It was race week! The first time I would be toeing the start line to race since the Boston Marathon in April. It would be the first time I would race in a triathlon since the Paratriathlon World Championship at the ITU Worlds Grand Final in London last season. There were aspects of my swim, bike, and run, on which I would work, but I did my best to not place any added pressure on myself. At the beginning of the month, I learned that I was not good enough to be included on Team USA. Last season, there were two divisions for blind and visually impaired triathletes. Tri6A for those who were completely blind and Tri6B for those individuals who were visually impaired, but had functional use of sight. This year, the triathlon governing body reworked the various paratriathlon categories so now there were only five categories. PT5 includes all blind and visually impaired athletes regardless of level of disability. When combining the two former divisions into one, I was not considered one of the three fastest ones based on race results. I was informed I would be placed in the Physically Challenged Open Wave for ITU World Chicago weekend. Upon learning that I was not on the start line for the elite race, I was not angry or hurt. Some friends were upset wondering how could the 2013 USA National Champion and Mideast Regional Champion not be good enough to be on the start line, but I knew that if those in power felt I was not deserving, then I was not deserving. I knew I would show up on Sunday morning and race my heart out to the best of my ability. I was excited and anxious as Monday of race week was upon me. I opened up my Mail program to discover that USA Triathlon Paratriathlon Manager has sent me a note informing me that I had been added to Team USA and would be on the start line for the ITU Worlds Elite Wave. Suddenly, I was scared. I would race against the best in the world while representing the United States Of America!
I immediately called my friend who would be my guide to inform me that our race had been switched from Sunday to Saturday morning. This would also mean athlete meetings, equipment rules and regulations which we would have to follow, and other responsibilities which come with representing the USA and competing on a global stage. My friend and I sent messages back and forth unable to connect. Finally, Tuesday morning, I heard from him that he had been injured would not be able to guide me for Saturday. I immediately reached out to Ironman triathlete and co-founder of the Dare2Tri Paratriathlon Club, Daniel Tun. Before I finished explaining what had happened, Dan said, “I’ll do it.” I had not even asked him, but he knew the purpose for my call and had already volunteered. The drawback was that Dan was already set to be the handler for the beautiful and talented reigning world champion, Hailey Danisewicz. I told Dan I did not want to take him away from that responsibility, but he assured me it would be okay and Hailey would understand. After some time, I reached out to Hailey to apologize, but she insisted there was no reason for me to apologize. Beautiful, talented, and classy.
The next step was getting my medical forms filled out by an eye specialist which I was required to give to the good folks of the International Triathlon Union. It took some time to hear back from my doctor’s office, but thankfully, my doctor and one of his fabulous receptionists, Samantha helped me.
I lucked out that I was able to do a couple workout sessions with Dan in preparation for the race. We got into the open water where Dan saw me front crawl. He was excited. Once I found a comfort level with him, I was cruising as I knifed through the water. Dan was more confident than I was for my ability to front crawl the swim at the race. Dan and I test out the tandem bike we would ride for the race. I first felt a little uncomfortable, but after several miles, I felt right at home on the bike. At a Dare2Tri afternoon practice, I met TJ of Newton Running who let me try out the latest Newton kicks. I felt at ease with those shoes on my feet.
I spent most of Friday at the Dare2Tri expo booth or with Dan. At high noon, we were able to mount the tandem and ride the course. As we made our way off the course at the end of the session, a police officer came up to me and said, “Hey, nice shoes. Sweet color. Now ride this bike like you own it not like you stole it.” We laughed. We made our way back towards the expo booth where I learned Dare2Tri was situated next to Fitness Formula Clubs. Some of the folks from FFC remembered me as Israel, Jenn Spencer’s friend. Cameron, Dare2Tri mechanic, did some work on my tandem. Later, Dan and I took it out for another spin. That time, it was smooth. We headed over to the Chicago Hilton were we posed for the official Team USA photo. Then Amanda, USA Triathlon Paratriathlon Program manager, gave Dan and me our official uniforms. We headed into the athlete meeting which was quick and lively. It was at that meeting that I learned as a completely blind athlete categorized as a B1 triathlete, I would be made to wear blackout goggles on the run. ITU insists this rules helps level out the playing field. It use to be all blind athletes had to wear them, then the blackout goggles rule went away, but this season, it has returned only that now, those who are classified as completely blind are the only ones required to wear them.
Friday night, for many athletic and personal reasons, I did not sleep a wink. If I managed five minutes of sleep all night, then that was a victory. I tossed and turned telling myself I would be fine in the water. I needed to just keep pushing water behind me and keep moving forward. I could power through the bike. I knew once I reached the run, I could put on a show with 6:45 mile pace. Even if I did not hit that target, under seven minutes per mile was certainly within my ability.
Shortly after 5:00a.m., Dan arrived. We headed to the race. He had taken a pair of sunglasses and put a layer of black electrical tape on the inside to block out any light. although I can not see anything, it felt strange when I placed the glasses on my eyes. I figured I better wear the glasses around just to get comfortable with them. We set up transition one and transition two. We still had over an hour before the start of the race. I met some new athletes and greeted old friends. I was nervous and tired. Dan was pumped and excited. The announcement came over the loud speaker that athletes should make their way to the swim start. Dan, “Is, you ready? Let’s do this.”
I put on my Xterra wet suit, swim cap, and Aquasphere swim goggles. I took my place in line. One-by-one we were introduced to the crowd. Announcer, Dave Kappas stated, “Number eighteen, from the USA, accomplished marathoner, Israel Antonio!” I walked out to cheers and an ovation. Dan tried to put me at ease. We slid into the water and made our way towards the actual swim start. Dan would keep me away from the rush. Horn sounded! Cheers rang out. I took a deep breath and put my face in the water. I was calm. My body floated to the surface. I started to front crawl. After a few strokes, I took a breath. I could feel anxiety creep in. More strokes and breath. Dan expressed excitement. Suddenly, I missed a breath. I did not take in water, but I felt out of sorts. My heart raced my breaths were short. My body went vertical. Dan said it was okay to rest and regroup. I tried. I could not relax. I flipped to my back and kept pressing ahead hoping I would relax enough to flip back to the front crawl. For the time being, I would make my way through the swim using the back stroke.
I moved through the water. At times, I felt like I was powering through quickly. At other times, I felt like I was not moving. Dan was by me every stroke encouraging me and praising me for my effort. A couple times my legs dragged and I felt I was sinking. I yelled out, “Dan, I can’t do this. I want out.” Dan immediately jumped into action. “You’re fine Is. You’re almost done. Just relax.” He had me take deep breaths, allow my legs to float back up, then continue the press froward. Each time I felt like I could not go any further and should be pulled out, Dan insisted I needed to trust in my abilities. I relaxed long enough to press ahead. Then, I felt someone reach out and touch my shoulder and head. Dan, “You can stand, Is. Those are volunteers.” I stood. Volunteers grabbed me. I was done with the swim. People in all directions yelled out my name congratulating me for getting through the toughest discipline of the race. Dan and I worked our way up a very steep incline out of the water and we jogged to the first transition.
Off with the wet suit and goggles. On came the race belt, bike shoes, and helmet. Within minutes we were on the bike and the race had begun. It was technical course with many 180 degree turns which for a tandem is especially difficult. We had to slow down and take those corners slowly. Once by them Dan yelled for me to pedal and we would crank it up. After one loop of the course, Dan told me we were averaging twenty-four miles per hour. Coming out of the water, I could not get my legs to fire, yet Dan had informed me that we were moving at a faster pace than I had ever averaged for a bike portion. I was once timed at thirty-five miles per hour and just recently in Pleasant Prairie, I hit twenty-eight uphill, but could I maintain this pace for the entire way? I tried, but the turns prevented me. Not to mention the heat and humidity which beat me down. Lap after lap, I would hear men and women yelling out Dan’s name. Many would scream out my name too. Some of the voices were recognizable, but others were not. We pushed on. Dan told me we had one more lap to go to complete 12.4 miles. The fun was truly about to start on the run.
After the final bike lap, we rolled into the transition area. Out of my helmet and bike shoes and into my Brooks Running shoes and Pinnacle Performance Company cap. I slid on my running tether. Dan and I were ready. I threw on the ridiculous blackout goggles and we made our way out of T2. that is when I heard Dave Kappas telling the audience, “Coming out of transition is Chicagoan, Israel Antonio. He dominates these streets yearly in the marathon. He knows these streets like the back of his hand. I’ll be interested to see his mile splits. I’d advise you to keep an eye on him because Israel is fast.” It did not matter how beaten down the heat and sun had made me, it was time to run. After that kind of buildup through the loud speakers, I could not go slow. I had to push. Dan and I were on the run. “Is, get your legs under you.” Something felt strange. I felt like I was tilting over to one side. I needed to find a comfort level. As Dan guide me, I could feel I was flinching. I felt like I was in a dark tunnel and that I was going to run into a wall. I kept bracing myself for impact. I tried shaking the feeling, but I could not. I tried pushing the pace, but each time, I felt like I was going to run into something or fall. I wondered to myself, why do I feel like it is dark? Why do I feel like it is night time? I wanted to stay under seven minutes per mile. I did not think I was anywhere near it. I could not get my body to respond. Then it hit me. It is this stupid blackout glasses. I have never run in them. Although I do not have sight, I must get comfort in feeling the air and sun in my face. My body must respond to those signals because now that these glasses are on my face, I am mentally lost and unable to function. I thought of pro triathlete, model, actress, Jenna Parker. I thought to myself, she had coached me to perform better than this. She had taught me to fight more than I was doing. I needed to do my best to block out the issues and run. I move ahead. The sun and heat beat me down. The goggles made me feel like I was out of sorts. I opened my stride and said these sexy legs have received such glowing compliments lately and I am not about to disappoint all those who came to watch me run. I moved hard. I decided to flip my hat to my signature backwards look in hopes that would light a fire under me to run hard. I was trying to overcome the goggles. I needed to show myself I was not going to let ITU’s ridiculous rule prevent me from racing my best. I finished one loop. Then quickly raced around a second time. I hit the final U-turn and it was time to race home. Dan and I pushed hard. I knew we were nearing the end. I heard voices of Dare2Tri folks cheering me home. I tried digging for more, but I was already at max effort. I crossed the finish and was happy because I knew I had given it all and I had nothing left.
My finishing time was not to my liking, but Jenna was proud. The more I gave thought to the events leading up to the weekend and what I had to endure on race day, I found myself smiling and proud that I had given my all. There are places were I can improved, but I am satisfied especially after my friend, Jen informed me I had finished thirty-seventh overall and eighth in my division. On to the next race. Major thanks to the people who support and help me get to the start line and through to the finish. Jenna Parker, Daniel Tun, Dare2Tri, and Base Performance. I am honored to have been selected to Team USA and to have raced in the ITU Paratriathlon World Chicago!