The Paralympic Games
August 27, 2021
750m Swim, 20k Bike, 5k Run
I sat on the pontoon with my legs dangling in the water. Andy was immediately to my left and Brad and Greg were immediately to Andy’s left. To my right was Anatolii and his guide and immediately to his right was Satoru with his guide. I’d just removed my ice vest to keep my core temperature as low as possible in the high heat and humidity of Tokyo. The air didn’t seem heavy, but maybe that was the excitement of the day.
My heart pounded in my chest. I splashed the warm salty water up onto my face and chest. “Stay calm. It’s just like any other race. Just swim, bike and run.”
We slid off the pontoon and into the water. I kept one hand on the pontoon and tried to get my legs in a decent kicking position so I could have a little momentum at the beginning of the swim. I heard the countdown on the loud speakers begin. The heartbeat noise that proceeds all World Triathlon events seemed deeper and more ominous. Then came the “On your mark” and the blast of the signal to go.
We were off.
I charged out, I couldn’t help myself. But after a few strokes I tried to calm down and just swim smooth and strong. “Find some feet and stay on them” I thought to myself. Every once in a while I thought I touched someone’s foot but then that person would swim away.
There was a long stretch before the first turn boy to the right. I felt Andy tap my right shoulder to indicate a right hand turn. I turned harde and felt someone just ahead of me. I dug deep trying to stay with them. Was it Jose? Anatolii? Antoine? Satoru? I had no idea of knowing. All I could do was swim as hard yet as smooth as possible. No matter what though I felt slow. Why could I never feel fast in the water?
We made the second turn, then the third. All the while I kept trying to find feet to follow. There were a few times when I thought I felt the bubbles from someone’s feet but they always seemed to allude me.
Finally I felt us make the last turn and I charged as hard as I could into the swim exit. I popped up and unhooked the swim tether from around my left thigh. Andy was right there, a steady calm presence encouraging me up the ramp. I heard what I both expected, and didn’t expect. “Fourth place, 1min 45sec behind first.”
Swim Time: 12min 9sec
The ramp up out of the water rose up at an angle then leveled out two or three times. Then there was a sharp turn into the row of bikes. I ran hard knowing that I couldn’t make up the entire gap up in T1 but I could certainly fall further back. We made it to the bike and I got my cap, goggles and tether into the bin. Then on with the glasses and helmet—relatively smoothly—and then we were running toward the mount line.
We stopped swung our legs over the bike and pushed off.
Transition 1: 1min 9sec
This was where we felt we were going to make up the most time on the field. However, taking some of the technical turns at speed, and bouncing around on the bike saddle coming in and out of the transition area (an area we’d have to pass through several times over the course of the 20k) was much more challenging at race speed than we’d anticipated. I always struggle getting my bare feet into my cycling shoes on the bike. Guess I should practice that more. So that felt like it delayed me more. Finally though my feet were in the shoes and we could ride. We had some work to do to catch not only Brad who was almost two minutes up the road but Jose and Satoru who were just ahead of us. So we put our heads down and rode hard.
Despite riding hard though neither Andy or I seemed to find the top power we were capable of doing. We were able to slowly reel in Satoru over the course of a couple of laps but every turn on the course seemed like a struggle. It seemed as though we’d just gotten up to speed and then we were slamming on the breaks or stopping pedaling in order to safely navigate around a tight turn. Finally though we moved ahead of satoru and also Jose. We were sitting in second but every time gap we got still had Brad and Greg way up the road. Were Brad and Greg having the race of their lives? Or was I having a horrible bike?
On lap three Andy and I were on a long straight away with a very slight uphill. Satoru was right on our wheel and we tried to put in a surge to shake him. But nothing we did could shake him. It was like our back wheel was a magnet and every move we tried to make we just kept pulling him along. In my gut I knew this race was going to be decided on the run. I’d out run most of the guys that were right around me in recent races so I clung to that hope.
We hit the very last technical section with some hard turns into the transition area. We got our feet out of our shoes and prepared to dismount.
Bike Time: 29min 19sec
We’d climbed our way up into second but we were still more than a minute and a half behind brad. At this point it became about racing for a medal, not racing for the top of the podium. We sprinted with the bike through transition and racked as fast as possible. I fumbled with my running shoes. I was stressed and panicking. I knew I couldn’t let the guys I’d come into transition with get out ahead of me on the run. I needed to get out of transition first. But in my haste I struggled to remain smooth. Finally though I had my shoes on and we were running and putting the tether on. I could hear the loudness of the crowd.
Transition 2 Time: 55sec
I heard my teammates Jamie and Eric screaming at the side of the course as well as the babble of Japanese fans lining the course outside of the grand stands. I also noticed the heat. It came up in waves from the ground and surrounded me. It pressed in from all sides. All I could think about was trying to remain cool. Immediately out of transition was a steep ramp up onto the main part of the run course. I drove my body up it willing myself not to slow down. I could feel someone passing on my left. Then we were taking a hard left and onto the bulk of the run course. It was easily the most technical run course I’d ever tried to race. Every 100-200 meters seemed to be another turn. Even though we’d run the course a couple of times a few days earlier nothing quite prepares you for the actual feeling of race pace and race conditions. We ran hard along a straight away to a tight 180 degree turn to the right. Then there was an immediate 90 degree turn to the left, then some gradual weaving back and forth. Every lap we passed through an area where Derick could throw us a stocking filled with ice to keep our temperatures down. Every time we passed an aid station we were grabbing water to dump over ourselves and into our mouths. I kept expecting to get passed any second by someone. I knew the B2s and B3s would be coming I just didn’t know on which lap. Brad was way out of reach and Satoru seemed to be running away from me.
The back third of the run course was the most nerve racking for me in particular. There was a stretch of downhill into transition, but just before that was a very slippery section where volunteers were spraying water on the competitors to keep us cool. The footing was sketchy and there were also a couple of dips in the pavement that were serous tripping hazards. During the run course preview I’d caught my toe in one of these and taken a hard fall. That experience made me cautious and hold back ever so slightly. This was a four lap run course, every time I hesitated I lost time. And I just didn’t have the umph to make up that time.
On lap two of the run I heard my teammate Jamie yell something about one of the competitors just in front or behind us had a penalty so to just keep going. I think it was also lap two, or maybe it was three when Hector catala Laparra and his guide passed us pushing us down to fourth. I begged my legs to turn over faster. I begged my mind and body to suffer a little more. Every time I passed Derick at the ice station he sounded panicked and frustrated that I wasn’t running faster. I could hear a pleading in Andy’s voice urging me on. I felt a crushing weight in my chest and on my shoulders. I had no snap in my legs, nothing more to give.
Finally, I sprinted hard up the last hill and out onto the fourth lap of the run. Thibaut and his guide were coming fast behind me and supposedly Hector and Satoru weren’t too far ahead. If I could just produce a world-class last lap I might be able to hold off Thibaut and who knew, maybe catch third?
I ran hard along the straight away to the right 180. As we made the turn I heard Thibaut come around me and take the lead. In my head I yelled at myself to go with him. Andy yelled encouragement, “Stay with him, stay with him.” As we passed Derick at the ice station he yelled “You gotta go now!” I tried, I begged my legs, lungs and heart to give me just a little more.
I navigated down the last steep ramp down toward the finishing shoot. Then we were in the shoot and sprinting. I wasn’t sure if I’d caught Thibaut, or how close anyone was behind me. I thought I was in fifth, but I could’ve been in sixth or worse. I barely made it over the line and crumpled to the ground.
Run Time: 19min 28sec
Total Time: 1hr 3min 0sec
Final Place: 5th
There was a crazy amount of noise. I heard the boom of the announcer’s voice. I heard yelling of athletes from the earlier race. I heard people telling us to move along.
Andy helped me up and we found our way to Brad and Greg. I had enough energy to ask if they’d managed to win. “We won.” Brad said, he sounded exhausted yet elated. I was thrilled for Brad and Greg. In the entire history of triathlon and paratriathlon being in the Olympics and Paralympics, an American male had not won an individual meda.. In this year’s Olympic Games, my friend Kevin McDowell raced his way to the highest place a male had ever finished in the individual race (6th). Then Team USA put together a brilliant race to earn a silver medal in the first ever mixed team relay. It had fallen to us though, the male paratriathletes to try to bring home some individual hardware. Jamie and Eric had battled but come up a little short in the PTS4 race that morning, and the hopes had shifted to Brad, Greg, Andy and me. Brad and Greg delivered in spectacular fashion seizing hold of the race right from the beginning and never letting go.
And yet, I was disappointed in myself. Not in the effort I gave. I’d given everything I had. I was disappointed with my result and I felt like I’d let my guide, coach, and teammates who all believed in me down. They’d all believed in me so strongly and I’d come up short of all of our expectations. But the US Paratriathlon team is a family and know how to come together to support each other. Whether it was celebrating our medalists, or holding up those who were disappointed with their races, we were all in this journey together. If I myself had not been able to bring home a medal then I wanted Brad and Greg to be the ones bringing home a medal in the men’s visually impaired race.
Who Do You Race For?
A couple days before, we were all dressed up in our Opening Ceremony outfits. The excitement was thick in the air. Other teams were milling about, taking photos and getting ready to head to the Opening Ceremonies. About half of us from the Paratriathlon Team did not plan on attending Opening Ceremonies, but we still all dressed up to take photos and send those off who were attending. Just before we all split to either go to Opening, or head upstairs to change and go eat, we gathered together. Andy and Brad had thrown out the idea of doing some kind of team cheer to show our spirit. They had both been part of incredibly successful swim teams growing up and apparently this was a common thing. So Brad gathered us all together and we derived a cheer. Brad would yell “Who do you race for?” To which we’d respond “USA!” We’d repeat this sequence three times.
As we bellowed out this cheer standing in the middle of the Paralympic Village I couldn’t help but chuckle wondering what people must think of the crazy Paratriathletes.
As Brad and Greg stood atop the podium and the last notes of the Star Spangled Banner faded away, Brad again yelled at the top of his lungs “WHO DO YOU RACE FOR?!” And without hesitation, every single American present screamed back “USA!”
I realized that I could be disappointed with my result but at the end of the day the answer to Brad’s question was indeed why I was here. We were racing for all those who couldn’t be here in person. We were racing for each other. We were racing for our friends, family, our country and the hope for a better future.
The next day, I sat in the grand stands with the rest of my teammates as we screamed and cheered our heads off for the rest of our teammates who were racing on day two of Paratriathlon competition. I was filled with more pride and excitement witnessing Kendall take a thrilling win by one second in the women’s Wheelchair Race. And I was more heart broken for Chris as he finished just six seconds off the podium.
One of the main goals of the Olympic and Paralympic movement is to Unite the World through Sport. With all the stress of the pandemic, that goal was certainly made more challenging. I do know that the USA Paratriathlon Paralympic squad became much closer and united. And I even felt a stronger kinship with several athletes against whom I’d raced. Maybe that’s the nature of the games, or maybe a product of how difficult paratriathlon is in general.
In the months since racing at the Paralympics I’ve had some mental struggles with processing the immense emotional toll of 2021. But when I start to slide down a darker path in my mind I recall the simple question Brad asked from the top of the podium, and the resounding and united response…
Who do you race for? USA!