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2019 – the year of resiliency

There I was, lined up with 200 overeager wetsuit-clad triathletes ( or in this case aquathletes) at the Tri club of San Diego’s monthly Aquathlon on the expansive beach at La Jolla Shores; poised, smiling, focused, my hands rested lightly on my knees as I crouched forward in a half-prone starting position, preparing to sprint to the pounding surf. My guide, a volunteer from the local University, jumped up and down on the starting line, like a tiger ready to pounce. It was ON.

Into the water we rushed, leaping and dolphin-diving our way into the waves, jockeying for position at the front of the race. Our plan? Get out in front and stay there to avoid the masses behind us of primarily beginner and local athletes looking to break their own records with a personal best, or to tackle their fear of the open water. Our biggest fear, being tethered together by an elastic cord at our upper thigh, was that an athlete might try to swim between us and get clotheslined. The race director had been kind enough to announce our presence to the crowd, and we hoped that people would steer clear, but feared otherwise.

We were with the top 5-8 men as we approached the first buoy. My guide yelled to me to begin turning, “RIGHT!” she yelled. At that moment, I lifted my head to locate her position in the fray of bodies and was immediately struck by a hard, closed fist to the back of my head. I got submerged face- first by the impact and drank a huge mouthful of seawater. “FUCK!” I yelled when I came up for air, gasping and sputtering the water out of my mouth. I sat upright in the water, holding my hand to the back of my throbbing skull, and immediately became aware that I was about to become victim to about 200 athletes swimming overtop of me if I didn’t get moving, and quickly.

I swam five strokes hard and the pounding started in my head with my quickening heart rate, pulling aside once I was safely around the far side of the buoy. I assessed the damage, and looked quickly back to shore, wondering silently if I should just get the hell out of the water and call it a day. But the race was super short- less than a thousand meter swim, and I was already about 300 meters into it. So I decided that following the course was safest, and honestly, I’d probably swim fast now since I was in such a hurry to get the hell out of there.

B and I came out of the water as the first overall female and joined our fellow athletes for a little post-race pizza (gluten free of course- I mean, come on, it’s SAN DIEGO!). My head continued to get worse as I sat in the uber home. I texted my coach and resolved to attempt a swim at 6am the next morning and assess from there.

I swam 3000 yards the next morning, dizzy and in pain before I began to vomit. I had a concussion, as I had feared. After a CT scan showed no bleeding, it was time to assess what to do about my BIG race, the International Triathlon Union World Series Event in Montreal in less than a week. It was the first official qualifying race for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, and my family was making the drive up from NY and CT to spectate- the first international race they had ever been able to attend in my three years of racing professionally. I begged and pleaded with doctors, my guide, my coach to allow me to race, promising profusely that I would pull the plug if I felt in any way symptomatic.

After days of not knowing my future, it was decided that I could fly to the race and ‘participate’ but not ‘race’, as pushing would only risk my health and yet another race in Canada two weeks later.   I would go and ‘finish’ within a set time to acquire the needed points from this race, but I would not in any way push myself. To say I was disappointed, was a gross understatement. I had been working nonstop with almost no days off since January with my amazing new coach, Olympic Medalist Michellie Jones to get on the podium at this race. Suddenly I was being instructed to finish basically last. This was not going to be the race or the stellar performance I had trained for and dreamed of.

BUT, I did it. I got the job done, listened to my body, and kept the pace and effort in check to avoid long term damage to my brain. Kirsten paced and guided me beautifully, and we finished smiling and happy that it was a safe, good day. It was onto Magog, Canada next.

I came into Magog fully expecting to have a good fight. There were three B1 athletes there, which are athletes that have more vision loss than I do, and therefore get a 3 minute and 48 second head start on my race. I could go into a lengthy discussion of how that is completely unfair and FAR too long and an imperfect amount of time, but that’s for another post. My good friend from Great Britain, Melissa Reid, as also making her return to racing that day, and while I wanted to beat her, I was also happy to see her healthy after a long battle with injury kept her on the sidelines.

After unloading ‘Bomber’, my racing tandem from the car, it was immediately apparent we had a flat. And not just any flat, a large CUT in the sidewall of my brand new, very expensive tires. After 90 minutes of scrambling and a clutch Team USA mechanic who saved the day, I was back in business and hoped my bad luck had gotten out the way. I had a pretty fantastic swim, making up a significant gap on the B1s, gaining back almost 2 minutes. Until my transition. You see, we race at these World Cups where they are famed for their blue carpeting in the finish area and transition zone. But herein lies the problem with that on this particular day. It was extremely windy and we are required to have our bike helmets balanced on the handlebars of the bike. However, the bike listed from the wind, and when Kirsten and I arrived in transition, my helmet wasn’t there. Being blind suddenly became a giant hassle. Not only was my helmet missing, but my BLUE inhaler and my BLUE sunglasses had fallen out of the helmet.

I crouched down on my hands and knees, sweeping the carpet like a windshield wiper in search of the helmet, glasses and inhaler.   After several unsuccessful attempts at locating it, I started moving around the bike in various directions doing the same silly looking sweeping motion to search my belongings. Found them. Crap. But, it was beyond my control, and all I could do was laugh as Kirsten and I hauled ass running out of transition with the tandem. We had now a lot of time to make up.

The course had a terrible set of train tracks after a long, fairly steep downhill. As we returned from the first of three out and back laps, we hit the tracks- HARD, and I cried out as my water bottle went flying off the bike. “There go my electrolytes” I thought to myself. So much for hydration. We made up a significant amount of time on the bike, hammering away on the long climb, and working the flats as a hard time trial effort.

On the run, Kirsten happily announced to me that I was comfortably in third place- I would be on the podium! I was so excited, with the exception that I still had another lap to go on the run and it was incredibly hot out there and the pavement was scarily uneven.

As a rule, I walk or jog a lap of the run course the day prior whenever possible. This allows me to view the turns at slower speeds, look for the tangents, and get comfortable with difficult sections so that on race day I can visualize the course even when I cannot see (my vision goes completely white at a race paced effort run). I am OCD about doing this to avoid mishaps and miscommunication. On Friday, the turnaround for the course lap had been set on the blue carpet, marked by a curve of blue cones. Today?………..

As we made the return from our first lap towards the blue carpet, I heard loudly, “DIXON! TURN AROUND!” I yelled, “What!?” “TURN. AROUND. You’ve missed the run turn.” “No I haven’t, it’s down there,” I said, pointing towards the carpet. “No, they moved it- it’s BEHIND you!” What the FUCK?” I screamed, as Kirsten and I swung an impromptu 180, seeing YELLOW cones about 10 meters back, Unmarked, with no timing mat and no official standing there to monitor the location. Friggin brilliant.

I was spitting bullets, furious with the race directors for not announcing this change to us before the race. Suddenly, the French girl was on my shoulder, where she had been 30 seconds back until the missed turn. “FUCK” I continued to sputter venomously as we started to increase our pace. Kirsten begged, pleaded and coached me through the toughest mile and a half I’ve ever run. The young French athlete was literally half my age and closing fast. I was already on my limit with my breathing and asthma. I had to fight for every molecule of oxygen in the humid, hot air.

“Amy, if you’re going to go, you’ve GOT to go now.” Implored Kirsten. I knew I had a decent sprint in me, but I also knew if I started it with 800 meters to go, I would absolutely blow up and probably collapse before the finish. I prayed that she couldn’t stay with me. I heard her guide pleading with her in French right behind me. “Allez!” With the finish line in sight, and a medal on the line, I went all in. I went harder than my body and mind were capable of, dropping the athlete with 50 meters to go and winning by 9 precious seconds in a sprint that broke her and left me now a bronze medalist.

I learned a lot that day. That everything can go wrong in a race, and that you can STILL have a good result. I learned that the most important thing when things go wrong is to put it immediately out of your mind and to move right onto the next thing and to control what you can.   Every time something went wrong- the transition, the water bottle, and the turnaround, I thought to myself, “what can you do about it? Ok, go faster and make up for the time you just lost. That’s what you can do!” And rather than get upset about it, I got excited to go faster and to see how the chips fell when I left it all out there.

Getting a concussion and having major mishaps in a World Cup is not how I envisioned the start of my season going after months of meticulous preparation. However, these incidents have made me a better, smarter, more resilient athlete, with more ‘tools’ in my toolbelt that served me well later in the season, when things too, went awry.

I made a promise to myself before the start of the season. That I would be the best at getting better. The results would take care of themselves. With this commitment, I was finally able to log the progress that eluded me last season. With mine and my coach’s commitment to the process, I’m now seeing this progress over time. Because everything worth having is worth working for, day after day, with commitment, consistency, and passion. Onto Tokyo!

Amy and Kirsten run into 3rd place

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