Thursday, September 26, 2013

Paratriathlon Worlds 2013: An Incredible Road To London

I have lost count at the number of amazing individuals who have worked with me to help me get my swimming in order. From the wonderful Kerry and Arica to Erwin, Clive, Todd, Michael, and others. More recent, I have worked with my friend, pro Ironman triathlete, Kimberly Shah. Even with so many splendid individuals offering to help me and taking time to be with me in the pool, I have never been able to master it. When the opportunity was presented to attempt to qualify for Paratriathlon US Nationals held as part of the CapTex Triathlon in Austin, Texas on Memorial Day, I immediately said no. Yet even before the opportunity, I had been thinking about it for I remember having a conversation with my friend, model, actress, singer, Amanda Grace about the possibility of Nationals. She was firm in her belief that I could and would do it. I was not as sure. Still, Amanda insisted that if I went for it, I would achieve it. As evidence, she used all my past races. Besides, doing well at Nationals would give me a chance at being named to Team USA for Paratriathlon Worlds in London. amanda believed I owed it to myself to go to London. If having one beautiful woman believe in me was not enough, then maybe two would convince me. Pro triathlete, model, actress, Jenna Parker also felt I could qualify for Nationals. She insisted I could manage the swim. In addition to that, my bike and run were strong enough to enable me to cross the finish line with a qualifying time. The only question remained is who would ever be able to take on the challenge of guiding me for a chance at CapTex? Enter ABC Houston TV producer and Ironman triathlete, Justin Sternberg. Justin had gone to the Houston Marathon to do a piece on blind individuals running in the event. Justin had been intrigued by watching the story of a retired professor named Charlie which aired as part of the NBC Ironman World Championship in Kona coverage. Justin's interest in seeking out other blind athletes lead him to the C Different Foundation and its founder Matt Miller. Shortly there after, Justin received a phone call by the very man who had inspired him, Charlie, asking if Justin would guide him for an Ironman. The race was just over a week away, but Justin said yes! Since then, Justin had been a volunteer guide for others. As a strong triathlete and his experience as a guide, Justin was the perfect one to be my eyes.

I met Justin two days before we ever raced together. One day before our first ever race, he took me out to do some open water swimming where he had a chance to see my swim. On race day, he did a tremendous job helping me through the swim. I may not have shown it in my face, but very quickly, I realized how spectacular of a job Justin was doing that I gave myself over to trusting him. I found myself coming out of the water in last place four minutes behind the next closest competitor in my division, but the swim was done and the race was on! By the fourth mile on the bike, Justin informed me we had taken over the lead. We reached the second transition where Justin informed me that we had crushed the bike so much that we could walk the entire run portion and we would still qualify for Nationals. I coasted to the first place finish and had punched my ticket to Austin.

I had never felt more at ease in the swim than I did with Justin so my first choice for my guide was he. Justin agreed to meet me in Austin to help me race the the US National title in Tri6A. Really? Seriously? I would be racing for a national title. Amanda and Jenna had believe in me. All which remained was going out and winning it. At Nationals, Justin and I were out of the water first. We extended our lead on the bike, but in my favorite discipline, I started to fade. It always takes me the first mile on the run to get my legs after the bike. Not only was I fading on the run, but I was doubting my ability to find my run legs. I began to believe I did not want it. I would be happy with second place. As I reached the mile one marker, I thought of Jenna which is when I realized I had not traveled all that distance and spend all that money to fade at my favorite discipline. It was at that moment when I decided it was my national championship. I was going to go take it! By pulling away in the final two miles, I had stated my case for why I belonged on Team USA for the right to race at Paratriathlon Worlds.

Amanda Duke, USA Triathlon Program Manager, informed me that I was named to Team USA. In my wildest dreams I could have never believed I would be on the team. Jenna and Amanda Grace had believed, but I did not. Unfortunately, Justin would not be able to guide me in London. I turned to Daniel Tun, Ironman Triathlete and one of the co-founders of the Dare2Tri Chicago Club. He would guide me in London. As a warmup, Dan and I were set to race the Paratriathlon Mideast Regional Championships at the Chicago Triathlon. One day before the race, Dan was injured and was unable to guide me. Don Reichelt, Ironman triathlete and regional instructor for Newton Running, stepped in at the very last minute to help me win the Tri6A Mideast championship. I was in need of a guide for London. With only a few weeks before race day, I turned to Justin once more who agreed to meet me at Worlds to be my eyes.

On a hot September day, I made my way to the airport. I met up with other members of the Dare2Tri Chicago Elite Team with whom I would share the flight to London. It was certainly nice to have so many friends on the plane with me. I felt at ease for the eight hour flight. We arrived on Tuesday morning. After settling in to my hotel room for a bit, I met up with the rest of the group to walk around the city. I had to keep pinching myself and remind myself I was in London. I was in William Shakespeare's homeland. I was in Paula Radcliffe's home country. Paula had first inspired me to run marathons when she set the women's world record in Chicago 2002 then shattered her own record in London 2003. Now, there I was walking her streets. That night, I had the opportunity to run through famed Hyde Park guided by Keri Serota. Keri is one of the Dare2Tri co-founders. In fact, the last time Keri had been my running guide was in 2009 when she offered me a chance to run in the GLASA Twilight 5K. I went to the race, met her for the first time, and minutes later, Keri was guiding me for the race. A couple months later she offered me a chance to join the GLASA Chicago Marathon team. In 2010, I ran my first ever marathon as a member of said team. All these years later, Keri was once again guiding me. This time, we were running through the streets of London. The next day, Keri helped me out again when I joined the Team USA early morning bike ride. Since Justin had not made it to town yet, Keri rode the tandem with me.

One of the more interesting experiences came when I had to walk from the team hotel to another building for my classification appointment. This is where I would have to present a picture of myself as well as medical documentation validating that I in fact was completely blind and eligible to race in the Tri6A male category for Worlds. I walked with USA Triathlon Program Manager, Amanda Duke. It was such a joy to spend time with her. I had always heard people I trust raving about what an amazing woman she is, but this was my first chance to be around her for an extended amount of time. I learned that everyone is 100% correct about how splendid she is. amanda is wonderful, warm, and funny. I do get nervous some times not knowing if my humor and sarcasm are being taken well, but it was clear, Amanda not only "got my humor", but had her moments where I could appreciate her humor and delivery. Like I said, it was such a treat to spend time with her and get to know her a bit outside of my usual triathlon only dealings with her. I practiced some voice warmups preparing to answer some questions. I waited. The ITU officials reviewed my paperwork. What was taking so long? One would think they would read over the information provided by the medical professional, maybe call me before them, ask some questions, and be done with it. Apparently, not. After some time, amanda approached the officials and learned that apparently, there was enough doubt in their minds to whether I was completely blind as instead of confirming me as completely blind, they told amanda that I would continue to be up for review at future events. I guess as officials reviewed my documents, there were others observing me in the room. The best conclusion to which others and I could arrive is that during this period of observation, officials watched me and noted that I did not carry myself like a stereotypical blind person. I did not tilt my head downward. I did not sway back and forth. When I interacted with someone, I would do my best to look them in the face which to the officials must mean that I was making eye contact and what blind person who supposedly can not see would ever make eye contact? Again, these are the best conclusions to which we could arrive. why else would I not be confirmed even with doctor's validation? This is one of those moments where I am left shaking my head in disbelief. I am made to jump through hoops just to be able to race on an elite level and when I jump through those hoops, it is not good enough because I do not fit a mold or some close minded vision of what a so called blind person must act like or be like. As one friend said, it is beyond insulting. "You're blind, but you're not blind enough to be blind. They don't want you to be you." I do not want to be a blind triathlete. I just want to be a triathlete. I am not some special case. I am just a human being wanting to race.

The anti doping meeting, athlete race meeting, and packet pickup were very much standard. It was certainly splendid hearing friends describe the buildings and read the years of construction for each one. Of major concern was the wind, cold, and rain. The rain would make for a slick road and as Justin and I learned prior to race day, it would make the sharp turns on that technical course very tough on a tandem. On race day, as we walked towards check in, I heard about many triathletes bloody and scraped up from taking falls on their bikes. Crashes everywhere. People were going for it and were seeing their chances end in disappointment. Justin said this was not the time to be heroic. We would do our best on the bike, but if conditions were as bad as they appeared, we would play it safe. It would be better to live to fight another day than end up hurt, with a broken bike, or worse. As Justin lead me out to the swim start, we joined the other athletes. I was number twenty. We lined up in chronological order. One by one, the public address announcer called out our name and country. I heard, "Number twenty. Israel Antonio. USA." I teared up. I almost cried. If that would be my highlight for the day, what a highlight it would be. I never imagined I would be hearing that. Justin told me to relax. He would help me through the swim. I was more confident than I had ever been. If I stayed relaxed, I could comfortably front crawl through this swim. Justin said the water was as calm as a pool. Kimberly Shah had recently told me that when I first started working with her on my swim, I was a way back of the pack swimmer, but in recent weeks, I had moved up to middle of the pack. I knew I could manage the swim so long as I did not allow my mind to play tricks on me. I entered the water. Justin told me to relax. It was cold, but I did my best to remain calm. I had done open water swims plenty of times. Kimberly had been working with me exclusively in open water. Even if I had to break it up into manageable meters, I should do so as to not panic. If I had to take pauses to regulate my breathing or heart rate then so be it. After all, this was Paratriathlon Worlds! It took amanda and Jenna to convince me I could qualify for Nationals for me to even attempt that yet there I was seconds away from racing against the fastest Tri6A men in the world. The horn sounded. The race began. I moved through the water. I was smiling. Maybe not outwardly, but inwardly, I was happy. Then like a punch to the gut, I was hit by some panic. I tried to relax. I could not. I yelled out for Justin. He was tethered to me swimming less than one meter away. "I'm here, Israel. I'm here. Relax." I could not. I needed to flip to my back to calm down. I did. With a snap of a finger, my world championship dream was over. I would not be able to recover that time against the fastest men in the world. Even more disappointing was finding out from Justin later on that before I freaked out, I was cruising along in the middle of the pack. I was moving faster than I had ever moved. I could not say how long I lasted before the panic. I know it was early on in the water. Needing to flip to my back and a fear of front crawling again only to endure another anxious moment put me so far behind the field that the next wave, which went off four minutes after my wave, had athletes who were flying by me. It was a long day in the water. It ended up being my second best swim time, but considering how bad my swim is, that is not all that fast.

With the rain and slick conditions combined with a technical course, Justin and I had our work cut out for us. I was so emotionally spent coming out of the water. What kept me going was thinking of Jenna and Amanda and their belief in me. My bike and run were strong. I was not sure how much of that I would be able to show on the bike. I rolled out of transition ready to pounce, but Justin reminded me to play it safe. We needed to ride one loop so he could get a feel for when we could push and when to be conservative. This would give me a chance to gather myself emotionally. When Justin felt we could, he would yell at me to push. I would dig down and push hard. When I started to feel pain in my legs, I would once again think of Jenna and amanda knowing that I was here because they were so firm in their belief of my ability. I would smile and remind myself that I was racing at Paratriathlon Worlds in London. Who would have ever imagined that? Justin said each time he looked, we were rolling at speeds between twenty and twenty-four miles per hour. there were a couple times when we'd push it on a straight away were we were riding at twenty-eight miles per hour. I will never know, but in my heart I believe under better dry conditions, we could have pushed in the low thirties. Again, I will never be able to prove that.

We finished the bike and headed to the run course. It always takes me one mile into the run to find my legs, but this was Worlds. there was not time for that. I needed to go from the moment we left transition. Due to ITU rules demanding my guide and I had to remain within a certain number of centimeters of each other, I was using a new running tether which was created for me just the day before. Justin and I tested it out one time prior to the race and it seemed to work fine. As we made it on to the run course, I noticed our elbows kept hitting. I was annoyed by it. It did not seem to bother him. I guess it did not matter for we were in the midst of the race. I kept telling myself to get moving. If I pushed immediately it would be over in less than twenty-two minutes. I kept repeating that to myself. Justin was happy with my pace, but asked me to push more. Within a few hundred meters of beginning the run, I had reached the pace I would run for most of the 5K. Unlike never before, I had found my running legs almost immediately out of transition. I was running seven minute miles. People from all over yelled out, "Go USA!" Some screamed out, "Go Antonio." The support on both the bike and run were amazing. Hearing people cheer for me, my country, and number motivated me to get under seven minutes and push even more. In the biggest race of my triathlon life, I was delivering my finest run ever! As people yelled and cheered, Justin screamed, "One lap down. One lap to go! Come on, Is, dig." I had hit a physical wall. I figured some water would help me. Justin gave me water. I took a quick sip and resumed. I was moving again. Only, Justin disagreed. To his observation, I had slowed down. I was getting tired and my pace had slowed. Justin yelled at me some more and I knew we were about one mile from the finish. Here I was one mile from completing the biggest race of my life and I was slowing down. Once again, my thoughts turned to the two women who had served as my inspiration all race long. I thought of Jenna's words to me prior to the race. I replayed those words in my mind several times before the race and there I was replaying them in my mind once more. I started to cry, but I knew the best way to show I had been moved and touched by Jenna's support and words was to throw down one final mile. I rolled along knowing I was minutes away from the finish line. I pushed ahead. Justin cheered. Others screamed out. The Dare2Tri crew screamed, whistled, and cheered for us as we ran by them. The other five members of Dare2Tri Elite Team were in transition preparing to go off after my race was over. Hearing them yelling for Justin and me sent chills up and down my body and I knew it was time for the final kick. We had not reached the final turn yet, but it did not matter. I was going to challenge myself to run out until I had nothing left. We made the turn into the final shoot. A couple hundred meters from the finish line. If I had anything left, it was time to go! A look at the numbers later on showed me that Justin and I ran at about 6:58 to 7:01 pace for the first three miles then sprinted at about 5:20 pace in the final stretch. Maybe my math is incorrect, but still, it was by far the fastest 5K I had ever run in a sprint triathlon by over two minutes. In fact, my run time at Worlds was faster than my fastest stand-alone 5K by a minute. I walk away from that experience knowing that by next season I will be able to break twenty minutes in both a stand-alone 5K and a sprint triathlon 5K.

The highlight after the race was having a chance to meet the wonderful people of Pinnacle Performance Company's London office. Special thanks to Clare and Lizzie for opening your hearts to me with a memorable post race dinner. It was such a joy to be in the company of such lovely, talented, and funny women. Of course, those adjectives can also be used when discussing the splendid women of Dare2Tri with whom I then had a chance to dance the night away to close out my London trip. I could not have asked for a group of more amazing individuals to spend time with then the splendid folks of Dare2Tri.

This has been an extraordinary experience. I would have never believed that I would finish 2013 as the tri6A Male US National champion. I could have never imagined I would race at Worlds in London. There are so many wonderful people and and organizations to thank. Thank you Dare2Tri Chicago for putting me on this year's Elite Team. Thank you Pinnacle Performance Company for your continued support. Thank you to the good folks at C Different Foundation for bringing Justin into my life. Thank you Justin Sternberg for being my eyes at the three best races of my triathlon life. I could not have qualified, won Nationals, or competed at Worlds without help from such a tremendous person, athlete, and friend. Thank you Jenna and Amanda for believing in me well before I ever began to believe in myself. I would have never had the courage to do any of this had it not been for you two insisting there were special things inside of me which the world needed to see. Also, thank you Jenna Parker for always being my guiding light and teaching me to go beyond the limitations I set on myself. I could not ask for a better person and friend to teach me how to race and how to fined those special abilities inside of me.

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