Since I returned from my trip last weekend, I have been asked this question several times: “why would you fly all the way to London for a race that lasted no more than 45 minutes?” Well, for one, because I can. And two, this was more than just any race. Not only was it an honor to be invited to participate in the event and be part of the U.S. squad, but it is yet another step in showing the worldwide enthusiasm, skill and participation levels in paratriathlon (triathlon for physically challenged athletes) as we collectively strive to be accepted and included as a Paralympic sport. A great deal of work has been put in to the politics and logistics of being accepted into the Paralympics (which will hopefully happen in 2016), and as an athlete I feel my job is to show up, race hard and help increase the awareness of our sport. This international competition is just one step in a complicated, multi-year effort, but it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. So yes, I did fly nearly 20 hours (roundtrip) to spend what amounted to three days in London and raced for exactly 44 minutes and 53 seconds.
I had mixed feelings as I headed to DIA on my way to catch my flight last Wednesday evening. I was excited to head back to this race as I competed in the same event last year. However, I was a little apprehensive because I find it stressful to travel to triathlons all by myself because I have so much equipment and never know what kind of help I am going to find at my destination and with the added step of having to go through customs, I was a little anxious. I will never forget how my father taught me at an early age, “never travel with more luggage than you can carry by yourself” and here I was heading to the airport with a handcycle, racing chair, wheelbag, duffle bag and a backpack. I didn’t know whom I was meeting at the other end, just that someone would be waiving a sign that said, “Tricia Downing.”
Of course it was all fine when I got there, a driver picked me up and took me to the Hilton Hyde Park which was where all of the U.S. racers where staying. There was a full squad of elite racers who would compete in the London stop of the World Championship Series and four PC athletes (including me) who would compete in the London Paratriathlon. Our hotel was great as it was “technically” right across the street from the venue (Hyde Park), but considering the fact that you could walk several miles and still not get all the way through the park, we still weren’t exactly “right there.”
My first afternoon there, I took the opportunity to go for a “walk” and find a Vodaphone store. Since my cell phone doesn’t have international coverage, I had to go charge the international phone that Steve and I bought last time we traveled. It was only about a five block push before I got where I was going and I went in, purchased my SIM card and the woman at the counter offered to charge it for me since my charger was purchased in Australia and I couldn’t plug it in until I found an adapter. I left the phone there, went and bought an adapter and decided to look around while my phone was charging. Unfortnately, that was all I could do as every store, restaurant, etc. that I wanted to go to had at least one step out front. I couldn’t have shopped if I had wanted to. Good for my wallet, not so good for morale. Finally, I found a convenience store called EAT. with lots of yummy, healthy food, where I parked it for lunch, but other than that, I had a hard time finding much else to do. I went back and got my phone and headed to the hotel. That night we went out to dinner with the elite coaches and ran into the same thing. At least I had some people to help me into the restaurant, but of course, as soon as I decided I had to pee, I learned the restrooms were downstairs. I have to say, I know that the ADA is not perfect, but I realized just how good I have it at home.
Friday, I woke up and had the chance to test out both my handcycle and racing chair through Hyde Park before having to get them over to transition. It was purely for convenience sake that we took my stuff over on Friday, but it ended up being a major hike as we met our race contact at the furthest part of the park. Long story, but suffice it to say…Amanda (our Paratriathlon liaison from USAT), Todd (our mechanic) and I made about a four-mile trek that afternoon.
Later on Friday was when all of the real race activity began. There was a meeting for all paratriathlon participants at Imperial College, which is actually where I stayed last year. Amanda and two other U.S. athletes, JP and Matt, and I headed over to the meeting together where we met with our fourth teammate Megan, to listen to all the pertinent information about this year’s race.
One of the coolest things about the whole weekend happened in that room before the meeting began. Because paratriathlon is growing and taking place on an international stage, there have been some changes in the sport. As we grow and in numbers there must be increased accountability, consistency and attention to logistics. So…one of the changes is in the rules. Or let’s just say, now there ARE rules…in general (before now, the rules have been a lot more loose). Of course there have always been the usual triathlon rules, but now there are paratriathlon rules. For example, wheelers must now wear a band around their legs so that there is a level playing field between competitors. Those with incomplete injuries or some movement in their legs cannot benefit from a kick while others of us, with no movement, are not at a disadvantage. Another new rule says you must have a mirror on your bike or your helmet. Since I don’t ride with one on my bike at home, I had to make a special effort to get one and to have available for this race, but also because I don’t ride with one on my bike at home, I actually forgot the mirror in my garage at home. Realizing this in the car on the way to the airport, I panicked, and send an immediate Facebook message to one of the Brittish team members, David Cooke, who I met at the race last year. He wrote back and said he didn’t have a mirror but he’d check with his teammates. It was cool because, not only did he get the word out, but they came up with a mirror for me (albeit a compact with duct tape), but several of them followed-up with genuine concern as they arrived at the meeting. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but things like this are one of the reasons I love to do triathlons. I love meeting all the people and even though we’re from different areas of the world, we come together to do something that we love and have in common and create friendships that extend beyond borders. Geeky maybe, but I thought it was way cool. But it was also cool that Amanda had already been to the bike store that day to pick up a mirror (or helmet decoration, as I call it) for me.
Anyway, as the meeting progressed we learned that this was to be the second largest paratriathlon in the world (NYC Triathlon was larger) and the largest in the UK and Europe with 48 athletes from nine countries. All six triathlon classes were represented (I’m a T1…wheeler) and I learned sitting there in the room that there were three women in my division, two Brits and me (incidentally, the same girls who worked to find me a mirror for my handcycle).
Another part of becoming accountable in paratriathlon is learning about drug testing because it is now a reality of our sport. We had to listen to a presentation and watch a video about the process. Ordinarily a somewhat boring subject, but to keep our attention (at least that of the women) the presenter told us we’d get to see a nice pair of buttocks in the video. Now, I’m not sure watching a guy from the backside while he pees for the official is really what you’re looking to see, but she was true to her word. We did see a naked butt.
The final thing we had to learn was the system they have developed to get us out of the water. At any and every other triathlon I have done, I have been carried out of the water, usually by two strapping guys, in a fireman’s carry. The new standard is that the water handlers hold a sling-type seat between them and you swim in, turn on your back, put your butt on the sling, drape your armpits over the handlers shoulders and basically put your hands on their butts for stability. We did it last year and I guess it works out okay, once you’ve done it a time and figured out what you are doing. Whatever makes them happy. I guess it’s easier on the handlers.
With the meeting done, Amanda and I hailed a cab and headed back to the hotel. Inside the cab we told the driver about the race the next day and in a lovely Brittish accent he said, “where are you doing the swim? In the Serpentine?” We answered in the affirmative and the only thing he said in response was “well, don’t swallow the water!” Ugh! Just what I needed to hear after years of repercussions of drinking the water in the Hudson. And funny, because I had just given that exact advice to Susan Katz before she headed to the NYC Triathlon just the week before. Then that night, Amanda and I were out to dinner and a woman sitting next to us had overheard us talking about the race and she said, “I’m not trying to eavesdrop, but you’re not going to be swimming in the Serpentine are you?” This statement followed by a scrunched up sour face. Oy!
I didn’t get a great night of sleep on Friday…my traveling and jet lag had caught up to me and I was wide awake from about 2am to 4am reading my friend Polly’s new book (3mph: One Woman’s Walk Around the World…check it out: www.pollyletofsky.com). Anyway…I had set my alarm for 8am and when it went off, of course, I couldn’t get up, so I rolled over and didn’t get up until 10:30am! I bounded out of bed, went to EAT. for lunch, put on my super suit (my USA team suit) and headed to the race! Luckily, we didn’t start until 3:45pm.
(If you’re still reading this, you have a lot of patience and time on your hands, so to reward you, here’s how the race went down.)
The format—super sprint
The distances—400m swim, 10K bike, 3.5K run
The competitors—Jane Egan (GBR), Anna Turney (GBR), Tricia Downing (USA)
This is a very cool race because it’s not your typical parking lot transition with millions of bikes and people milling around. We used the same blue-carpeted transition area as the elites, with a sign posted at our area with our name, country and flag represented. On the ground we each had a white tub to hold all of our belongings. As we walked (rolled) out onto the pier, they announced each of us and we started together in one wave. I swam my usual backstroke (without a guide this time), but it was great because the buoys are tall and easy to sight even from your back, so I got through the swim relatively quickly in 9:05. I didn’t see Anna when I got out, but I saw Jane and she was exiting right behind me, but she got her wetsuit off quicker and pushed to her handcycle faster. I tried to get in my handcycle as quickly as possible, but she was still faster. I chased her out of transition, but she was already gone around the corner and out of sight. As I entered the course, I thought Jane might be my main competition, but then in no time, Anna blew right past me. In that moment, I thought, “seriously, am I going to get third place in this race???” But then another voice in my head said my favorite power phrase, “it isn’t over till it’s over.” That’s my way of psyching myself up to get in gear. I hit it hard and didn’t take long to pass Anna right back. Then I saw Jane ahead of me and I surged again knowing that one thing I had going for me was the small hill that led into transition and the second bike lap. Once I passed her, I didn’t look back (mostly because I can’t see behind me, and I had haphazardly attached the mirror to my helmet because I knew I wasn’t going to use it anyway). When I crossed into T2, I was in front, but as I was transferring into my racing chair, Anna slipped in to hers and got off quicker. Then just as I was taking off, Jane was back from the ride and in her chair. In the run out chute we were neck-and-neck. Three abreast. I shouted, “ladies, we can’t all fit through this chute together!” but they didn’t listen, so I held my ground. Somehow we all made it out at once without anyone crashing. At that point, I realized I had just about two miles to get in front and stay in front. Luckily I was able to do just that and once I passed Jane and Anna, I didn’t see them again until I had crossed the finish line in first! It was a great victory for me because I didn’t have such a great race in London last year. Final times: Trish—44:53, Jane—45: 30, Anna—48:40.
Just before the awards ceremony, I was interviewed by some folks from the ITU as the race winner for my category. They asked me about triathlon becoming a Paralympic sport and what it will mean to me once it is part of the Games. I shared with them that I would love to be there to compete, but I know my triathlon days will be behind me by that point (it’s likely another six years away), but I am proud to have been a part of the growth of the sport and helping it get to where it is today. When I first started, I didn’t know of any females in chairs doing tris and now there is a nice handful participating in the big races. I feel like my job has been to be a pioneer and hopefully set the stage for many to come after me. My triathlon days are probably numbered, but I’m not done just yet.
On Sunday the same driver that picked me up from the airport came again to pick me up and take me back. He asked me how I did in the race and when I told him that I had won, he exclaimed, “that’s BRILLIANT!” I love that expression as it’s so much more eloquent than the usual American, “Great. Awesome. or Sweet. To have your performance labeled as brilliant is just plain cool in my book.
Now that I’m home again, It’s time to switch my focus to my nemesis, my long-time companion and my biggest goal…the Ironman. Hawaii here I come. Game on!