Ever feel like an imposter? Like you’re living someone else’s life? Here I am- 43 years old, blind, and chasing the biggest goal in all of athletics. A spot on the United States Olympic Team in a sport I only took up 6 years ago.
Only 8 years ago I was the fine wine buyer for a chain of large wine stores in NY/ NJ and CT. I knew my place in the world. I loved my chosen career and knew that as someone living with vision loss, it would be something I could do for the rest of my life; my nose and my palate and my brain were all that were necessary to do my job at its best, and I felt very secure in knowing this. I received lavish praise for a job well done. A good deal negotiated with a winery. A great rare find for a VIP customer. Putting on lavish over the top wine and food events. But life happened.
Now I spend my days fairly solitary. The accolades come at a higher cost. A physical and emotional one. I live in a body that’s in a perpetual state of pain of some kind. From training, from my illness, from my sheer clutziness as someone who hasn’t fully figured out how to be ‘properly’ blind yet. Each moment I get to see or train near other people is a gift. Training as a Paralympic or Olympic athlete is very isolating. Your workouts are so specific that you’re mostly unable to join in on those fun local running groups. As someone who is blind and needs to ride a tandem outdoors, you can’t just hop into one of the dozens of group rides that San Diego is famous for. You ride indoors. Alone. Staring at a screen that dictates how hard you’re going to train that day.
Sometimes your only hope of human interaction is a virtual ‘thumbs up’ from a passing rider in the virtual cycling world on your computer (which is hooked up to my single bike indoors on a Bluetooth adapted cycling trainer called a Wahoo). Every now and then a rider from another nation will send you a direct message to say hello. And you keep pedaling. Because each pedal stroke, in theory, and in practice, is getting you one stroke closer to being on THE Team next year.
You get up each day at 5am after an 8pm bed time and STILL feel utterly exhausted. You pound two giant lattes while standing in your kitchen staring at your guide dog, who wonders quizzically with a tilted giant German Shepherd head WHY we have to go to the YMCA when it’s still dark out. I mean, after all, we’re not going there to play fetch, are we buddy?
You walk into the YMCA pool by 5:55, the air rancid with chlorine. Your eyes burn, your shoulders tight and sore from yesterday’s session, and talk yourself into “I’ll just attempt the warmup and see how I feel.” Your coach then surprises you and decides to join in the swim session with the master’s team. You now realize you’re stuck doing the 4,000 yards she wrote in your plan, regardless of how shitty you feel. You’re now committed buddy. Somehow you survive the session, spend ten minutes in the locker room shower trying to get the pain out of your shoulders then head home to make your recovery shake as your dog literally shakes his head in disappointment that we have no time to play fetch this morning.
With two exceptions, the women I’m racing against internationally for a slot at the Tokyo 2020 Games are all 15-20 years younger than me. A few of them are former Paralympic swimmers or Cyclists or runners turned triathletes. They have an endurance sports background. I have a life-long hatred of running and am a former smoker with asthma and an immune condition that is causing me to go blind and have massive GI distress. What am I doing here?
I still marvel that SOMEHOW I’m the 6th – fastest blind female triathlete in the world right now. How did that even happen? I somehow remember some cliché about how it’s talent plus hard work equals opportunity. But if I’m perfectly honest? I still feel ‘less than’. I often feel unworthy of the privilege to race for the USA. That this is all some sort of bizarre dream or joke and that it’s not really my life.
There’s the financial stress and performance pressure. Paying huge sums each month at PT to keep your fragile body moving. Potential sponsorships that don’t pan out after months of talks and promises. Team USA’s requirement that we podium at three races per year in order to maintain our funding for the following season. It can mess with you. It’s HARD to stand on the start line and just tell yourself to ‘do the best you can’ when you wonder if it’s going to be good enough to get the qualifications you need for funding, or to hit a much needed bonus from a sponsor.
And there’s doubt. Stemming from brutally hard training sessions, isolation and lack of funds. And it’s an ugly serpent of a feeling. It’s pervasive. And it’s sneaky when it creeps in. It’s the voice that tells you that you can’t go faster, you can’t turn the cranks on the bike any harder, that your arms will fall off if you push one more stroke in the pool. That you’re never going to be good enough to be the best. That those accolades are for the young. The less sick. The more able- bodied of the blind women you race against.
Two weeks ago I completed I believe to be the hardest training session on the bike I’ve ever done in my life. For those familiar with endurance sports, it was 10 intervals at VO2 Max, which is the max rate at which your body can consume oxygen. Or for me in this case, it was ABOVE the level in which I could intake oxygen lol. I got through 7 of the 10 intervals before pulling my inhaler out of my sports bra, taking a puff, then setting it down in front of me so my coach and my fellow athletes suffering in her driveway on stationary bike trainers, could all see it clearly. My thought at that moment was, “Gee, when I pass out or have this impending asthma attack on the next interval, at least they will see my inhaler and know to give it to me at that time.” It seemed a good strategy.
I began interval number 9. My legs were exploding with lactic acid. The pain was excruciating. My cadence got slower. I started pushing with my glutes and hamstrings. They gave up too. My cadence got even slower. I used my entire body to try to force the cranks another turn. They wouldn’t go. I just couldn’t. I collapsed in tears on the handlebars of my bike, crying into my towel. My coach, Michellie Jones, Olympic Medalist and World Champion triathlete, shouted, “Are you actually CRYING? There’s no whining in triathlon! Get GOING Dixon. Get UP! Push those damn cranks! We don’t quit during an interval! What are you crazy?” I looked around for sympathy, or perhaps help from my fellow riders. They all started shouting. “Amy, you’ve got this! Go GO GO!!” And I heard someone say, “You’re Ok.” I wiped my face and screamed as I put all my weight on the crank to try to get it going again. It moved. Ever so slightly, it started to turn. After an excruciating minute and 30 seconds later, interval 9 was over. I began to hyperventilate so hard that I started to wretch, as I was going to throw up. I looked desperately around me. To my right was my laptop, which was controlling the bike. In front of me was my coach, giving me the death stare. And to my left was my backpack with my running clothes laid on top (oh yeah, I would be expected to run immediately after this death march bike ride). I had to decide which option would be least costly to puke on. My towel. Right in front of me. Brilliant.
I survived this session and I wondered WHY I would inflict such pain on myself. Why am I doing this? And then an angel out of nowhere sent me this text a few days ago, after I’d spent nearly a week in a very dark place. I’m paraphrasing a little but here it goes:
“That Wednesday you pushed yourself was inspiring to me; it was awesome to see the effort you made to reach your goals. I know you have it in you. And I saw how deep you can dig. And I suspect there’s a lot more in there. I am a former Cyclist who went to the Olympic trials years ago. All those miles on the bike and racing, and at some point you begin to read the other riders, and know who can dig down deep and pull it out when they had to. I know you can do that. Here’s why I’m writing you. You have just a window of time at this level. A few years from now you’ll realize that in a blink, it begins to dissipate. You’ll always be an athlete, but there’s just one shot at being an Olympian. Imagine competing at the Games and being all you can be. Everything you need is inside you. You are an overcomer. You have a special talent God gave you and I want you to lay it all down. No Fear, No Surrender.”
I didn’t know what to say with this sudden praise and this gift this near stranger had given me. I’d been in such a dark place for so many weeks, wondering if it was all worth the time, the expense, the pain, the isolation. And then this. So I responded, “Thank you, I wish I believed it so strongly. I often feel like am never going to be fast enough. I still think of myself as the slow fat kid from 6 years ago. And I keep wondering if I’m too old to get faster.”
“How hard are you prepared to work to not just be fast, but the fastest? It doesn’t matter where you started, only where you end up.”
“Harder than anyone. They may beat me, but they’ll never out-work me.”
“There you go. I’ve been racing a long time. I can read athletes’ character by how they ride and the look on their face when it gets tough. YOU are a champion. But me knowing it isn’t the same as you living it.”
So here’s my new plan. I’m going to burn that image in my mind of slow fat Amy from 6 years ago. She doesn’t exist anymore, and she’s CERTAINLY not part of my future. I’m going to wake up each day and stare at my seven International Triathlon Union Gold medals and remind myself how it felt in those moments crossing the finish line and lifting that banner over my head. How it felt to stand on top of a podium in countries like Portugal, Japan, Canada, Mexico and Brazil and hear the National anthem playing in my honor with my hand pressed tightly to my chest. I’m going to remind myself of that feeling during the dark moments when I am struggling to pay rent or can’t push another pedal stroke on my bike or run another inch. I am an overcomer.
I’m Amy Dixon, 7-time Gold Medalist and USA Paracycling National Champion. I’m blind. I’ve had 33 surgeries and countless setbacks. Look out world. Adversity is my super-power. Eff you doubt.