Saturday, April 29. I am driving home from Cary, North Carolina, after racing the Long Course Duathlon National Championship. Just as I’m stopping for food and a stretch, my phone rings. To my surprise, it is Ivonne, the girl I guided for in a triathlon earlier this spring. I hadn’t heard from her since the race - so I was very excited that she was calling. As it turns out, she was calling to inquire whether I would be interested in guiding for another visually impaired athlete - Amy Dixon. Well, sure! No sooner did I get off the phone with her, I received an email from Helen Phipps (who helped connect me with Ivonne and the world of guiding in the first place) - making the same request. Hmmmmm - interesting. Within the next ten minutes Amy herself contacted me. And here’s the story . . . this girl has been training like crazy in preparation for a race taking place in 2 weeks. Then she was notified that her current guide would not be allowed to guide her (part of the guiding regulations are that you cannot race as a professional triathlete in any ITU sanctioned race within the past 12 months - and her current guide had). Her backup guide had an unfortunate bike crash in Ironman Texas and was awaiting an MRI on her ankle. Basically, any other guide she had used in the past was unavailable - and she was faced with the possibility of not being able to race . . . simply because she had no one to guide her. Can you imagine? There was one slight logistical challenge . . . she was scheduled to leave for the race in 9 days - the location, Japan.
Wow. What a situation. I have to say, I am a big believer that things happen for a reason. I knew immediately that - if I had no obligations (i.e. a family with two little kids and a job) - I would have told her yes immediately, without hesitation. There is just something about guiding that I am very passionate about, and although I readily admit I am very inexperienced, I am willing to put in the effort and work to change that. However, I needed to clear it with family and work, so I told Amy I would let her know by the end of the weekend. I also let her know in no uncertain terms about my newness to guiding, and asked her to use me as a last resort - if any of her other guides could possibly help her their experience would definitely be more of an advantage.
I am blessed with the most incredibly supportive husband. No sooner did I explain the situation to Jeff he was behind it 100%. Without a moment’s hesitation he told me I absolutely should go. He is amazing, and I don’t take for granted how lucky I am. Now, what to do about work? Again, I am fortunate that my job (and boss) is also supportive of my racing and opportunities - so we managed to schedule some extra hours of work in the week coming up in order to get the next week off. It indeed takes (more than) a village - let me tell you. I owe big thanks to my work scheduling department and my absolutely wonderful, hard-working, never-complaining, go-the-extra-mile nurses who helped me through the week. I gave Amy the green light, and as she had found no other guides available, on Tuesday I found myself with a ticket to fly to Japan in 6 days. Pretty crazy.
So, as I have mentioned, I am still very new to guiding. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been on a tandem. And - I’m not a fan of doing things half-way. If I was going to fly across the world to help someone with a serious race, I wanted to be as prepared as I could be. All accounts said that the course in Japan was very technical on the bike. That was fine - except for my concerns with handling a tandem. I needed to find SOMEONE to ride a tandem with, to work on some handling skills. My brave sister, Robyn, was kind enough to ride with me before I went to race with Ivonne - and might I add that when she trusted me enough to ride with me it was the first time EITHER of us had ever been on a tandem. I knew I could count on her to help me, but what I really needed was someone experienced with handling a tandem who could teach me. I contemplated driving to Chattanooga (a 5 hour drive one way for me) to ride with one of Amy’s teammates - but the weather was iffy and time too valuable. Suddenly, I had another idea . . . a long-time family friend lives an hour from me, has a tandem, and is an experienced bike racer - maybe he could help me. So, I messaged Shane Long. This was Wednesday night - and incredibly it worked with both our schedules to meet the next morning. The day dawned grey and rainy, which was actually just what I needed to practice in. Shane was amazing - he took me around (and might I add he is the first person I have been brave enough to ride a tandem with as pilot), and I was able to appreciate the back-seat perspective. As we switched positions and I practiced cornering and turn-arounds I had to laugh as Shane made my favorite comment of the day . . . “Woah, it’s scary back here”. Let me add that was just when we first started, and he was more comfortable (at least I hope) by the time we finished. However, it still makes me laugh . . .
And before I knew it, I was landing in Japan. Amy and I arrived on Tuesday night, checked into our hotel - and slept. Wednesday morning we did a little run together - which went really well. After breakfast my lack of bike mechanic skills were again blatantly obvious as I watched her put together her tandem.
And - let me tell you about her bike. It.Is.Amazing. She calls her ‘Bomber’ - she is a sleek, black, custom designed Calfee with Di2 shifting, and race wheels. A cadillac of bikes to put it mildly. Beautiful. And fast. We did our first ride together, appropriately enough, in the rain. Not only that, the practice course was on a cobble-stone type surface, slippery, and was probably less than 1/2 mile long with 3 turn arounds. For those of you who don’t like to do a turnaround on your bike in the middle of a 2 lane road by yourself - I want you to picture this: Raining. Wet. Slippery. Tight corners. Other riders in front of and behind you. Officials at every turn watching you. Barricades. On a tandem. With someone visually impaired trusting you. Now flip that and imagine the same scenario except you are on the back - and you are visually impaired. Riding with someone you have never ridden with before and don’t even know if they can handle a bike. I hope you get the picture.
However, once again it was just the type of conditions we needed to practice in. And - we did not go down, or even come close to it. And, we felt a lot better having practiced. In fact, on Friday morning when we did our actual course preview, none of the turns seemed like a big deal at all.
Amy and I hit it off right from the start. She too has an amazing story. She grew up in Connecticut, and by the time she was in her 20s she was a pharmacy student at the University of Connecticut by day and waiting tables by night. Then, things started to change. One evening, as she went to pour a glass of wine, she missed the glass. She found herself bumping into objects she simply didn’t see. At first it was easy to chalk it up to being overtired, “burning the candle at both ends” - school, work, studying, and little sleep. But things continued to progress - she started tripping without knowing why, and even missed steps taking several tumbles down flights of stairs. This seemed to get worse at night or when the lighting was poor. Her mother visited and was alarmed by the number of bruises covering her body, and knew something was amiss. Since childhood Amy had suffered from migraines, and as fate would have it, her neurologist refused to refill her medication without seeing her for a check-up. During the visit, Amy mentioned her strange vision issues, and when her neurologist tested her visual fields found her peripheral vision was absent. He immediately recommended that she see an opthalmologist. Amy stalled, her busy schedule with work and school did not leave time for another appointment, and she had no health insurance and really could not afford to pay another bill. Sensing that she would not follow through, her neurologist cleared the rest of his schedule for the day and personally escorted her to the specialist. What followed were a series of tests and consults ending with a diagnosis of multifocal choroiditis - a very rare, progressive eye disease that generally results in complete vision loss…blindness.
Again, imagine the situation. You are 22 years old. You are in school, have a great job, a full and busy life . . . and suddenly out of the blue someone tells you that you are losing your ability to see and that within the next few years you will be blind. How do you think you would react? No. No way. Not me. I’m fine. I’ve always been fine. You must have me confused with someone else. There’s no way that’s happening to me. That can’t happen to me. You guys must be crazy. You’re wasting my time. I’m outta here.
And, that’s what happened. Except, things didn’t get better. In fact, they continued to get worse. More spilled wine. Collisions with waiters whom she just couldn’t see. More bruises and falls and even a few broken ribs. Finally, Amy decided to seek the opinion of her long-time family doc (aka her pediatrician). She gave him the whole story, and he encouraged her to go back to the specialist. Still with no money and no health insurance, she saved all her tips and paychecks for the next 6 weeks, and made an appointment. The verdict was still the same. And, the treatments began. Numerous eye surgeries over the span of a few years. Medications and side-effects. Some left her sick. Some left her unable to move - resulting in her lying on her office floor until the security guards came to check on her. Some - lead to malignancy, melanoma, resulting in further medications and treatments. Yet, through all this she persevered. When the steroid treatments resulted in weight gain, she knew she had to take action. She started swimming and running - lost 60lbs, and found triathlon.
And - that is the short version. Visually impaired, still plagued with migraines, and with bowel disease that has surfaced along the way (she suffered a bowel obstruction just days before leaving for Japan, ending up with a hospital stay), it makes “just” swimming/biking/running sound easy. Yet this girl refuses to be stopped. She trains hard, remains upbeat and positive, and is a true example of perseverance. There’s a gatorade quote I love that states, “You can throw in the towel or use it to wipe the sweat from your face” - well if anyone ever had an excuse (or 20) to throw in the towel, it is Amy Dixon - yet she continues to hold on fiercely and sweat it out.
Race morning. Grey. Windy. Rainy. But - spirits were high. Really, at the end of the day, we were here. Racing was better than not. We had nothing to lose. Our goals - stay safe, have fun, race hard. And - we did. We had a smooth, steady swim. We stayed on course.
We exited to transition feeling good. Onto the bike. During the first lap (it was a 4 lap course), coming around a corner we hit a slick spot and the back wheel slipped - it caught just fine, but it did get our attention. Then on the back of the course there was a really tight chicane of right-left-right, lined with barricades, and as I went to brake . . . we barely slowed. Hmmmmmm. “Amy - we don’t have much in the way of brakes. I’m just gonna warn you. So - the turns are going to be slow and cautious.” But - we did just fine. Every lap got a little better. We went hard when it was safe, and we kept the turns conservative. I got really good at avoiding paint and manhole covers - let me tell you. And - then it was on to the run. Just out of transition, Amy’s stomach cramped into knots. We had a 3 lap run, and despite the added challenge, Amy ran strong. She never gave in, never slowed, kept it strong and steady - and kept moving forward. She accelerated all the way down the blue carpet to the finish line - and crossed as a champion. Officially she finished 4th - but it was a win on so many different levels. We stayed safe. We raced hard. And - we had FUN.
I met so many incredible athletes over the 5 days I spent in Japan. People who fate has dealt a hard hand to - and who have persevered and overcome - who have made the best out of tough situations. I don’t know all the stories, and I certainly cannot begin to imagine all the day-to-day challenges - much less how those challenges are multiplied by doing a triathlon (think different prosthesis needed from bike to run, different chairs from bike to run, needing a ‘handler’ or someone to help you, the list goes on).
I am so very thankful to Amy for giving me this incredible opportunity, and trusting me to be her eyes. To all those who I met, and who raced in Yokohama - I have nothing but respect. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. I cannot even begin to tell you how much it affected me. Inspired. Humbled. Honored.
We seldom know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes we are given opportunities or challenges - and accepting them is not always the easy answer. But, sometimes you just have to trust your instincts, take a leap of faith, and… jump in with both feet.
For more about Amy Dixon check out her website: http://www.amydixonusa.com
And some randomness...