pro or coach with a vast home support network to take care of their families, or a retired pro with older kids and a job that allows them to work from the road or be extremely part time.  Know anyone who fits that bill?  Email me at Amy@amydixonusa.com

And finally?  THANK YOU to the guides that have tirelessly helped me climb the ranks to the top of my chosen sport.  Each of you is a selfless, incredibly wonderful person who has made me better in every way.  From our friendship to our athleticism that has grown with time.  I could NOT have done this without your sacrifice and love and generosity.  Bless each and every one of you.

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Cobblestones and Crashes- World Championships 2016

Team USA Paratriathlon ready to rock Rotterdam!

Team USA Paratriathlon ready to rock Rotterdam!

“This is nuts!” I said as guide Susanne Davis and I looked at the bike course map.  “160 turns in 20K?  Is that even possible?”   “Apparently they managed.  Holy cow.  This is going to be insane.  Fun, but insane.” “Oh, don’t you worry Dixon.  I’ve got this,” Susanne smiled.  “We are going to ROCK this course.”  I gulped and went back to studying the Rotterdam World Championships map.

Rotterdam was a lovely city.  Not as picturesque or grand as Amsterdam, but with many adorable outdoor cafes and a vibrant feel to the downtown area we were staying in.  For a pleasant change, all of the athletes and equipment arrived without delay or damage, and we got busy assembling bikes, and hopping into meetings with coaches, mechanic, psychologist and dietician to prepare for the big day.

Mentally, I was really struggling.  The disappointing bipartite selection for the Rio Paralympics left me depressed and confused by it all.  I still couldn’t wrap my head around my ranking being #6, and yet the committee selected athletes who were ranked 8,9 and 11 instead. None of these women had beaten me this season in any race.  It just didn’t seem fair.  I was doing my best to come to terms with this shock and disappointment, but it had crept up on me in unexpected ways.  I had constant nightmares.  Panic attacks, lost my appetite, and cried through every single workout for two weeks leading up to World Championships.  I had my sports psychologist, Simon, on speed dial.  My friends rallied around me to force me out of the house each day to get some sort of activity in, even if it was an abbreviated workout or a shopping trip or doctor’s visit.  And the last thing I wanted to do was end my season at World Championships.  Especially when performing at my ‘best’ there was never mine or my coach’s goal for 2016.  I needed my head back on straight.

Once I got through the first day in Rotterdam, I began to feel a little better.  My USA teammate Aaron Scheidies has always been a great friend and mentor, and knowing the hardships that he suffered on a tumultuous journey towards the Rio Games, I felt less alone in my misery.  Spending time with him and Susanne and the amazing DaretoTri coach Stacey lifted my spirits, and I even managed to laugh and smile again for the first time in weeks.  I was ready to tackle my race.

Susanne and I went out Thursday for an easy short interval run on the confusing streets of the city.  Bike lanes, trolley tracks, fast cars and cobblestones made for a challenging route.  We settled upon a nice loop surrounding some apartments along the sidewalk and did our workout.  With each lap, a group of men dining in an outdoor café cheered us on as we passed.  “America!!” they shouted.  With a fist pump and a wry smile, we flew on by.  Susanne and I began to jog our cool down lap, and as we were chatting and running, suddenly I stubbed my toe and went straight down on the sidewalk.  My hands splayed out in front of me, and both wrists and my right shoulder took the brunt of it.  “Dammit!” I shouted.  Susanne helped me up, I dusted myself off, and we jogged back home.  My shoulder hurt like hell and I was pretty mad at myself for making such a dumb move.

After an evening of ice, Epsom salts, KT Tape, and some soft tissue work thanks to PT and teammate Aaron, I woke up the next day feeling stiff and sore, but not nearly as painful.  I decided to test it out at the pool and see if I could in fact swim.  I was grateful to bump into my friends and competitors from Spain, the UK and Canada at the pool.  We chatted about the Rio selection, exchanged laughs and hugs of encouragement, noting there was still a chance I could get in for Rio, and got in the pool.  My shoulder didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel terrible. It was my wrist that was uncomfortable each time I touched the wall.

Afterwards I came to find out that my good friend and competitor from the UK, Melissa Reid’s bike was damaged in transport to the race.  The derailer had been smashed and needed to be replaced.  Her only option was to have her father fly all the way down from the UK before the race to bring her the parts she needed.  I immediately talked to my friend Aaron, who had the same exact bike as hers.  As luck would have it, Aaron carried spare parts for his bike, and we arranged for the UK’s team mechanic to come pick up the part at our hotel later that day.  Problem solved.  It felt great to be able to help a friend on such an important weekend.  As much as it would give me great pleasure to have a win over Melissa, it would only be worth it if she was on the right equipment and racing at her best.  And besides, I knew that she would have done the same for me in a heartbeat.

Former World Champion visually Impaired triathlete Melissa Reid is a great friend and mentor. Happy To help her have a successful race this week!

Former World Champion visually Impaired triathlete Melissa Reid is a great friend and mentor. Happy To help her have a successful race this week!

We previewed the bike course the following day.  I knew this would be the most technical course we had ever ridden, including Rio, which we had ridden last year at the test event for the Paralympics.  We noted each one of the 160 turns, looked for trouble spots, and noted the safe areas on the course that we would have time to drink from our water bottles.  The barricades would make for narrow passages and limited opportunities to pass.  I realized quickly that this race would be decided in the swim.  If I wasn’t with that front pack of girls out of the water, my chances of catching them on the bike would be slim to none due to the dangerous and technical nature of the course.  Knowing I was one of the faster cyclists gave me confidence and knowing that Susanne was a pro and super aggressive made me turn from scared to a little excited to tackle this course.

We had a long day before our race, which didn’t start until 3:30pm.  The forecast had been for low 70s.  Sadly, this changed to mid 80s, but I felt prepared and fairly well hydrated.  The swim was a first for me.  I was relaxed, maybe ‘too’ relaxed.  I got jostled hard the first 100 meters out by someone to my left.  I resolved to let them pass and just settle into my pace, and to swim my own race.  I began lying to myself when I realized that I was probably too slow.  “You’re doing GREAT!  Atta girl!  This is a fantastic swim!  GOOD JOB!” I cheered myself on mentally with every stroke.  “long and strong” “Smooth is fast”.  It was working, and I continued to swim despite my frustration with my lack of pace.  Susanne ‘whooped’ loudly next to me, telling me I needed to speed up.  I figured it must have meant one of two things- either we were catching someone’s feet and she wanted me to speed up to get the draft, or we were 200 meters from the finish and I needed to sprint.  I was praying for the latter and added another gear.

Upon hitting the swim exit ramp, I started to hyperventilate.  I was terrified of getting onto that bike course.  I was convinced we were going to be involved in a crash.  I started choking, and grasping at my neck to pull my wetsuit away from my throat, which felt like it was closing up.  Asthma. Panic attack. Dammit.  Susanne grabbed my arm and commanded me to “Run Amy!”  So I did.  I got to the bike, fully expecting to sit down in transition and not get up.  I wanted to quit.  Badly.  But I thought about Susanne.  All she had sacrificed this year to race and train with me.  Her family’s sacrifices to make this year happen.  I remembered coach Ray’s last words to me the day before.  “Amy, now THIS is your Rio.  Race like it’s Rio.” So I committed to get my ass on that bike and ride for them.

We immediately passed the Japanese women on the bike and set out on a mission to hunt the other ladies down.  I even managed a smile.  Susanne expertly commanded both me and Bomber around the first series of turns.  With every pedal stroke, glide around barricades, and every cyclist we passed, I became more and more confident.  We had a difficult 180, and she scolded herself out loud.  “Damn it Susanne!  I’ll do better next time,” she said.  I laughed.  She was nailing it beyond my wildest expectations.  She even managed to scare me a little on a few turns, and I don’t scare easily on a bike.  We hit three huge speed humps, catching air in a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ kind of move.  She landed the bike, grabbed both brakes hard, and veered 90 degrees right.  The bike lagged behind, and nearly brushed the curb, making a terrible scraping noise. Susanne screamed, “PEDAL!” as loud as she could, and the bike righted itself and we powered around the circular drive we had entered.  I shook my head in disbelief.  “Holy crap Susanne!  That was AWESOME!”

We then passed the men’s South African tandem, and began to play cat and mouse with the Japanese men.  They got pissed when we passed them decisively, and then sprinted to pass us again.  It seemed ridiculous and unsafe what they were trying to do.   The streets were too narrow for two bikes to ride side by side.  One of us needed to be in front.  After about a half lap of jockeying for position, Susanne and I managed to drop them from our wheel and continue hunting down the ladies.

Running out of transition, I knew immediately I was in a deficit.  My legs felt a little unsteady from the constant vibration of the cobbles, and my wrist throbbed.  I glanced at my Garmin.  My heart rate was 179 to start the run.  NOT where I wanted to be.  About 20 beats higher than where I needed to be.  I was in trouble.  Susanne grabbed bottled water at the first aid station and dumped it on my head.  While the water was lukewarm, it did a little to refresh me and lift my attitude.  I looked at my pace.  OMG.  Almost a minute per mile slower than where I had been running for months.  7:40 pace was not where I needed, wanted, or was capable of being.  I cursed myself, took my watch off, and handed it to Susanne.  I couldn’t watch the carnage unfold, and decided that the distraction of data was only going to mess with my head.  It was time to run with my heart.

The South African men caught us on the run.  I attempted to stay with them in the shaded park portion, and finally gave in.  Next came the Japanese blind male athlete.  He had been the perfect ‘rabbit’ for me to chase in Yokohama just 8 weeks prior.  I decided to find another gear, and stick with him.  My Heart rate must have come down, as I felt much better.  We saw Team USA Coach Christine out on the course, asking our position, because we hadn’t seen a single female while out on the course.  She didn’t know, but cheered us on, and I resolved to just run the race that God was giving me today.

After the next aid station, Susanne dumped a bottle over my head.  My shoes filled with water.  I gasped, “My Shoes!  They.  Are.  So. Heavy!  Like galoshes! Ugh.  My Feet!!!” I whined loudly.  Susanne barked back at me.  “At least you HAVE FEET!  Look at that guy!  Now run Dixon!”  I looked about 20 feet in front of us, where my Brazilian friend Andre, ran on his prosthetic leg.  I shook my head at my pathetic excuse and ran faster.  I remembered to count my blessings. My lungs filled with mucus, and I began coughing.  I struggled for air.  But I pushed.  Maybe not as fast as I wanted to or was capable of going, but it was all I had at that moment for whatever reason.  Rather than panic, I embraced it, and dug as hard as I could to keep moving forward as fast as my legs, lungs, and arms would take me.

#5 in the World has a nice ring to it. A hard fought race and a success thanks to Susanne!

#5 in the World has a nice ring to it. A hard fought race and a success thanks to Susanne!

Susanne and I crossed the line in 5th.  I broke down in tears immediately, exhausted from the mental effort it took to stay focused and positive for that hour and 19 minutes.  I conquered a lot of demons in all of those miles. I felt like a triumphant soldier, battle worn, barely able to lift his sword.  I may have finished 5th but I won last Sunday.  I beat the Amy Dixon that didn’t want to come to this race.  I beat the girl that had panicked in the swim in Japan (me).  I beat the girl that didn’t want to get onto that bike course for fear of crashing.  I beat the heartbroken girl who hadn’t slept well in weeks, cried every day, and had a nasty spill two days prior to her race, breaking her wrist.  Thanks to my amazing team of coach Ray, sports Psychologist Simon, guide Susanne, and friends and family; I WON.

 

Rio- The best thing I’ve ever done?

Being a Patient Advocate is what I am most proud of

Being a Patient Advocate is what I am most proud of

I’m sitting here alone in my apartment, confined and imprisoned with anxiety.  It’s less than 24 hours before my fate is decided.  Will I be a Paralympian?  Am I going to Rio?  The IOC and the ITU will determine tomorrow the final 17 slots to be distributed between 3 male and 3 female Paratriathlon categories.  This distribution is based on rankings, record and the number of slots allowed per country, which is 2.  In the blind female category, there are already two American women who have qualified.  While my ranking is #6 in the world, and I have won two of my last three races and finished only 19 seconds back in second place at the Continental Championships, I am still the odd man out.  We have been told a number of different things- the Top 8 automatically go.  But not if you’re over that two man quota.  Then you wait for the ITU and IOC to elect you into that third slot.  And they could pick an athlete from another country if that flag isn’t represented at the Games and they want to encourage diversity.  Even if they may be ranked behind you.  UGH.

I have done ALL I can do.  The points are done, the records and rankings complete, the training hours logged, and the thousands of miles flown around the world chasing this dream.  I never dared to dream that I could be representing my country, this amazing nation, at the Paralympic Games as a blind athlete.  I honestly put so much power into tomorrow’s decision that I have chewed off every finger nail, cleaned every closet, purged my storage unit, bought a million tank tops to train in, caught up on every episode of the Bachelorette, Heartbeat on NBC and other mindless TV, paid every bill, groomed my guide dog a hundred times, took a mini break to see family, eaten the weirdest combinations of food, and broken out into rashes thanks to my autoimmune disease that doesn’t like stress.  It’s been the most productive couple of weeks, but also the hardest and most anxiety ridden of my life.

And trust me, I’ve been through the ringer before.  19 surgeries on my eyes, and constantly waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop’ with my disease where I suddenly lose my remaining vision, or the other systemic issues with my disease involving my lungs, adrenals and stomach makes for little peace of mind.  I’ve tried meditation, therapy, yoga, acupuncture.  But mentally?  This week has been the most difficult.  And it’s not my health we’re talking about.  Yes, it’s a life-changing event, but honestly, let’s put it into perspective.  IS THIS the greatest achievement of my life?  Looking back now, with all of this time to ponder, I think not.

If tomorrow’s decision doesn’t go the way I want it, will it define me?  Do athletics really say the most important things about Amy Dixon as a person?  I was reminded by a friend, that no, while it’s an incredible achievement to go to the Paralympics, it’s NOT the greatest thing I’ve ever done.  The greatest things I have ever done have involved helping others.  When I was diagnosed with Glaucoma, I was a scared patient rapidly undergoing terrifying and painful surgery after surgery.  But then I met other people online going through the same experiences.  I knew my years as a Uveitis (Inflammatory eye disease) patient would be useful to them for knowledge, and my background in Pharmacy could help.  So what did I do?  I started to help patients.

First it was a patient in Iowa who didn’t have access to specialists.  I contacted the Lion’s Club International, and we flew her to Boston for treatment, hosting her in my home and holding her hand through the arduous beginnings of chemotherapy, career challenges as a person with vision loss, and surgery.  Then I was introduced to a single mother, a domestic violence survivor, whose son had Uveitis and Glaucoma and was getting poor treatment at 17 years old.  A kid with a bright future, a soccer star, and angry and rebelling against his disease.  Again, I got them to the right doctors, arranged the funding, and mentored them through the process. My friend, a blind guide dog user, became inspired by my pursuit of triathlon, and contacted me to do her first 5K race.  I introduced her to guides for running, and within a year I watched proudly as she blossomed into a confident woman with vision loss crossing her first finish line on a sprained ankle in her very first triathlon.

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Winning In Japan last month with Guide Susanne Davis

I have paired dozens of blind athletes with guides; Gotten free or donated my own equipment and wetsuits for those new to the sport.   Helped an international competitor from another country get a quality racing tandem.  Helped dozens of blind athletes secure funding to pursue their athletic potential or just race a local race.  I’ve spoken to families of kids with vision loss in Sacramento and at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired in Kansas City, letting them know that their kids are able to grow up and do the exact same things I’m doing and MORE.  I’ve given my heart to creating a camp this coming winter for blind triathletes to become not only participants in triathlon, but serious competitors on the national and international stage.  And my proudest moment happened when myself and a few other like-minded Glaucoma patients and specialists teamed up to form the Glaucoma Eyes International Organization last year to provide services and education to patients around the world just like these.  So, the answer is NO.  Getting to Rio is NOT my greatest achievement.

While hundreds of hours training, thousands of miles flown, and tens of thousands of dollars spent say it’s important, yes, that is true.  Would it be absolutely wonderful to see my name on that coveted list tomorrow?  YES. It would.  Having worked hard and invested a lot of time and money into getting to that #6 world ranking to secure my spot despite my medical challenges? It would make me so incredibly proud and happy.  But it is also not the only thing in my future to look forward to.  I know that my journey has inspired more people, both blind and sighted to become physically active and look beyond their own limitations to do so.  THAT is important.  Will I be sad If I’m not chosen?  YES.  Devastated?  Maybe I will feel that way for a short while.  But my future looks bright (pardon the pun).  I will be able to use my skills and discipline learned while training to be the best patient advocate you could ask for.  I will continue to save sight for people.  I will dedicate myself to other visually impaired athletes to help them reach the highest peaks of my chosen sport.  And I will consider Tokyo in 2020 after I’m successful in doing all of the above.  While Rio is a great achievement, I take solace in a profound NO; It’s NOT the greatest thing I’ve ever done.  Fingers, toes, and everything crossed that tomorrow I get the news I am praying for.  THANK YOU all for your unflagging support.  #LOVEANDGRATITUDE

Japan for the WIN!

13174003_10208502937506565_1259966650069738563_nI stood beside Guide Susanne on the magnificent blue carpet, surveying the vast Yokohama Harbor all around us.  Thousands of spectators, photographers, officials, coaches and athletes lined the barricades to my left.  I couldn’t believe we were actually here.  As they announced my name and resume over the loudspeaker, my squirrel brain started to unravel.  “What if I start coughing in the swim?  What if we get a flat tire?  Will it be hot on the run?”  All the doubts bubbled up through my nervous stomach, as the past two weeks of bronchitis left me feeling rather depleted and less fit going into this race.

We lowered ourselves into the water.  “Beat the Japanese and Canadians.  That’s ALL you came here to do Dixon,” I said to myself.  Don’t worry about [my teammate] Liz. She’s not the objective here.” I came all the way to Japan to play defense.  Liz had beaten me in my automatic Rio qualifier two months prior.  She secured her spot to Rio that day.  At this point, for me, it was a waiting game to see how the rankings and points ended up on June 30th to see if I would be named to the team.  Going to Japan was strategic to ensure that the athletes from Japan and Canada would not surpass me in the points standings, so I fully intended to finish in the top 2 to make sure that didn’t happen.  Even if I had to race slightly sick.

And we were off.  Susanne and I went out hard.  Maybe too hard.  According to the data, at about 1:15/100 yards hard.  For those of you who aren’t swimmers, that’s an all out sprint for most everyone.  My asthma and injured lungs immediately put a stop to that.  I started panicking and choking in the water.  I tapped Susanne’s shoulder to slow down.  At that moment, I noticed bubbles in front of me, and Susanne let out a ‘whoop!” to get me to go faster.  I dug deep and gave it all I had to maintain the pace, but after 200 meters, I was cooked.  I almost stopped completely.  “You idiot.  You just lost the entire race right there!” my squirrel brain said to me.  “She’s [Liz] a better swimmer than you.  Now you’ll never catch her feet again.  Smooth move loser!”  (yeah, I’m a little tough on myself).  I was deflated and defeated.  So I went into cruising mode to catch my breath.

About a minute later, we were at the first buoy.  Suddenly I felt better, and like I could go harder.  So I did.  Then the next buoy came up, and I was feeling stronger.  Within five minutes, my hands touched the carpeted ramp leading out of the swim, and I saw Liz only a short 25 yards ahead of me!  I was shocked.  Apparently it wasn’t a terrible swim after all.  With renewed spirits, I said to myself, “Now let’s go bike the shit out of this tough course.  I can beat her on the bike and pray hard on the run.”

We had a smooth, fast transition onto the bike, and blasted out of the beautiful park on a mission to hunt the leaders down.  Within a half mile, we blew past them, along with the Japanese men’s team who had started a full 30 seconds before the women’s wave.  We were on fire!  Susanne shifted, climbed, leaned the bike around turns.  The world was a blur and people were screaming our names along the course.  I even managed a smile.  Within the 20km course, we managed to build a two minute lead.  A cushion I was desperately going to need on my USA Teammate, as her run was much stronger than mine.  I thanked God for allowing me to grow up as an equestrian, enabling my legs to be powerful on the bike to go as fast as possible.

We ran out of transition like I was on fire.  I was both scared and excited.  Susanne was the voice of calm and reason, “Slow down.  Easy girl.  Take it back a huge notch.  Don’t gas yourself.  Hold steady and you’ve got this.  No more than 7 minute pace the first mile.  We don’t need a repeat of Florida (the race I lost to my teammate where I blew up on the run).”  We settled behind two Japanese men running a comfortable 7:05.  It actually felt slow and comfortable.  For the first lap.  On lap two, they slowed down to 7:20 and I knew I couldn’t afford to hang at that pace, as Liz was already making up time on me.  “We’ve got to go” I said to Susanne.  And off we went.

At the start of the third lap, I realized that Liz had made up nearly a minute, as we passed each other shoulder to shoulder in opposite directions on one out and back section of the course.  I started to panic and hyperventilate, triggering my asthma.  “Susanne, I need help!” I panicked.  “What do you need?”  “I need you to talk to me.  Anything. I’m freaking out!”  “Do you want me to sing to you?” “NO! No singing.  Talk!”  “Ok, I’ll tell you a story.  Remember when Scott [Susanne’s husband] had his heart attack? Well, there he was, laying in the ICU in a coma, and I screamed at him to FIGHT!  BREATHE Dammit!  I NEED you!  Your kids need you!  God wants you on this earth!  And he fought!  And he lived!  Now Amy, I want you to BREATHE!  God is giving you wings on your feet!  This is your destiny!  You are going to win this race and go to the Paralympics.  People are lifting you up and carrying you to the finish line on their backs with love.  You can do this!  BREATHE!”  It was working.  My heart rate came down and I forced a smile.  After all, I wasn’t dying of a heart attack!  I was just running a race.  So, I ran.

At the final mile, we caught up to my teammate from another category who was an exceptional runner.  Susanne cheered her on, and she gave us encouragement as well.  Susanne continued her cheerleading.  “Look at that girl!  She has excellent form!  Match it!  Use those arms; match her cadence!  Fast Feet!” We rounded the final turn to the finish chute.  I gasped, “Where are they?  Is she back there?  Is she catching me?”  I asked because I thought I was about to collapse.  “No!  She’s WAY back there.  You’re fine.  Just RUN!”

13240723_10208512551146900_1383816905650997964_nThe famous blue carpet stretched out before us.  Photographers and fans lined the barricades.  The finish line tape stretched out before us.  200 meters, 100 meters, I started to weave, drunk with lactic acid building up all over my body.  I was maxed out.  “Susanne screamed, “Think about that moment and grab the tape!  You’ve won!  I’m so proud of you!”  With every ounce of will, I sprinted, grabbing the tape.  Then I collapsed to the ground, emotionally and physically exhausted.  “Get UP! You’re ruining the pictures!”  I laughed, and hugged Susanne tightly.  “THANK YOU!  God bless you Susanne.  Bless you.”

Standing on the podium, hearing the national anthem played for me after nearly giving up 4 minutes into my race was just surreal.  I certainly never imagined this.  It proved to me once and for all, and the main thing I LOVE about triathlon as a sport that has three distinct phases.  NEVER give up.  Never EVER EVER give up.  You may just win Gold.

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Thank you to Xterra Wetsuits for keeping me fast in the water, Signature Cycles for keeping my bike riding super fast, and green and Tonic for the nutrition to get healthy when I’m traveling all over the world for Team USA.  The final team announcement will be on July 8th and I hope to be on it.  You can help support my race season here www.amydixonusa.com/donate.

The Road to Rio has climbs and descents

‘Season’s Greetings from your long lost blind triathlete!  I’m out here in the hills of San Diego California preparing for my final qualifier for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.  My race is being held in Sarasota Florida at the CAMTRI Continental Cup against the top blind athletes from North and South America.  It’s been a whirlwind ‘post season’ since World Championships in Chicago, where I finished in 7th place.  I was blessed to finish up the year with enough points to remain the #6 blind female triathlete in the world, with a solid win at a World Cup in Edmonton just two weeks prior to Chicago.

Lauren and I embrace at the finish after a very emotional tough race

Guide Lauren and I embrace at the finish after a very emotional tough race at World Championships

So what have I been up to these past few months?  After World Championships, I had a nice easy week off, and caught up on life with advanced Glaucoma.  My eye pressure was spiking dangerously during the final weeks leading up to my race in Chicago, and my amazing team at Yale University Hospital Eye Center managed to ‘bandaid’ an in-office procedure that enabled me to race and brought my interocular pressure down to a temporarily safer level.

I had the incredible blessing of participating in my third Challenged Athlete’s Foundation ‘San Diego Triathlon Challenge’ with my good friend and cheerleader AND guide Debbie Ragals at my side for the mile swim in scenic La Jolla Cove. There aren’t words for how inspiring this special day is for everyone who races or spectates.  Hundreds of athletes with every type of physical disability fly into San Diego for this amazing weekend of adaptive sports clinics, camaraderie, and philanthropy.  Here you get to see 5 year old children get their first prosthetic running leg; a blind man getting on a bicycle for the first time in his life at 35 years old, a veteran being fitted to a racing wheelchair so he can ‘run’ for the first time since his deployment.  There isn’t a dry eye all weekend, and inspiration is everywhere you look.  Ironman pros, like Meredith Kessler and Luke Mackenzie, fly in and volunteer all day long, tirelessly cycling, swimming and running alongside these challenged athletes, supporting and encouraging them through every step and stroke.  It’s really my favorite thing ever.

Some of the greatest PT1 (Paratriathlon wheelchair category athletes) from the USA and Canada at the CAF Race

Some of the greatest PT1 (Paratriathlon wheelchair category athletes) from the USA and Canada at the CAF Race

From this event, Debbie and I headed south to the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center, for 7 days of post season training camp with the US Paratriathlon Team.  We had an amazing week swimming tough sets, strength training with a great teacher, and learning new skills to take into the winter months of training for our next event.  While I was blessed to be racing alongside these amazing disabled athletes, I was yet to be named to the National Team.  After having such an epic season, I was selected to the National Team this fall!  I was so honored and relieved by the announcement.  All of the hard work, and tens of thousands of dollars traveling around the globe had paid off.  Going forward, my race-related travel would be mostly covered if approved by USA Paratriathlon, and I would receive a coaching stipend, that was WELL deserved by coach Ray Kelly for all of his time and attention this year.

 

From the the NYC marathon, where I gave a speech for the Challenged Athletes’ Foundation, I headed to Philadelphia, where I put on my hat as the Vice President of Glaucoma Eyes International.  Here I gave a speech at the ‘Next IT’ Health Summit, where I spoke about my success in treating a very rare and difficult eye disease by empowering myself as an informed patient and becoming my own advocate.  I encouraged my audience of doctors, pharmaceutical executives and insurance company CEOs to LISTEN to patients, and view them as a whole person, not just a number on a chart.  My message was to become a partner with these patients in order to treat the whole disease rather than the symptoms, as is common practice, and a costly mistake in the long term.  I received a standing ovation, then hopped a train for eye surgery #19 back in Connecticut the next morning.

Feb blog post eye surgery

A rough few days at Yale Hospital post eye surgery #19 for Glaucoma and Uveitis

My surgery was a bit of a disaster.  My Glaucoma valve that regulates the pressure inside of my eye had failed due to aggressive scar tissue from my OTHER eye disease, Uveitis.  So, Dr. Liu went in to remove the scar tissue, restoring my high pressure to a safer, lower pressure, but my pain level was off the chart due to some damage to the cornea (the front lens of the eye that has a lot of nerves).  I managed to medicate myself enough to host my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador Elvis’ retirement party, with roughly 70 people in attendance at my local YMCA, who so generously hosted the event.  Elvis received dozens of treats and toys, and my friend Cheryl was kind enough to sew dog toys to sell as a fundraiser towards the Paralympics.  Elvis had an amazing time at his party, greeting everyone happily with his new bone dangling from his grinning snout.

The next day I couldn’t bear the pain, and headed back to Yale Eye Center for evaluation of my post-op eye.  I was admitted to the hospital, and had two horrific nights at Yale, which included some nasty pain management drugs, horrible side effects, and I was robbed of more than $500 cash in donations from Elvis’ party that was in an envelope inside my purse next to my hospital bed, less than 3 feet from where I slept.  After this disastrous 19th surgery, I was eager to get home and get back to life and training.  As expected, the surgery failed, and my pressure spiked again due to the scar tissue returning immediately.  But this time there was something more.

My surgeon first kicked me up to Boston to see THE top Uveitis doctor in the world, the famous Charles Stephen Foster.  The surgeons in NY and CT found a spot of inflammation that frightened them, and they began to worry that in addition to my very active and aggressive Glaucoma, that my Uveitis had come OUT of remission and was beginning to rear its ugly head, making our treatment plan, and any future glaucoma surgeries extremely risky.  He confirmed what they had seen, began me on a new and very expensive drug, and we crossed our fingers that it would work.  Within a few weeks, the inflammation had cleared up, and I was given the green light by him to continue aggressively fighting the glaucoma.  One disaster averted.

I was SO excited to come home and have the chance to tour the Fidelco Guide Dog School.  Here, they specialized in breeding and training a specific line of German Shepherds for guiding the blind and visually impaired for almost 60 years.  They are considered the gold standard when it comes to this specific breed, and is one of the only schools that exclusively travels TO their clients to train them in their home environments, rather than on a campus.  This suited my lifestyle with training and all the travel I would be doing.  Their facility was spotless and the staff so kind and professional.  I had the chance to ‘test drive’ three amazing and totally different dogs who had varying speeds and personalities.  It was determined I would need a strong-pulling, medium-fast dog that also had a big personality and could settle next to a pool or treadmill for hours at a time.  A tall order for sure.

Feb blog post Fidelco pup

From Fidelco, I then hopped my next flight to be a speaker and 10K participant at the California International Marathon.  Next to Boston, this was the largest contingent of visually impaired runners of any race in the USA, and would be the US Blind Marathon Championships.  I was honored to have been asked to host a wine tasting fundraiser for the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, and to help host a children’s event after the race, where each visually impaired child would get a chance at trying an adaptive sport.  My friend and guide Lindsey Cook flew in for the race, and we had a fun weekend seeing all of our friends in the visually impaired community, and being inspired by all of the amazing marathon runners around us.  It was the best way imaginable to kick off my 40th birthday, doing something I loved surrounded by amazing people.

 

I had the most fun and exciting day testing out guide dogs to determine my best match with Fidelco Guide Dogs trainer Becky Cook.  After spending about 40 minutes testing each of three dogs on various routes near my home, I knew that we had found the right dog.  He is an 80lb black sable German Shepherd with a GIANT head, and a compact, and thick body.  He is built for strength without a doubt.  He is sweet and loving, but calm and patient and curious but watchful.  He was fascinated by the pool and treadmill at the YMCA, but after 2 minutes, calmly laid down and waited for his next command.  I knew he was the one.  His name will be revealed when he comes home to train with me on March 21st in CT.  For now- he’s just ‘my dog’, and is at Fidelco undergoing the final stages of his training to be ready to travel the world with me as my eyes.

My new mystery dog arrives March 21 from Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation! He's gorgeous and super smart!

My new mystery dog arrives March 21 from Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation! He’s gorgeous and super smart!

After a busy holiday and some hard training indoors in CT, I left for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for a week of swim camp with Team USA.  I was nervous, as the coaches had warned us we would be swimming nearly 7,000 meters a day at elevation, making for one hell of a tough week.  As it turned out, it was not only physically grueling, but mentally taxing as well.  I went into camp quite sick from bronchitis, and it made the harder, faster efforts almost impossible to do without choking on mucus or inflaming my lungs.  I was grateful for the help I got from my Xterra Wetsuits Lava Pants for a few of the workouts, which gave my hips some flotation, and allowed me to swim faster with less effort so I could give my damaged lungs a little break.  I was feeling pretty down on myself, as I wasn’t being embraced by a lot of my teammates, so I spent the week pretty homesick and keeping to myself as much as possible in the Sports Medicine complex, where the team of physical therapists and massage therapists and recovery devices made the week tolerable and kept me from packing my stuff and heading home early.

What a blessing to be part of Team USA with these incredible coaches at THIS pool!!!

What a blessing to be part of Team USA with these incredible coaches at THIS pool!!!

One particular morning was a great challenge after I felt the sting of being treated with hostility by my teammates,  and my Irritable bowel disease began to rear its ugly head from stress and different foods.   It reminded me of hazing during soccer tryouts in high school.  I was doing the best I could to hold my head high, but my body had other plans.  My stomach was ‘over-active’ and I was desperate to get into the pool before I got in trouble with the coaches for being late.  I was in tears in a bathroom stall, sitting there, feeling sorry for myself, and trying to coach myself into getting out onto the pool deck.  Out loud I gave myself the following pep talk.  “You can do ANYTHING for an hour.  You’re not gonna die.  You’re just going to be extremely uncomfortable.  This could easily be race day.  Suck it up Dixon.  Let’s DO THIS!” And with that, I headed out the door of the bathroom stall, and bumped right into the US Paralympic Swimming Coach.  She smiled politely, and said, “Great pep talk.  Now get out there!”  I was mortified that she heard my little pity party, but grateful for the encouragement.

After surviving my hell week, I was grateful to arrive in sunny San Diego to begin my training with new guide Susanne Davis.  My lungs were starting to clear and I was thankful to be in an adorable rental by the beach.  I had some great workouts with coach Ray Kelly, and  local support from friends in the area for rides and dinners to keep me company.  Friend Debbie flew out to guide me at Braveheart training camp with Simon Marshall and his wife, Xterra pro Lesley Paterson.  We had the MOST fun 4 days riding bikes, running, and freezing our tails off while swimming.  I met the most incredible people who are also some of the top athletes in the sport.  I had the opportunity to give them a talk about overcoming obstacles in both triathlon and life.  More or less, about learning to adapt, and having a plan B.   Who knew that my plan B would be a career as an athlete?

Guide and friend Debbie Ragals and I had a blast at the CAF Race and Braveheart Camp together!

Guide and friend Debbie Ragals and I had a blast at the CAF Race and Braveheart Camp together!

Now I’m on week three of my homestay with guide Susanne, and we are having the most incredible time getting to know one another, and learn how to work together as a team to get the most out of me as an athlete.  Her resume as an athlete reads like the ‘who’s who’ of triathlon- National USA Triathlon Master’s Champion, Competed at the USA Triathlon Olympic Trials, a former Team USA member in residence at the Olympic Training Center, Ironman World Champion, 2nd Overall Amateur Ironman World Championships, and Ironman World Championships Age group World Record Holder.  To have her as my eyes, and to put her Ironman season on hold for me until after Rio is beyond the greatest gift and sacrifice I could imagine.

My great partner on the Road To Rio 2016 as a member of Team USA!

My great partner on the Road To Rio 2016 as a member of Team USA!

But after meeting her, and spending time getting to know her family, her athletes that she coaches, and her incredible circle of friends and sponsors, I know that I am with the right person at the right time.  Her dedication, attention to detail, and extreme athletic prowess, along with her sharp, analytical, mathematical mind will enable me to reach my goal next month of qualifying for the Rio Paralympic Games.  Not only is she kind and supportive, but she gives me confidence in a way I cannot describe.  I’m looking forward to two more grueling but rewarding weeks of training alongside Susanne to fine tune our working relationship and to build a partnership that translates into the right result on race day.  To each and every one of you who has watched this journey unfold, and cheered me on at each triumph and setback, God bless you.  #LoveandGratitude

To help Amy and Susanne get to the starting line, you can make a tax deductible donation here through the US Association of Blind Athletes:  www.amydixonusa.com/donate

Amy currently has NO financial sponsors.  Her current product sponsors consist of Garmin, Signature Cycles, Recovery Pump, Green and Tonic and Xterra Wetsuits.  Thank you to this amazing group for keeping me in the running to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage! 

 

Edmonton Equals Gold- or is that COLD?

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Gold Medal for #blondesonbikes in Edmonton!

As any good coach or athlete will tell you, there is one rule of thumb to live by when preparing for a major race.  “Nothing new on race day” means not trying out the latest electrolyte beverage, energy gel, new bike, food, new shorts or ANYTHING that could derail months and months of training.  So, as a blind athlete who requires a guide (a sighted athlete who runs, bikes and swims in tandem with me), you can imagine my sheer panic when I had to change guides 10 days before my most anticipated race of 2016.  One thing that living with a rare disease and vision loss has taught me- be able to think on your feet, adapt to change immediately or suffer miserably, and always have a plan B, or in this case, C &D.

My best friend and chosen guide Lindsey Cook was beginning her much anticipated first year as an associate professor at Hanover College.  Her classes were scheduled to begin less than 48 hours after racing in Canada as my eyes, a job that in and of itself requires a lot of work, planning and logistics.  After careful deliberation, Lindsey decided that she needed to focus on her job, especially right now, as next year we will be traveling even more with Team USA, and banking some time off for future races would be critical to our success and assuring she could be there as we got closer to the ‘big dance’, the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

I met Lauren Schrichten, an incredible surfer and triathlete when I signed up for the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation charity Triathlon last year and needed a tandem pilot.  Lauren had had her own vision loss scare a few years prior due to an illness, and wanted badly to help someone with vision loss achieve their own dream of pursuing triathlon, and literally hopped on my tandem with no practice last October and rode 44 miles on a broken bike, laughing and smiling the whole way.  So, when I needed a super fast runner who could handle a bike, this RAAM (Race Across America) Athlete was my first phone call.  I explained to Lauren that I NEEDED to win in Edmonton to get the necessary points to be in consideration for the Rio Games, and expressed my concern about her being new to a tandem bike on a hilly bike course.  Within an hour, my flight to Orange County California was booked, and I was packing my bags and bike for an early morning flight to spend a week giving Lauren a crash course in guiding a blind athlete for an international ITU triathlon race.  My stomach churned.

Upon landing in John Wayne Airport, I went to oversized luggage, eagerly anticipating my beloved custom carbon fiber Calfee tandem to come off the belt and be on our way back to Lauren’s to enjoy some sun and a run together.  What awaited me was a horror show.  My bike, costing tens of thousands of dollars, had been damaged by United’s baggage handlers.  They had opened the sealed hard-sided case, even though I watched TSA inspect and properly close the box when it left NY.  The box was now a mangled mess.  I took a deep breathe and headed to baggage services.

The ladies could not have been nicer or more helpful, and we had a plan to go straight to Lauren’s bike shop and have them inspect the bike.  On initial exam, there were a few bumps and bruises to Bomber, but nothing jumped out at us, as she was still packed in a dark black case.  My friend, a former pilot for a Paralympic track cyclist, Scott Evans, generously agreed to meet us on Saturday at a big park to teach Lauren how to corner on my bike, and how to stand up out of the saddle and accelerate.  The tandem is much like driving a semi truck, with a 130 pound person on the back, it corners sometimes like a bus.  With world Championships in Chicago coming up in less than two weeks, it was critical that Lauren not only LEARN how to ride the bike, but to ride it well and aggressively to assure us a podium spot.  We would be racing against guide-athlete teams that had been training together non-stop for a year or more, and some even hired pros (which is indeed legal to do, as long as they have not used their ITU pro card within two years of guiding) to be their guide.  To say I was nervous, and putting a lot of pressure on Lauren, would be an understatement.  Fortunately, she was a fast learner, and eager to do the job.

After a great few hours on the bike, we headed back to Lauren’s and she dashed off to her job as a financial planner, one of the many hats she wears, between triathlon and nutritionist and personal trainer.  I decided that washing my bike was therapeutic and grabbed Bomber for a little TLC.  The frame was cracked.  And not just a tiny chip, a solid break straight through the rear seat stay.  There must have been a crack from the damage, and riding the bike caused it to splinter wide open.  My brand new custom bike, 4 days before departing for Canada, at 4:45pm on a SATURDAY was devastatingly broken.  I called my boyfriend Pierre in tears, who talked me down from my mental cliff, and got down to business tracking down help.

Fortunately I had the director of sales for my bike on speed dial.  He had spent months designing every millimeter of my bike over phone and email, and was my first call in my sheer panic.  Lauren helped me contact the local bike shop, who gave me the name of a guy who owned a carbon bike repair business only 45 minutes away.  The chain was in motion.  After 24 hours of phone calls and emails, the great folks at Calfee Design allowed the carbon repair service to fix my bike without voiding the warranty on the frame, saving me a flight to northern California with half my bike in my hands and begging for help at their headquarters.  Bill Langford of Tri All 3 Sports, the manufacturer of my hard case, immediately went to work fixing my bike box, refurbishing it with new latches, wheels and a solid inner framework to prevent future mishandling.  I could almost breathe.

After only getting another 2 hour practice in before we left for Canada, Lauren and I hopped the plane to Edmonton, ready for a chilly and thrilling weekend of racing together. The weather was cold.  Not like crisp autumn air cold, but DAMN cold.  The overnight low was 39 degrees and daytime highs were only in the mid 50s by very late in the afternoon.  Our race would be Saturday at 1:15, and we crossed our fingers.

Pierre picked us up, and the three of us headed on Thursday for our own bike course preview to get Lauren acclimated to the tandem further.  Our hands, feet and faces were numb from the cold air, and my lungs burned from my asthma, making me realize that despite my misery in hot conditions, it better suited me.  This would be a tough race.  Friday we had the ‘opportunity’ to check out the swim course.  We were told that the lake temperatures would lie in the mid 60s.  This was for sure not the case.  I screamed at the top of my lungs as my wetsuit filled with frigid water, and spent nearly ten minutes breast-stroking until I got the nerve to put my face in.  I’d been in cold water before, but this actually hurt to breathe.  Again, not ideal for an asthmatic.  But as my sports psychologist, Simon Marshall says, “Control the controllables.”  So I donned TWO swim caps to stay warm, and tested out ear plugs to see if they helped with the dizziness I felt when exiting the freezing lake.

Race day was in the 40s and overcast.  I wondered aloud how the juniors were faring with their early morning start time in the freezing cold.  I was optimistic that the sun would come out and the temps would rise for our race by 1:15.  They didn’t.  Lauren and I had a nice jog around the lake to warm up, and hopped in for a final swim warmup, which proved even colder than the day before.  I could barely stand the pain in my hands from the water, and had to lift my hands in the air several times to get the blood flowing again.  Pierre and I huddled awaiting the start draped in a towel and gloves, shivering uncontrollably.  While my Xterra wetsuit was doing a fantastic job of keeping my body warm, my hands, face and feet were in agony.

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Pierre and I bundle up for warmth before the frigid swim

The gun went off and I took off, with a plan to go hard the first 100 meters, then settle into an aggressive race pace.  I was getting bumped for about 25 meters, but Lauren managed to steer me to the right and get me away from the fray quickly.  My heart rate jacked through the roof, and I found myself gasping for breath, and started to panic.  Badly.  This is not an unusual phenomenon for triathletes to panic in the swim, especially in cold water, and particularly if you’re visually impaired.  But for a moment, I simply stopped swimming, picked my head up, took three big breathes and had a total freak out.  I put my face back in only to feel like I was inhaling beneath the water, and stopped again 50 meters later and smacked Lauren on the shoulder.  “STOP! STOP! I can’t!  I can’t breathe!” I screamed.  “Yes you can, you’re TALKING!  SWIM!” she yelled furiously back at me.  And with that, I laughed to myself and got back to the job at hand- getting the hell out of this freezing lake as fast as I could.

Before I knew it, we were running to the bike, both gasping from the cold, and stripping off the swim tether and wetsuits.  I wiped my feet as best I could on the blue carpet, and dashed off to mount Bomber.  “HOLY SHIT I CAN’T FEEL MY HANDS!” were the first words Lauren uttered to me.  “Me neither” I replied miserably.  We swapped to a higher gear, and prayed that as we dried off and worked harder that our bodies would warm up.  The course was a sweeping 4 lap loop that went out and back from a beautiful park onto a closed highway.  The pavement was horrible, and I prayed with each and every bump that we didn’t get a flat.  As we circled back for our first loop, the second place women’s team was just heading out.  We were solidly in first place by a good 3 minutes in my guesstimate.

Each lap we pulled away slightly, opening up the gap on the Canadian and Irish teams, but getting colder by the minute.  My hands were numb, as were my wet feet in my bike shoes, and we both wondered aloud how the heck we were supposed to run after this on frozen toes.  I wiggled my feet aggressively, hoping the blood would come back.  The Canadian could outrun me, and had in 5 previous races.  I had beaten her twice, but it was going to take a solid and fast run to keep her behind us.

We headed into transition, and somehow ran the bike to the rack, despite completely no feeling in my feet.  I could hear the announcer going crazy as we came in, telling us we were still in first place, and I decided to run hard until my feet came back to me.  Lauren did an amazing job pacing me to 7:11 pace for the first mile.  Not feeling my feet was scaring the heck out of me, especially with not being able to see, I really relied on physical feedback to give me my bearings.  On the second loop of the run, I began to suffer.  My breathing was taxed with the cold air, and my feet went from numb to pins and needles.  Lauren pushed me every ten steps, calling out my pace to me, and telling me to speed up or to stay steady.  She also lied to me.

“They’re coming!  The Canadians are back there- probably 200 meters!  Faster!”  I argued with her.  The math didn’t make sense.  They would have had to run sub 6 minute per mile pace in order to catch me at this point.  But I couldn’t see, so I had to believe her.  And I was becoming delirious.  So perhaps she was indeed telling the truth.  I gutted myself for the final half mile, pumping my arms hard to maintain my pace, begging my body to move faster.  As we ran onto the blue carpet, Lauren thankfully started counting down the distance to the finish.  “50 feet!  20 Feet! 10 Feet!  Reach out and grab your winner’s tape!  You did it!”

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Grabbing the Tape for the win with Lauren Guiding

Grabbing the coveted ITU Tape at the finish line on the famous blue carpet for the USA was sweeter than I ever imagined.  I hugged Lauren tightly, so grateful for her guidance and tough love on the course.  She brought out my best when I needed it and helped me secure a gold medal.  I even got excited when the drug enforcement officer immediately escorted me from the finish line to a private tent to pee in a cup!  She said she had never seen anyone so excited to get drug tested before.  I told her, “It means I WON if I get to pee in a cup, right?  So why wouldn’t I be excited?  It means I’ve finally ‘made it’”.

So, broken bike, new guide, an impromptu emergency training trip to California, and a decisive win by two whole minutes.  Not the way I would have planned it for sure, and certainly not the ideal stress or rest level before an important race, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  It’s not our successes or the easy days that make us stronger.  It’s the setbacks that set us up to succeed and grow and learn and WIN.  Thank you to the dozens of friends, guides, family, coaches Ray and Simon, and teammates who came together to help me on such a difficult week, assuring I made it onto the podium.  This one’s for you.  #loveandgratitude #blondesonbikes

You can be part of my team by making a tax deductible donation here to my USABA athlete development account:   www.amydixonusa.com/donate

 

Rio Paralympic Test Race

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 stunning blue carpet of the transition area and the glass-front athlete lounge overlooking the swim and finish line

The stunning blue carpet of the transition area and the glass-front athlete lounge overlooking the swim and finish line

Goofing off as usual while we rack the bike in transition.  I have my own name plate too!

Goofing off as usual while we rack the bike in transition. I have my own name plate too!

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

Love and Gratitude from Team Blondes on Bikes #blondesonbikes

Love and Gratitude from Team Blondes on Bikes #blondesonbikes

My Bed is taking me to Rio

So here I am on a beautiful Friday night indoors staring in longing at my bed.  My eyes are sore, painful and tired, my legs ache and my stomach growls with hunger.  My email pings.  It’s my coach.  It reads like this, “Hope you’re feeling better.  We’re focusing on bricks from now to Rio.”  My heart somersaults and my stomach turns.  I flip open the drawer that contains my new USA Triathlon ‘Elite’ member card and turn it over in my suntanned hands.  So this is what being an elite athlete is all about.

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Lindsey and I during a photo shoot with Photographer Ron Hiner

 

It’s been exactly two years from yesterday that I completed my first sprint distance triathlon.  I never knew anything about schedules, recovery, bricks and hydration until this past season.  I was ‘winging it’ with some guidance from some local friends and guides and figuring it out along the way.  When I began being coached, I started to surprise myself with more speed, better results and less pain.  When I teamed up with coach Ray Kelly back in December, the temperature in the room suddenly changed.  I started believing what people were telling me.  I could actually be good at this.  I dared to begin daydreaming about where I could possibly go with this.

After me and guide Lindsey Cook had our spectacular first race in Mexico this year, I finally saw what others had seen.  I was willing to put in the work, and the results were showing.  I am fitter, faster, and more mentally prepared to do this than I could have ever possibly imagined.  I can finally say I’m ready to compete with the ‘big girls’.  Workouts are now vomit-inducing, near passing-out efforts of blazing speed on the run, wattage on the indoor bike trainer, and shoulder-searing-pain in the pool.  Food is no longer a source of sheer pleasure and choice.  It is a mind-boggling juggling act of looking at how much fuel I need and how to best reduce inflammation and increase hydration and build muscle post workout.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are still a significant amount of cookies involved.  There will ALWAYS be a significant amount of cookies involved.

Organizing appearance and training schedules and travel with my guide has become a feat of acrobatics.  With her busy career as an associate professor in Indiana and her incredible philanthropic nature to volunteer for new paratriathletes a camps across the nation, she is a moving target who herself manages to juggle and probably stares at her bed at 7pm on many a night during our season.  Her can-do attitude and incredible generosity has enabled us to see the podium in many races together in one year.  I simply couldn’t do this without her.  Our intense training has brought us closer than family, and we know each other intuitively on a very deep and personal level.  It’s a bond I may have only experienced with my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador Elvis.  In fact, the two of them are a lot alike!  They’re both blonde, sweet, loyal, goofy, strong, smart and brave.  They also take it on as their job to keep me safe when we’re together.  To say she’s special is an understatement.

My days are filled with a constant stream of emails regarding speaking engagements, chasing potential sponsors, looking for unique grants to fund our races, traveling to the 4 or more doctors’ appointments I have each week, or planning my guides locally for the workouts I need to conduct outdoors.  I juggle.  A lot.  I never imagined 5 years ago when I sat in my office for the wine company, tasting dozens of wines each day, buying, selling and writing sales spreadsheets and budgets that I would ever have an athletic career as I was approaching 40 years of age as a blind woman.  But it’s happening.

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After a track workout with Coach Ray and Lindsey

 

I have been so blessed through the generosity of friends, family, local businesses, the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation and the Lion’s Clubs of Greenwich and Brookfield to be able to afford training, travel and equipment for two blondes on a serious budget.  I now have LITERALLY one of the nicest, fastest lightest and best-handling tandem racing bikes ever built by hand thanks to everyone mentioned above.  It hangs in my apartment in a place of honor, and each morning as I walk to the kitchen for my coffee at 4:45 am, I stop and PET her, and say, “Good morning Bomber- looking fast today!”  My dog thinks I’m nuts.  But honestly, she’s the nicest thing I’ve ever owned, and each day she sits proudly on her rack, I get goose bumps and thank God for how lucky I am to own and ride her when I am able to secure a female pilot locally or Lindsey is in town to train.  It is an honor.

So with fancy bikes, an international race-travel calendar that includes Mexico, Canada and Brazil this year, along with a few weeks in California at the Olympic Training Center Chula Vista, one would think that I have it all figured out as an elite full-time paratriathlete.  But I have a long way to go.  The Rio 2016 games will be next September.  There are at least 6 important races on the calendar between now and then involving travel costing in the thousands per race in order to qualify for the Paralympics.  There are countless hours of massage, acupuncture, eye surgeries, doctor’s appointments and procedures to keep me out of pain and functioning with an aggressive autoimmune disease that is trying to steal my remaining sight and claim my digestive tract.  There are busted helmets to buy, supplements to purchase, glaucoma medications to order, meals to carefully plan and pack.

I look at the toll it’s taken on my Guiding Eyes Guide dog and realize that he didn’t sign up for this life.  When he and I were matched, I was 56 pounds overweight, going through chemotherapy to combat my autoimmune eye disease, and my greatest exercise was walking from my apartment a half mile to the bus stop.  Now he guides me all over town and we are on planes every two weeks, staying in strange hotels and on sofas around the U.S.  Some days start with a 4am gym workout and end with a midnight train ride home from a speaking engagement in the city.  It’s no wonder he’s retiring in 6 months at the young age of 8 and a half.

And there will be these Friday nights at 7pm, on a gorgeous summer evening to sit outside with friends and sip Rose’ wine that I will instead be home staring at my bed, challenging myself to stay awake just one more hour until it begins to get dark.  Where I have to force myself to eat something so the morning run doesn’t go poorly, but my stomach isn’t receptive to food.  Or trying to sneak in a 3 day weekend at my family’s vacation house in Rhode Island so I can say that I spent some quality time with them that did NOT involve a ‘race-cation’.  Is my life extremely glamorous when I’m taking selfies with Eli Manning and hanging with the NHL Commissioner?  You BET it is.

But it’s these moments when I realize there’s a great deal that I miss out on- family birthday parties, concerts, the wine business I have so adored for 20 years; moments when my chest is so sore that lifting a coffee cup is too difficult.  When I have to walk down the stairway backwards because my thighs are too sore, that I wonder if I’m crazy to do this triathlon ‘thing’.  And then I look at my email from coach Ray, and re-read the line, “bricks until Rio” and almost fall out of my chair in amazement.  I’m going to RIO to represent my country in an international race!  And I’m BLIND!  And I’m going to be 40 in 6 months!  What the heck?  And I say, “Suck it up buttercup.  Welcome to the big leagues.” And THEN I go to bed. Goodnight y’all!  And THANK YOU for supporting team #blondesonbikes  – please go to amydixonusa.com/donate if you want to be part of this journey.