I’m sure I’ve never been more nervous or felt more pressure going into a race. 2017 was a challenging year of disappointing race results and no Team USA funding to race in the US or internationally. I managed to have a great spokesperson agreement that paid for most of mine and my guides’ training and travel, but that would run out in September, and I was on my own to put up the results needed to qualify to receive any team financial assistance and to qualify for World Championships in Rotterdam.
Last year I needed to win the CAMTRI race to guarantee funding or finish within 2% of the winner. I finished 4% back. In Japan, I needed a top 3 and 5% finish, and I managed 4th and 7%. In Edmonton, I finished third, but outside the 5% needed to get funds, and finally at worlds, I needed top 4 and I finished 5th. I felt a little broken, physically due to a severe hernia that plagued me all season and a calf strain, mentally, and finally, financially. I prayed hard in the off season that the universe would drop paid speaking engagements in my lap or a good financial sponsor that could help fund 2018. That didn’t happen. Sports Psych Simon Marshall reminded me that ‘Adversity is your Super Power. Use it.”
I started the year fresh with a new coach at the helm. Coach Ray had given me three amazing seasons of incredible results, but I was ready to test out a different method to see how my body would adapt and if it would then translate. I began working with Olympic triathlon coach Jim Vance, and went into this race feeling really good despite missing a month back in November due to the hernia operation and then contracting pneumonia while in the hospital. I was nervous that the time off was going to cost me this incredibly important race that would determine my entire season of funding from the USA Triathlon governing body. Spoiler alert. It didn’t.
I was honored and excited to have Kirsten Sass, USA Triathlon’s Age group Athlete of the Year (for four years!) as my guide for this season, and fortunately she was in great health and pumped to race with me. Then tragedy struck. Exactly two weeks prior to CAMTRI, her best friend, her training partner, her boss (he owns the medical practice where she is a PA), and her whole world, her father Volker Winkler, was involved in a serious Elliptigo (elliptical bike) accident in front of their home and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He died as a result of this injury, and her world came crashing in. Dr. Winkler got Kirsten involved in the sport many years ago, and was himself an avid Ironman Triathlete. My heart broke for her and her siblings and I wanted nothing more than to get on the first plane and hug her.
Needless to say, I had no expectations that she could or would come race with me, and I began to find backup guides so she could be with her family and handle the services and deal with this heartbreaking loss. To my surprise; well, not total surprise, she immediately put that notion to rest, causing me to cry for her loss, and also in relief that the woman I most trust on my bike would be there at the biggest race of my year. Her response? “OF COURSE I’m going to race with you. My dad would be SO PISSED if I didn’t come and race. He was so proud of what we were doing and would want me there, especially now.” After I had a good cry, I was back to being excited. Excited to see her and hug her and thank her and her dad for all they have done for me this year. This race would be for Volker. What an honor.
So we met up four days prior to the race in Sarasota and prepared. I was anxious because my run isn’t yet where I wanted it to be, and honestly, following a totally new method was downright scary. I was so programmed to train by heart rate and pace on the run, that this new ‘running by effort’ or ‘feel’ felt foreign and weird. I had to just trust Jim’s advice, stick to our plan and pray that I could execute on race day.
My greatest US competitor of the last two seasons has been friend Liz Baker from Tennessee. She is a delightful, tiny sweetheart with a heck of a run, due to years and years of training and racing before she lost her sight. It was so great to see her and we both crossed our fingers that neither of us had a flat tire or bike mechanical issue and that we both would make the team for 2018. Before we started the race, Liz said, “it’s gonna be you then me then the Canadians.” I reminded her NOT to count Jessica out, as she gets a 3 minute and 42 second head-start on both of us partially sighted athletes. And she could have a decent swim, which would put us at a further disadvantage…..
The swim was the most fun I’ve ever had in a race while swimming. It was relaxed, I felt fluid and I focused the entire time on my left elbow, with the mantra, “catch high, catch high”. Before I knew it, we were out of the water, only 12 seconds behind Liz. We immediately caught her in transition, but I was so dizzy from the cold water (yes, Florida was actually freezing and wet that day!) that I had a hard time just staying vertical. We took off immediately behind Liz up the hill on my bike.
Jim’s plan for me for both bike and run was “Controlled, build, then GO!” Because Liz was in our sights, and I wanted so badly to pass her right away, I probably went a little faster than controlled on the first lap. We made the pass on the start of the third lap, and opened up about a 15 second gap. I was nervous about the final section of the course, as historically this was where my hernia would pop out of my stomach, causing intense pain. But the fancy new internal ‘mesh’ held it all in (far better than the old Kinesiology Tape I used in 2017 for races- lol) as I reached down to undo my bike shoes coming into the second transition. That’s when Liz’ guide attacked, and passed us. We got out of our shoes and caught her right at the dismount line.
In hindsight, I racked our bike too close to Liz’ and her guide and I kept bumping into each other. Fortunately, it wasn’t terribly detrimental to either of our races, and we managed to get out on the run a few seconds apart. Liz started to open up a gap, and I remember thinking, “Man, she told me she hasn’t run in like a month. That’s pretty incredible. I’ll let her go, and pray she fades in the next mile.” However, I got to the top of the bridge and coach Jim was standing there, and he yelled, “Amy, you wanted yourself a race, well now you got one, so you’d better GO!” And I thought, “Oh shit! Does he mean scrap the plan and NOT be controlled right now, or does he want me to stick with the plan?” Kirsten is practically psychic in knowing exactly what is on my mind, and she immediately forced me to take it back a notch and stay on plan. I am eternally grateful for her wisdom in making this decision.
The Canadian was surprisingly out of sight, which worried me, as she had that 3:42 head start. Historically, I would usually catch and pass her this first mile of the run if not sooner. She was having a good day. Liz opened up a gap of about 100 meters, which kept me pushing but not going all out. The run was an out and back course, and we finally saw the Canadians coming at us. They had a lead of about a minute. I started my crazy brain of doing math, trying to recall her previous performances, and sorting out exactly what pace it would take to catch her based on this. Kirsten fortunately brought my ‘squirrel brain’ back to present and got me going as fast as I could manage in the moment.
‘Team Tiny’- Liz and guide Jillian, had opened up a gap of about 200 meters. Again, I started with the math. I wondered to myself, “When is she going to actually fade? Do I have the room to make up this gap before the finish? Can I run fast up that bridge when the wheels start to come off the bus? OMG- what if I don’t hit the 2% I need to get my funding? I didn’t anticipate the Canadians having a perfect race. Now what? What if I don’t get the funding criteria? How will I get to Tokyo? How can I go faster RIGHT NOW? What if I collapse before the finish line?”
Again, Kirsten pulled me back to focus on the present and my form. She began a non-stop monologue of cues. “Knees up. Stay tall. Lean forward. You’ve GOT THIS! Now use your arms. SMILE! Just one more turn. Now use the downhill. LEAN! Cadence! Breathe! Relax your arms. Shoulders down. Almost there!”
I fell to the ground at the finish, completely wrung out. I had definitely ‘squeezed the sponge’ and gotten every last drop of FTP from my muscles and every ounce of oxygen from my lungs. And even though I didn’t win, I was beyond ecstatic. I was in shock that I could push that hard given where I started only three months ago from surgery- unable to even use the bathroom myself or sit up in bed. In that moment, I didn’t care if I made the criteria for Team USA, because I KNOW I couldn’t have tried any harder on the day or prepared any better given the short time window after surgery. What a fantastic feeling. Thanks to our result, I am now BACK on the USA Paratriathlon National Team for 2018, as is my amazing visually impaired friend, Liz Baker. We can now breathe a little as we race to earn points towards Tokyo 2020 and get the help we need with race travel and team support.
While I wouldn’t choose to go into a race after Hernia surgery, eye surgery, immunosuppressive therapy, a calf strain and a ton of financial pressure, it was the stimulus I needed to get the result I required. I’m SO excited to see how this season goes with proper rest, training, a little less medical drama, and the right team in place. I am so grateful to my sponsors who provide amazing equipment to train and race with. I was indeed reminded that adversity IS my super power, and adapting to ever-changing and sometimes scary situations is what has allowed me to thrive as a woman with a rare blinding autoimmune disease.
This was the third time my mom had the opportunity to fly to one of my races, and the first time my 11 year-old niece was able to fly out and watch. Sharing this moment and the day with them made it even sweeter. I loved introducing Charlotte to all my blind, wheelchair, and amputee triathlete friends, to further drive home the notion that our only limitations are in our heads, not our bodies. She was amazed at their ABLILTIES and not their limiters. Thank you Charlotte for the reminder.
Next stop? ITALY!!