Americas Triathlon Para Championships
June 27, 2021
Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin
750m Swim, 20k Bike, 5k Run
I floated in the chop of the lake as a breeze swept across the surface of the water. My legs were behind me gently kicking and my hands out front skulling to keep me in place. My heart pounded as I talked myself up. “This is your race. Your conditions. Rough water, high wind, hot run…Let’s crush this!” Then the horn sounded…
Andy and I met at the airport in Colorado Springs early on Friday morning. We got our luggage sorted, I had rather more than I normally would have for just a weekend race since I’d be heading home to my parents’ house with my girlfriend for a much needed week plus of downtime. Once we were through security and settled at the gate Andy presented me with a brand new Mark Pro Electrical Stimulation Unit. This little device has two wires that connect to small adhesive pads that attach to your skin. When turned on the device sends a small electrical pulse through the wires, into the pads into your skin. This stimulates blood flow to promote both healing and recovery. As an athlete who has had issues with both injury and recovery in the past I was very excited to add Mark Pro into my repertoire.
I fixed the pads to my low back and my glutes and turned the device on to experience a tickling/stinging sensation. I’d play with the different intensities during the flight, but when I landed in Chicago it was the first time on a flight that my lower back hadn’t completely tightened up on me since 2019. Guess I’ll keep using this thing.
O’Hare International Airport was significantly busier than the last time I’d flown through it during the height of the COVID19 Pandemic. We threaded our way through the airport making our way down to pick up the rental cars. Then we were on the road to Pleasant Prairie.
Our hotel was just across the street from the venue and was also the host hotel for a Dare2Tri Race Camp. Many people who were competing at the continental championships were staying at the hotel and were all just arriving. The crash of noise buzzed with excitement of seeing old friends and the eager anticipation of race day just a day and a half away.
After getting checked in, Andy’s and my first priority was to find food and then get the Chinook built. We accomplished the first by grabbing delicious sandwiches from Corner Bakery and then set about the task of assembling our speed machine.
As we built up the Chinook we talked through race strategy and how we were to approach the race. If there was one thing we didn’t discuss though it was the possibility that I finished 2nd. In our minds we were the favorites to win and coming in 2nd or 3rd wasn’t even an option. I was confident, perhaps cocky.
Race Build Up
It seemed as though there were two races that everyone had circled on their calendar to keep an eye on at this weekend’s continental championships. The PTS2 women’s race where Allysa Seely, Hailey Danz, and Melissa stockwell (gold, silver and bronze medalists respectively from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio) would be battling it out for two spots to Tokyo… And the PTVI Men’s race where Aaron Scheidies, Brad Snyder and myself would also be duking it out for two spots to Tokyo.
Aaron is the most decorated male visually impaired triathlete of all time. One could argue that he is the best blind/visually impaired athlete of all time with his performances across all distances of triathlon. However, Aaron was seeming to slip in his last handful of races. Apart from wins at the previous two additions of the continental championships and the 2019 National Championships, Arron hadn’t won an international race since 2017. Not only that but he had finished off the podium for the first time in his illustrious career in back-to-back races.
Brad Snyder was a two time Paralympian in swimming where he won seven medals including 5 gold. Brad made the switch to Paratriathlon in 2018 and over the course of the next two seasons had a mixed bag of results where he’d finish as high as 3rd at some races and as low as 7th in others. It was only a matter of time though before Brad figured out how to translate his world class pool speed to the open water and we all knew once he did that he was going to be a real force to be reckoned with.
Then there was me, some good of a kid with no real elite sport background except for dabbling in high school and college club wrestling who crashed the triathlon party beginning in 2015. I was such a terrible triathlete that in 2016 when I initially looked into racing on the International circuit I was brushed aside by USA Triathlon and offered no assistance or guidance on the process. So I dedicated myself to long course racing at the 70.3 and Ironman distances and had some success until 2018 when some in the Paratriathlon community began chirping in my ear that I should be racing internationally. Amy Dixon pressured me into filling out paperwork that would allow me to race on the international circuit, then I took 4th in my first continental championships finishing a mere 14sec off the podium behind Brad Snyder. Then at the end of 2018 I was accepted to live and train at the Olympic and Paratlympic Training center in Colorado Springs with the goal of pursuing the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Then it was off to the races as I tried to turn into a short course triathlete since we raced over a 750m swim, 20k bike and 5k run. In 2019, I had a handful of successes only missing the podium once at the Tokyo Paratriathlon World Cup which had been modified to a duathlon. Then I sustained a serious back injury and rehabbed for three months before smashing my hand in a strength training mishap. I went into the 2020 season shaky and not very confident. Then COVID19 struck and the 2020 season was cancelled giving me an opportunity to get healthy and continue getting stronger. Then 2021 came around and the race for Tokyo was on!
I captured my first win of the season at an invitational race put on by USA Triathlon where I out dueled Aaron scheidies. Then I traveled to Yokohama, Japan where I had an epic back and forth race with Jose Luis Garcia Serrano of Spain to capture my first ever International win—and only the 2nd WTPS win by a totally blind male athlete ever. In seven World Triathlon races I’d been on the podium five times, and had never finished lower than 4th place in any competition I’d entered. Needless to say my team was confident I’d do well, but would I do well enough? Could I live up to the pressure?
I stood in line behind my girlfriend, top Canadian Female blind triathlete Jessica Tuomela. This was the first time Jess and I had gotten to see each other in more than a year. Andy had strategically managed to place me right behind Jess in line for check in so we could at least have a few minutes to chat prior to starting our pre-race routines.
After getting goggles, tethers, and uniforms checked it was off to set up transition and last minute strategy chats. Before too long I found myself zipping into my wetsuit and listening to the slosh of waves out on the lake as the wind whipped the surface into whitecaps. I was a much stronger swimmer now than I’d ever been and I tried to be confident but inwardly I worried if I’d be strong enough to fight this rough water. In a discussion with my coach, Derick, in the weeks prior to today we estimated that I could surrender upto 70sec in the swim to Brad and still be in a good position. Any more than that though and it was going to be one hell of a fight.
We lined up for the swim start, Brad and his guide Greg Billington (2016 Olympian), and a new athlete from Panama named Giovanni and his guide Javier who would be doing their first World Triathlon race. Aaron and his guide Ben Collins, and Owen Cravens with his guide Ryan would follow us 3min and 21sec after we began.
The horn sounded and I put my head down and charged ahead. I felt someone on my right and tried to surge past them. The waves were already tossing me around making me feel like I was going nowhere. I gritted my teeth, kicked my legs and tried to fight my way through the waves.
I felt Andy tap my right shoulder and I turned. The waves seemed to ease off a bit as I churned my arms through the water. I tried to repeat to myself, “Stay calm, stay smooth, stay strong.” Every time I turned my head to breathe a wave seemed to slap me in the face. I kept pushing around the second turn imagining I was reeling Brad in, not letting him get that massive swim gap that he was capable of.
We came around the third turn buoy and my world became a chaotic frothing thrash for survival. Every single time I tried to breathe I found myself swallowing water. I felt myself getting tossed sideways crashing into Andy. I struggled to remain focused enough to continue moving forward. Where was the air? I needed air to breathe. If I can’t breathe my race is over. Suck it up… You’ve dealt with worse. Holy s*it these are the worst swim conditions I’ve ever been in. Air, I need air. Damn it, that’s more water swallowed. Come Kyle don’t give up, don’t give in, everyone else is hurting worse than you…
We came to the final left hand turn and a final 30 meter sprint or so to the shore. My hands hit the sandy bottom, I staggered up and out of the water unsteady. I heard Derick’s voice off to my left as he calmly said “1min 45sec down.”
The race was on.
Swim Time: 12min 45sec
We sprinted Andy chirping “Come on Kyle, come on, pick it up!” I yanked at the zipper to my wetsuit and the break away zipper fell open. We reached the bike and i quickly stripped the suit down to my ankles, then Andy helped me finish yanking the rest off. I grabbed my helmet and blacked out sunglasses while handing my cap and goggles to Andy. Then we grabbed the bike and began sprinting again. We reached the mount line threw our right legs over and pushed off.
Transition 1 Time: 1min 6sec
“F*ck!” Flew from my mouth as I tried pushing down with my right leg on top of my shoe which was already clipped into the pedal and rubber-banded in place. It felt like we were in too heavy a gear or maybe I just screwed up the launch. We wobbled and almost tipped. Andy’s calm voice reminded me to “stay steady.” We came to a brief pause and relaunched. My feet slid into my shoes and Andy gave me the command to strap in. And the chase was on.
We made a sharp right hand turn and the wind immediately began swirling around us. I couldn’t tell if it was a headwind, crosswind, or tail wind. All I focused on was putting my head down and pedalling. Smooth, controlled, full pedal strokes. I felt the Chinook come alive beneath me as she sliced through the swirling winds. Hard right turn, left turn, up a small hill, into a straight away. I lost track of where we were on the course. All I could think about was reeling in Brad and Greg little by little.
We were stretched out hammering away at the pedals. I couldn’t hear if anyone was around us. All there was was the howl of wind and Andy’s voice occasionally barking out commands. I kept reminding myself to drink from my bottle of Infinit but my stomach was still churning from the swim and swallowing so much water. Still I forced down sips of Infinit knowing I’d need it on the run. I knew I was about to hurt more than I ever had over the course of a 5k run.
Where were Brad and Greg? Surely they couldn’t be that far up ahead. Where were Aaron and Ben? Had I swum so poorly that they were about to pass us? Stop thinking about where everyone else is and just ride!
“Last 180,” Andy yelled. We pedalled hard toward transition. Where had the time gone? How much Infinit did I consume? Where’s Brad, Greg, Aaron, and Ben?
“Right shoe!” Reach down unstrap, slide foot out place on top. Tell Andy you’re good to go.
“Left shoe!” Reach down, unstrap, slide foot out, place on top, let Andy know you’re good to go.
“Pedal, pedal, pedal… Dismount coming in 3, 2, 1… We made up the gap!”
Bike Time: 28min 20sec
I popped my right leg over the top tube and hit the ground running. We whipped around a tight left hand 180 degree turn as we ran through transition. We reached our rack and I heard Greg and Brad talking, getting ready to take off. Wow, we had made up the gap. This race was on!
I fumbled with my helmet as I gave it to Andy to throw in the bin. I yanked on my racing flats, yanked the tether over my head and began running with Andy step for step with me on my right. It was time to get down to the business of racing.
Transition 2 Time: 54sec
We made a hard right hand turn out of T2 and I felt my left foot connect with something which appeared to be a garbage can. I payed it no mind as I began finding my run legs. I set a blistering pace as I focused on Brad and Greg’s voices about 15 meters or so up the road. “Reel’em in,” I thought. But no matter how fast my legs moved, or how hard I pumped my arms they seemed to be drawing no closer.
Andy kept reminding me, “chin down, relax… You’re reeling them in. 10 meters to go.”
The wind swirled around us, sometimes blasting me from the side, sometimes head on, even sometimes from behind. My legs felt heavy, but come on, this is triathlon they aren’t supposed to feel great. My breathing was becoming labored. I tried to calm it by taking deep breaths in and exhaling hard.
Where wer Brad and greg? Were those their voices right up ahead? “5:44 first mile. 5 meters, you’re going to make the pass. Come on Kyle! Stay on it!”
I heard Greg’s voice, calm as Andy’s as we passed on their left. I couldn’t make out the words but Greg was doing the exact same for Brad as Andy was for me. At this point in the race it was about staying controlled, calm and waiting to make your move. I ran hard trying to stretch my lead out. I heard Greg’s voice fading away behind me. The gap was widening. I was about to drop Brad. I was going to win this race…
My legs felt heavy, sweat poured off me. My breathing felt shallow. Heat… Hot… Can I get a breeze? “U-turn in 3, 2, 1.”
Headwind. WTF! Where did this headwind come from? I can’t hear. Where’s Brad? Where’s Andy? “To me Kyle… To me… Bring it up. Stay on it! Make your move, go now!”
Move? Go? Now?
Who’s that on my left? Greg? Brad? Aaron? S*it, that’s Brad. He’s passing. Make your move. Burn a match. “You’ve gotta go now Kyle!”
Go! What are you waiting for?! Go! Go! G…..
“Please… Please…” Is that Andy saying please? Why does he sound panicked, or desperate? Why do my legs hurt so bad? Why is it so hot? Why am I running? Where’s Brad? Am I leading, or 2nd? Where’s Aaron? Andy, are you still there?
Noise… Music… Shouting… Heat… Wind…
Run Time: 19min 32sec
Total Time: 1hr 2min 35sec
“I’m sorry,” I remembered babbling as Andy held me upright, or tried to as I staggered over to the side of the race course.
“Stop that,” he said firmly. “You gave it everything and I couldn’t be prouder. You were strong and fought through on a day that wasn’t yours…”
My hearing was fuzzy, it was so hot. I knew I needed to drink water but I couldn’t stomach the thought of drinking anything. Then I remember clutching the rim of a garbage can and spewing into it.
Then Brad and Greg were there. “Kyle, I know we’re not supposed to but come here.” Brad and I embraced. We’d both pushed ourselves to the edge. “That was a hell of a race,” Brad said.
Brad had done it. He’d out run me in that final mile for his first career win and almost positively secured his spot to Tokyo. I was disappointed in myself. It hurt to lose again, especially coming off a couple of huge wins. But I had taken 2nd. And it had been a true race again. In Yokohama I’d out dueled Jose to pull away and win by 9 seconds. This time it was Brad out dueling me to pull away in the final mile to win by 52 seconds.
I hung onto the temporary fencing trying not to throw up again. A medical person kept telling me to drink water. Andy and my family were there congratulating me telling me how proud they were. I couldn’t respond, I was just too exhausted.
Then Jess came sprinting down the finishing shoot. I heard Andy say she was coming and I mustered up enough energy to turn, ready to greet my girlfriend as she came across the line. Unfortunately Jess caught her foot on the carpet covering the finish line and went down hard skinning both of her knees badly. Not knowing she’d crossed the line though she scrambled to her feet and tried to keep running as her guide pulled at her yelling at her to stop, that they were done. Andy supported me over to Jess and I grabbed her hand refusing to let go. We made our way to an open grassy area and I collapsed on the ground. I knew I needed to rest and laying down was the best way I knew how to do that. Andy knelt by my side and kept talking to me keeping my thoughts of disappointment and doubt from crowding out the positives. I’d given it everything I had. I’d dueled with Brad Snyder all the way to the end. I’d managed to hold off a hard charging Aaron Scheidies who finished only 17 seconds behind me. My coach Derick was there lending his calming presence. My parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. Sitting just a few feet away, my girlfriend, Jessica Tuomela, sat getting her skinned knees bandaged. I still had teammates out on the course who were crushing their races…
Thoughts and emotions swirled in my head as I lay there on the grass with my feet propped up on a folding chair. Aaron and ben knelt down beside me to congratulate me and tell me how amazing it was that I’d gotten so strong. Why was everyone treating me like this? I’d just lost? Hadn’t I? It took a few hours and days for me to remember that winning does matter in sport, but it is still truly about pushing ourselves to the edge and even over the edge. Sport is about finding the best we have on that day and never quitting.
It took me a couple of hours to finally cool down and recover enough to sit up, eat and drink. By that time I learned that the rest of my teammates were finishing. I learned of the epic battle between Hailey Danz, Allysa Seely, and Melissa Stockwell in the PTS2 race which Hailey won. I learned about Eric Mcelvany out running Jamie brown to grab his first career win and secure a second spot for the USA in the PTS4 class. I learned about Kendall’s and Howie’s dominating wins. One by one, my teammates found their way to me to check how I was doing and we each congratulated each other in turn. There was a buzz in the air of victory and defeat, uncertainty and triumph. Racing was truly back and we were only eight weeks out from the Paralympic Games. And in one week’s time we would be finding out who would be representing the United States at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in the sport of Paratriathlon. Until then though I planned to head home to clear my mind in the clean mountain air of the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado and spend some well deserved time with Jess as she’d received approval from Triathlon Canada to stay in the US for a couple weeks as she waited for her second vaccine dose to take full effect thereby eliminating her need to quarantine upon her return to Canada. After a year and a half apart we were thrilled to spend two weeks together and switch our brains off from triathlon as we hiked through the Elk Mountains and ate good food and shared good company with friends and family as we waited for the call.
I sat in the bucket seat behind the driver. Skye was on the floor to my right and I held Jess’s hand as we drove up toward Snowmass to go for a hike with my parents. My phone rang displaying the name Amanda Duke (USA Paratriathlon Program Director). Heart in my throat I double tapped the screen. “Hey Kyle, it’s Amanda…”
Americas Triathlon PTVI Men’s Results
1. Brad Snyder/Greg Billington, 1:01:43
2. Kyle Coon/Andy Potts, 1:02:35
3. Aaron Scheidies/Ben Collins, 1:02:52