‘Season’s Greetings from your long lost blind triathlete! I’m out here in the hills of San Diego California preparing for my final qualifier for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. My race is being held in Sarasota Florida at the CAMTRI Continental Cup against the top blind athletes from North and South America. It’s been a whirlwind ‘post season’ since World Championships in Chicago, where I finished in 7th place. I was blessed to finish up the year with enough points to remain the #6 blind female triathlete in the world, with a solid win at a World Cup in Edmonton just two weeks prior to Chicago.
So what have I been up to these past few months? After World Championships, I had a nice easy week off, and caught up on life with advanced Glaucoma. My eye pressure was spiking dangerously during the final weeks leading up to my race in Chicago, and my amazing team at Yale University Hospital Eye Center managed to ‘bandaid’ an in-office procedure that enabled me to race and brought my interocular pressure down to a temporarily safer level.
I had the incredible blessing of participating in my third Challenged Athlete’s Foundation ‘San Diego Triathlon Challenge’ with my good friend and cheerleader AND guide Debbie Ragals at my side for the mile swim in scenic La Jolla Cove. There aren’t words for how inspiring this special day is for everyone who races or spectates. Hundreds of athletes with every type of physical disability fly into San Diego for this amazing weekend of adaptive sports clinics, camaraderie, and philanthropy. Here you get to see 5 year old children get their first prosthetic running leg; a blind man getting on a bicycle for the first time in his life at 35 years old, a veteran being fitted to a racing wheelchair so he can ‘run’ for the first time since his deployment. There isn’t a dry eye all weekend, and inspiration is everywhere you look. Ironman pros, like Meredith Kessler and Luke Mackenzie, fly in and volunteer all day long, tirelessly cycling, swimming and running alongside these challenged athletes, supporting and encouraging them through every step and stroke. It’s really my favorite thing ever.
From this event, Debbie and I headed south to the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center, for 7 days of post season training camp with the US Paratriathlon Team. We had an amazing week swimming tough sets, strength training with a great teacher, and learning new skills to take into the winter months of training for our next event. While I was blessed to be racing alongside these amazing disabled athletes, I was yet to be named to the National Team. After having such an epic season, I was selected to the National Team this fall! I was so honored and relieved by the announcement. All of the hard work, and tens of thousands of dollars traveling around the globe had paid off. Going forward, my race-related travel would be mostly covered if approved by USA Paratriathlon, and I would receive a coaching stipend, that was WELL deserved by coach Ray Kelly for all of his time and attention this year.
From the the NYC marathon, where I gave a speech for the Challenged Athletes’ Foundation, I headed to Philadelphia, where I put on my hat as the Vice President of Glaucoma Eyes International. Here I gave a speech at the ‘Next IT’ Health Summit, where I spoke about my success in treating a very rare and difficult eye disease by empowering myself as an informed patient and becoming my own advocate. I encouraged my audience of doctors, pharmaceutical executives and insurance company CEOs to LISTEN to patients, and view them as a whole person, not just a number on a chart. My message was to become a partner with these patients in order to treat the whole disease rather than the symptoms, as is common practice, and a costly mistake in the long term. I received a standing ovation, then hopped a train for eye surgery #19 back in Connecticut the next morning.
My surgery was a bit of a disaster. My Glaucoma valve that regulates the pressure inside of my eye had failed due to aggressive scar tissue from my OTHER eye disease, Uveitis. So, Dr. Liu went in to remove the scar tissue, restoring my high pressure to a safer, lower pressure, but my pain level was off the chart due to some damage to the cornea (the front lens of the eye that has a lot of nerves). I managed to medicate myself enough to host my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador Elvis’ retirement party, with roughly 70 people in attendance at my local YMCA, who so generously hosted the event. Elvis received dozens of treats and toys, and my friend Cheryl was kind enough to sew dog toys to sell as a fundraiser towards the Paralympics. Elvis had an amazing time at his party, greeting everyone happily with his new bone dangling from his grinning snout.
The next day I couldn’t bear the pain, and headed back to Yale Eye Center for evaluation of my post-op eye. I was admitted to the hospital, and had two horrific nights at Yale, which included some nasty pain management drugs, horrible side effects, and I was robbed of more than $500 cash in donations from Elvis’ party that was in an envelope inside my purse next to my hospital bed, less than 3 feet from where I slept. After this disastrous 19th surgery, I was eager to get home and get back to life and training. As expected, the surgery failed, and my pressure spiked again due to the scar tissue returning immediately. But this time there was something more.
My surgeon first kicked me up to Boston to see THE top Uveitis doctor in the world, the famous Charles Stephen Foster. The surgeons in NY and CT found a spot of inflammation that frightened them, and they began to worry that in addition to my very active and aggressive Glaucoma, that my Uveitis had come OUT of remission and was beginning to rear its ugly head, making our treatment plan, and any future glaucoma surgeries extremely risky. He confirmed what they had seen, began me on a new and very expensive drug, and we crossed our fingers that it would work. Within a few weeks, the inflammation had cleared up, and I was given the green light by him to continue aggressively fighting the glaucoma. One disaster averted.
I was SO excited to come home and have the chance to tour the Fidelco Guide Dog School. Here, they specialized in breeding and training a specific line of German Shepherds for guiding the blind and visually impaired for almost 60 years. They are considered the gold standard when it comes to this specific breed, and is one of the only schools that exclusively travels TO their clients to train them in their home environments, rather than on a campus. This suited my lifestyle with training and all the travel I would be doing. Their facility was spotless and the staff so kind and professional. I had the chance to ‘test drive’ three amazing and totally different dogs who had varying speeds and personalities. It was determined I would need a strong-pulling, medium-fast dog that also had a big personality and could settle next to a pool or treadmill for hours at a time. A tall order for sure.
From Fidelco, I then hopped my next flight to be a speaker and 10K participant at the California International Marathon. Next to Boston, this was the largest contingent of visually impaired runners of any race in the USA, and would be the US Blind Marathon Championships. I was honored to have been asked to host a wine tasting fundraiser for the Society for the Blind in Sacramento, and to help host a children’s event after the race, where each visually impaired child would get a chance at trying an adaptive sport. My friend and guide Lindsey Cook flew in for the race, and we had a fun weekend seeing all of our friends in the visually impaired community, and being inspired by all of the amazing marathon runners around us. It was the best way imaginable to kick off my 40th birthday, doing something I loved surrounded by amazing people.
I had the most fun and exciting day testing out guide dogs to determine my best match with Fidelco Guide Dogs trainer Becky Cook. After spending about 40 minutes testing each of three dogs on various routes near my home, I knew that we had found the right dog. He is an 80lb black sable German Shepherd with a GIANT head, and a compact, and thick body. He is built for strength without a doubt. He is sweet and loving, but calm and patient and curious but watchful. He was fascinated by the pool and treadmill at the YMCA, but after 2 minutes, calmly laid down and waited for his next command. I knew he was the one. His name will be revealed when he comes home to train with me on March 21st in CT. For now- he’s just ‘my dog’, and is at Fidelco undergoing the final stages of his training to be ready to travel the world with me as my eyes.
After a busy holiday and some hard training indoors in CT, I left for the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for a week of swim camp with Team USA. I was nervous, as the coaches had warned us we would be swimming nearly 7,000 meters a day at elevation, making for one hell of a tough week. As it turned out, it was not only physically grueling, but mentally taxing as well. I went into camp quite sick from bronchitis, and it made the harder, faster efforts almost impossible to do without choking on mucus or inflaming my lungs. I was grateful for the help I got from my Xterra Wetsuits Lava Pants for a few of the workouts, which gave my hips some flotation, and allowed me to swim faster with less effort so I could give my damaged lungs a little break. I was feeling pretty down on myself, as I wasn’t being embraced by a lot of my teammates, so I spent the week pretty homesick and keeping to myself as much as possible in the Sports Medicine complex, where the team of physical therapists and massage therapists and recovery devices made the week tolerable and kept me from packing my stuff and heading home early.
One particular morning was a great challenge after I felt the sting of being treated with hostility by my teammates, and my Irritable bowel disease began to rear its ugly head from stress and different foods. It reminded me of hazing during soccer tryouts in high school. I was doing the best I could to hold my head high, but my body had other plans. My stomach was ‘over-active’ and I was desperate to get into the pool before I got in trouble with the coaches for being late. I was in tears in a bathroom stall, sitting there, feeling sorry for myself, and trying to coach myself into getting out onto the pool deck. Out loud I gave myself the following pep talk. “You can do ANYTHING for an hour. You’re not gonna die. You’re just going to be extremely uncomfortable. This could easily be race day. Suck it up Dixon. Let’s DO THIS!” And with that, I headed out the door of the bathroom stall, and bumped right into the US Paralympic Swimming Coach. She smiled politely, and said, “Great pep talk. Now get out there!” I was mortified that she heard my little pity party, but grateful for the encouragement.
After surviving my hell week, I was grateful to arrive in sunny San Diego to begin my training with new guide Susanne Davis. My lungs were starting to clear and I was thankful to be in an adorable rental by the beach. I had some great workouts with coach Ray Kelly, and local support from friends in the area for rides and dinners to keep me company. Friend Debbie flew out to guide me at Braveheart training camp with Simon Marshall and his wife, Xterra pro Lesley Paterson. We had the MOST fun 4 days riding bikes, running, and freezing our tails off while swimming. I met the most incredible people who are also some of the top athletes in the sport. I had the opportunity to give them a talk about overcoming obstacles in both triathlon and life. More or less, about learning to adapt, and having a plan B. Who knew that my plan B would be a career as an athlete?
Now I’m on week three of my homestay with guide Susanne, and we are having the most incredible time getting to know one another, and learn how to work together as a team to get the most out of me as an athlete. Her resume as an athlete reads like the ‘who’s who’ of triathlon- National USA Triathlon Master’s Champion, Competed at the USA Triathlon Olympic Trials, a former Team USA member in residence at the Olympic Training Center, Ironman World Champion, 2nd Overall Amateur Ironman World Championships, and Ironman World Championships Age group World Record Holder. To have her as my eyes, and to put her Ironman season on hold for me until after Rio is beyond the greatest gift and sacrifice I could imagine.
But after meeting her, and spending time getting to know her family, her athletes that she coaches, and her incredible circle of friends and sponsors, I know that I am with the right person at the right time. Her dedication, attention to detail, and extreme athletic prowess, along with her sharp, analytical, mathematical mind will enable me to reach my goal next month of qualifying for the Rio Paralympic Games. Not only is she kind and supportive, but she gives me confidence in a way I cannot describe. I’m looking forward to two more grueling but rewarding weeks of training alongside Susanne to fine tune our working relationship and to build a partnership that translates into the right result on race day. To each and every one of you who has watched this journey unfold, and cheered me on at each triumph and setback, God bless you. #LoveandGratitude
To help Amy and Susanne get to the starting line, you can make a tax deductible donation here through the US Association of Blind Athletes: www.amydixon.wpengine.com/donate
Amy currently has NO financial sponsors. Her current product sponsors consist of Garmin, Signature Cycles, Recovery Pump, Green and Tonic and Xterra Wetsuits. Thank you to this amazing group for keeping me in the running to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage!