“This is nuts!” I said as guide Susanne Davis and I looked at the bike course map. “160 turns in 20K? Is that even possible?” “Apparently they managed. Holy cow. This is going to be insane. Fun, but insane.” “Oh, don’t you worry Dixon. I’ve got this,” Susanne smiled. “We are going to ROCK this course.” I gulped and went back to studying the Rotterdam World Championships map.
Rotterdam was a lovely city. Not as picturesque or grand as Amsterdam, but with many adorable outdoor cafes and a vibrant feel to the downtown area we were staying in. For a pleasant change, all of the athletes and equipment arrived without delay or damage, and we got busy assembling bikes, and hopping into meetings with coaches, mechanic, psychologist and dietician to prepare for the big day.
Mentally, I was really struggling. The disappointing bipartite selection for the Rio Paralympics left me depressed and confused by it all. I still couldn’t wrap my head around my ranking being #6, and yet the committee selected athletes who were ranked 8,9 and 11 instead. None of these women had beaten me this season in any race. It just didn’t seem fair. I was doing my best to come to terms with this shock and disappointment, but it had crept up on me in unexpected ways. I had constant nightmares. Panic attacks, lost my appetite, and cried through every single workout for two weeks leading up to World Championships. I had my sports psychologist, Simon, on speed dial. My friends rallied around me to force me out of the house each day to get some sort of activity in, even if it was an abbreviated workout or a shopping trip or doctor’s visit. And the last thing I wanted to do was end my season at World Championships. Especially when performing at my ‘best’ there was never mine or my coach’s goal for 2016. I needed my head back on straight.
Once I got through the first day in Rotterdam, I began to feel a little better. My USA teammate Aaron Scheidies has always been a great friend and mentor, and knowing the hardships that he suffered on a tumultuous journey towards the Rio Games, I felt less alone in my misery. Spending time with him and Susanne and the amazing DaretoTri coach Stacey lifted my spirits, and I even managed to laugh and smile again for the first time in weeks. I was ready to tackle my race.
Susanne and I went out Thursday for an easy short interval run on the confusing streets of the city. Bike lanes, trolley tracks, fast cars and cobblestones made for a challenging route. We settled upon a nice loop surrounding some apartments along the sidewalk and did our workout. With each lap, a group of men dining in an outdoor café cheered us on as we passed. “America!!” they shouted. With a fist pump and a wry smile, we flew on by. Susanne and I began to jog our cool down lap, and as we were chatting and running, suddenly I stubbed my toe and went straight down on the sidewalk. My hands splayed out in front of me, and both wrists and my right shoulder took the brunt of it. “Dammit!” I shouted. Susanne helped me up, I dusted myself off, and we jogged back home. My shoulder hurt like hell and I was pretty mad at myself for making such a dumb move.
After an evening of ice, Epsom salts, KT Tape, and some soft tissue work thanks to PT and teammate Aaron, I woke up the next day feeling stiff and sore, but not nearly as painful. I decided to test it out at the pool and see if I could in fact swim. I was grateful to bump into my friends and competitors from Spain, the UK and Canada at the pool. We chatted about the Rio selection, exchanged laughs and hugs of encouragement, noting there was still a chance I could get in for Rio, and got in the pool. My shoulder didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel terrible. It was my wrist that was uncomfortable each time I touched the wall.
Afterwards I came to find out that my good friend and competitor from the UK, Melissa Reid’s bike was damaged in transport to the race. The derailer had been smashed and needed to be replaced. Her only option was to have her father fly all the way down from the UK before the race to bring her the parts she needed. I immediately talked to my friend Aaron, who had the same exact bike as hers. As luck would have it, Aaron carried spare parts for his bike, and we arranged for the UK’s team mechanic to come pick up the part at our hotel later that day. Problem solved. It felt great to be able to help a friend on such an important weekend. As much as it would give me great pleasure to have a win over Melissa, it would only be worth it if she was on the right equipment and racing at her best. And besides, I knew that she would have done the same for me in a heartbeat.
We previewed the bike course the following day. I knew this would be the most technical course we had ever ridden, including Rio, which we had ridden last year at the test event for the Paralympics. We noted each one of the 160 turns, looked for trouble spots, and noted the safe areas on the course that we would have time to drink from our water bottles. The barricades would make for narrow passages and limited opportunities to pass. I realized quickly that this race would be decided in the swim. If I wasn’t with that front pack of girls out of the water, my chances of catching them on the bike would be slim to none due to the dangerous and technical nature of the course. Knowing I was one of the faster cyclists gave me confidence and knowing that Susanne was a pro and super aggressive made me turn from scared to a little excited to tackle this course.
We had a long day before our race, which didn’t start until 3:30pm. The forecast had been for low 70s. Sadly, this changed to mid 80s, but I felt prepared and fairly well hydrated. The swim was a first for me. I was relaxed, maybe ‘too’ relaxed. I got jostled hard the first 100 meters out by someone to my left. I resolved to let them pass and just settle into my pace, and to swim my own race. I began lying to myself when I realized that I was probably too slow. “You’re doing GREAT! Atta girl! This is a fantastic swim! GOOD JOB!” I cheered myself on mentally with every stroke. “long and strong” “Smooth is fast”. It was working, and I continued to swim despite my frustration with my lack of pace. Susanne ‘whooped’ loudly next to me, telling me I needed to speed up. I figured it must have meant one of two things- either we were catching someone’s feet and she wanted me to speed up to get the draft, or we were 200 meters from the finish and I needed to sprint. I was praying for the latter and added another gear.
Upon hitting the swim exit ramp, I started to hyperventilate. I was terrified of getting onto that bike course. I was convinced we were going to be involved in a crash. I started choking, and grasping at my neck to pull my wetsuit away from my throat, which felt like it was closing up. Asthma. Panic attack. Dammit. Susanne grabbed my arm and commanded me to “Run Amy!” So I did. I got to the bike, fully expecting to sit down in transition and not get up. I wanted to quit. Badly. But I thought about Susanne. All she had sacrificed this year to race and train with me. Her family’s sacrifices to make this year happen. I remembered coach Ray’s last words to me the day before. “Amy, now THIS is your Rio. Race like it’s Rio.” So I committed to get my ass on that bike and ride for them.
We immediately passed the Japanese women on the bike and set out on a mission to hunt the other ladies down. I even managed a smile. Susanne expertly commanded both me and Bomber around the first series of turns. With every pedal stroke, glide around barricades, and every cyclist we passed, I became more and more confident. We had a difficult 180, and she scolded herself out loud. “Damn it Susanne! I’ll do better next time,” she said. I laughed. She was nailing it beyond my wildest expectations. She even managed to scare me a little on a few turns, and I don’t scare easily on a bike. We hit three huge speed humps, catching air in a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ kind of move. She landed the bike, grabbed both brakes hard, and veered 90 degrees right. The bike lagged behind, and nearly brushed the curb, making a terrible scraping noise. Susanne screamed, “PEDAL!” as loud as she could, and the bike righted itself and we powered around the circular drive we had entered. I shook my head in disbelief. “Holy crap Susanne! That was AWESOME!”
We then passed the men’s South African tandem, and began to play cat and mouse with the Japanese men. They got pissed when we passed them decisively, and then sprinted to pass us again. It seemed ridiculous and unsafe what they were trying to do. The streets were too narrow for two bikes to ride side by side. One of us needed to be in front. After about a half lap of jockeying for position, Susanne and I managed to drop them from our wheel and continue hunting down the ladies.
Running out of transition, I knew immediately I was in a deficit. My legs felt a little unsteady from the constant vibration of the cobbles, and my wrist throbbed. I glanced at my Garmin. My heart rate was 179 to start the run. NOT where I wanted to be. About 20 beats higher than where I needed to be. I was in trouble. Susanne grabbed bottled water at the first aid station and dumped it on my head. While the water was lukewarm, it did a little to refresh me and lift my attitude. I looked at my pace. OMG. Almost a minute per mile slower than where I had been running for months. 7:40 pace was not where I needed, wanted, or was capable of being. I cursed myself, took my watch off, and handed it to Susanne. I couldn’t watch the carnage unfold, and decided that the distraction of data was only going to mess with my head. It was time to run with my heart.
The South African men caught us on the run. I attempted to stay with them in the shaded park portion, and finally gave in. Next came the Japanese blind male athlete. He had been the perfect ‘rabbit’ for me to chase in Yokohama just 8 weeks prior. I decided to find another gear, and stick with him. My Heart rate must have come down, as I felt much better. We saw Team USA Coach Christine out on the course, asking our position, because we hadn’t seen a single female while out on the course. She didn’t know, but cheered us on, and I resolved to just run the race that God was giving me today.
After the next aid station, Susanne dumped a bottle over my head. My shoes filled with water. I gasped, “My Shoes! They. Are. So. Heavy! Like galoshes! Ugh. My Feet!!!” I whined loudly. Susanne barked back at me. “At least you HAVE FEET! Look at that guy! Now run Dixon!” I looked about 20 feet in front of us, where my Brazilian friend Andre, ran on his prosthetic leg. I shook my head at my pathetic excuse and ran faster. I remembered to count my blessings. My lungs filled with mucus, and I began coughing. I struggled for air. But I pushed. Maybe not as fast as I wanted to or was capable of going, but it was all I had at that moment for whatever reason. Rather than panic, I embraced it, and dug as hard as I could to keep moving forward as fast as my legs, lungs, and arms would take me.
Susanne and I crossed the line in 5th. I broke down in tears immediately, exhausted from the mental effort it took to stay focused and positive for that hour and 19 minutes. I conquered a lot of demons in all of those miles. I felt like a triumphant soldier, battle worn, barely able to lift his sword. I may have finished 5th but I won last Sunday. I beat the Amy Dixon that didn’t want to come to this race. I beat the girl that had panicked in the swim in Japan (me). I beat the girl that didn’t want to get onto that bike course for fear of crashing. I beat the heartbroken girl who hadn’t slept well in weeks, cried every day, and had a nasty spill two days prior to her race, breaking her wrist. Thanks to my amazing team of coach Ray, sports Psychologist Simon, guide Susanne, and friends and family; I WON.