Weekend Getaway for Team USA
A week ago I was sitting in a season-end recap meeting with Team USA program manager Amanda Duke at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Now I’m sitting on a flight home from the island of Madeira in Portugal with some pretty sweet hardware to show for this last-minute trip.
Amanda, guide Kirsten and I sat down to study the tentative schedule for next season; Sarasota, Yokohama, Italy, Canada, Tokyo, Switzerland, then back to Sarasota seemed to fit with my goals and objectives for next season. Despite a fabulous season, ending with 3 bronze and a silver, I had yet to make the necessary criteria for continuing my Team USA status past March. I needed two more top 3 results that were also within the required 2% finishing time of first place. Looking at possible early 2019 season World cups, the expense of those trips and the likelihood of hitting criteria, the options seemed dim. Amanda spoke up- “Well, you’re super fit right now, coming off of a silver medal 5 days ago; wanna go to Portugal next weekend to race?” I looked sheepishly at guide Kirsten. “I can’t ask you to go away AGAIN this year. You’ve been away from work and your family for so long now! I can’t ask.”
“Amy, you know I’m here for YOU. What do you want to do? I’m fully committed to helping you however you need it.” I replied, “Ok, how about this. I’ll check and see if Susanne can come for this one race. If she can’t, or you feel like it’s not a big deal with your job and we make it a super short trip, then let’s do it.” And with that, I was headed to Portugal.
I flew back to San Diego the next morning, and literally repacked for another race, got In 6 really hard workouts, left my guide dog with my dear friends, and was on a plane within 48 hours to the island of Madeira, a 17 hour trip away. My head was spinning.
Upon arrival I burst into tears at the sight of my bike and race wheels coming off the baggage carousel. The one major thing that could derail this tight schedule was a missing bike. Bomber, my custom carbon Fiber Calfee Design tandem was here and she was safe and ready to be assembled for my race. Phew. I hugged the handicap assistance woman from the airline tightly and jumped up and down like a complete fool. It was really happening.
The start list for this race was really interesting. I was one of only two athletes that had any sight remaining, meaning that the other women I would be racing against would get a 3 minute and 42 second head start on me at the swim start. I would essentially be swimming solo for a time trial unless I caught them in the swim, a very ambitious scenario. I knew I could outrun and out-bike these ladies if the course wasn’t too hilly, and that I needed to execute a solid swim bike AND run to pull off a win, with no mechanical issues and hopefully my asthma cooperating. To add to the challenge of the weekend, I was one of only two American athletes racing, so we had none of the usual Team USA support in the form of coaches, physios, a mechanic, dietician, or manager. We were on our own if we needed anything or ran into any troubles.
I set to work building my bike the first day, then got changed to get a run in on the race course. Guide Kirsten Sass would arrive the following morning, so I used my white cane to navigate on the cobblestone sidewalks and had my own little adventure on the incredibly hilly island. I had to do a short swim to stretch out the shoulders from travel, electing to be lazy and do it in the hotel pool. It had no lanes, but was probably about 35 meters across. I had to dodge children and old men, and attempt to find the edge of the pool at each end, which proved more challenging than I anticipated. A bump on the head and about 25 minutes later, I threw in the towel and got into the hot tub instead to stretch.
Kirsten arrived the following day and we had a great time biking the course and getting a run in. Since the following day would be filled with official race business, including course previews and briefings, we decided that since we may never have the chance to come here again, we should do one tourist-y thing and decided to take a taxi across the island to the most magnificent natural pools that were sculpted from volcanic rock. The ride across the rainy, lush, tropical island was breathtaking. We saw waterfalls, several rainbows, majestic mountains, and quaint villages set into the steeply terraced hillsides. After and endless amount of travel in tunnels through the mountains, we emerged upon Port Moniz, and were speechless. It was even more beautiful than the photos, and we couldn’t wait to throw on our bathing suits to hop in the crystal blue-black ocean water.
The next day we attended an alarmingly disorganized course preview, and rumors began amongst the athletes that our swim might be cancelled due to bacterial concerns with the water, as the heavy rains at night were causing the canal to drain into the bay where the swim course was set. I shook my head, as the same issue occurred in Florida only two weeks prior. In that circumstance, it played to our advantage, in this one, with that 3 minute 42 second time penalty against a strong European field, it would be a tremendous blow to our race strategy. The bike course was challenging. We would be going along the water for a good stretch, followed by a very tight technical section, then two very steep uphill climbs- five times. Each lap had a tight turn at the start, and on an 8-foot long bike, we would have to thread the needle on a busy course of para athletes very, very carefully.
Race morning arrived and I received an alarming text from the other American athlete’s guide, named Bond. Her athlete, Eliza had been up all night extremely sick. I ran to the lobby to bring her some Pepto and crossed my fingers for her that should could rally in time for our 10:30am start. My thoughts immediately jumped to the water quality concerns and I shook my head yet again.
It had rained overnight and turned cool. The roads had some remaining puddles left on the steep cobbles, but the light breeze made it look promising for a dry race start. We arrived very early to check in and had ample time to run a lap of the course, get our nutrition situated and put our legs up. The swim start was a lonely one. Most of the other women started 3 minutes and 42 seconds ahead. I went out hard, at about an 80% effort, and immediately felt really good. We turned left into the open part of the bay, and began to get tossed by the whitecaps that blew at us from the left side. I laughed to myself, thinking this is just what I had hoped for. A rough swim would be challenging for the slower athletes and I would have a huge advantage. As I began to pass other swimmers, I got more and more excited and began to get faster with every meter.
Out of the water, we reached the bike easily and quickly. Normally, when Team USA has several athletes at a World cup or World Series race we have coaches or team managers giving us splits to let us know how far ahead or behind we were. Without the data, and not knowing whose bike was whose, we just headed out on the bike course determined to hunt them down and see where it got us.
The course was narrow and crowded. There were more than 16 men’s tandems and a total of 70 athletes racing, making passing very difficult. Being one of the stronger cyclists out there, we would be attempting to pass by a lot of bikes. On the second lap, I saw a women’s tandem team coming back from the out and back loop. I asked Kirsten if she knew where we placed in reference to them and she didn’t know. All we could do was continue to work hard and stay out of traffic. The Japanese men’s team had other ideas. They weren’t keen on being passed by two women on a bike and blocked us. When we finally found a place to get around them, they sped up and matched our pace, not allowing us past, also known as a blocking penalty. I turned my head around, desperately looking for an official to warn them off, but none were nearby. We stood up out of the saddle, as we were running out of real estate before a dangerous turn, and only one bike could fit through safely. The men then got right on our wheel, threatening to take us out with the slightest waver from our line. I leaned around in my seat and screamed at him, motioning with my hands to back away. The pilot barely listened as we came into the turn. We took a hard right, then left and began our climb, pulling to the right side of the course to allow them to go past. Although we were faster in the turns, it was safer to just allow them to go ahead. Nothing would be slower than crashing, and I needed to at least finish this race in one piece.
On the third lap, we saw an Irish athlete down on the ground, bloodied from the crash right before the 180 degree turn. We both got anxious but managed to keep it together for another two laps, managing to pass both a Russian and the French athlete. I still had no idea where I was, but by my best math, I was in fourth place, maybe third. We headed out on the run and I immediately felt terrible. The hard effort climbing ten hills, and racing alongside the Japanese men took more out of me than I had realized. I had no gas. I also realized that in my panic on the bike, I had neglected to take my caffeinated gel, which I clearly needed at this point. I would have my work cut out for me.
Every single step and breath took intense effort and concentration. I was anxious not knowing who was in what place, and begged Kirsten to count seconds from the turnaround point on each lap whenever she saw another athlete in front of us. 40 seconds. Could I make up 40 seconds in less than 2.5 miles? At this pathetic pace I doubted myself. Kirsten encouraged me and pushed me to go harder than I wanted. I have never wanted so badly to walk in a race in all my five years of racing. I had no energy. My legs felt like lifeless appendages and my arms felt like noodles. My head was woozy and overwhelmed with attempting the math of where my competitors were.
Ahead I saw the Dutch athlete, Joleen, who had raced at the Rio Paralympics. I was determined to catch her, and hopefully (by my terrible math) get myself at least into third place so I could hit the criteria I needed for team USA. It took all of my reserve of energy to find another gear and pass her. A half mile later I was stumbling into the finish chute, onto the famed blue carpet of ITU. In the distance, I saw them raising a winner’s banner. I gasped to Kirsten, “Is that for ME????” “Yes! You did it! Now go get that tape! But I want you to earn it! RUN Amy!” And run I did! I smiled, I screamed, I cried and grabbed that tape with ferocity. I had never been so grateful for my terrible math in my whole life.
The win was probably one of the most exciting of my career and fulfilling. I learned so many lessons this weekend. You don’t always need massive pre-planning to have your best day. You don’t always need to know what’s going on in your race- just race! Hundreds of hours in the pool will eventually pay off when you most need it. And you can’t control what happens around you, all you can do is control how you respond to it. You can only control your attitude and effort. While I don’t recommend racing with a few day’s notice while jet-lagged on a tiny remote island with no outside team support, I DO suggest you step out of your comfort zone and learn to take risks- albeit calculated ones. You too many have a surprise finish line tape awaiting you for your efforts.
My love and thanks go to guide Kirsten Sass and her family for making this season possible. And as a side note, poor Kirsten too was overcome with sickness post-race due to the water quality and we nearly didn’t make our flight. She and her family have gone above and beyond to make this season possible. I am forever grateful and in their debt for all they do for me! Love you Kirsten! Giddyup as next season looks like a doozy! Florida -> Yokohama -> Italy -> Edmonton-> Tokyo -> Lausanne -> Sarasota -> Madeira!
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