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Visually-impaired, Diane Bergeron is an Ironman

Telling her story: "I'm in love with this sport. I'm not a gold medalist or a pro, I'm just doing something I love."

Diane Bergeron and Kory MacDonald finish IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant in 2017.

We all have a story to share. Meet Diane Bergeron; she’s 52 years old, a wife, the mother of two children, an Ironman triathlete, endurance enthusiast and completely blind – a 100 per cent.

Earlier this month, Anne Francis at the Canadian Triathlon Magazine highlighted the accomplishments of a visually-impaired relay team that completed the Canadian Death Race. The Canadian Death race is a 125K ultra-marathon near the Alberta-BC border. The race crosses three summits, features more than 5,000m of elevation gain and a river crossing. The visually-impaired relay team was the first team of its kind to enter and complete the race. Bergeron was part of the team which included Peter Field, Richard Marsolais, Bronwyn Funiciello, Shelley-Ann Morris and their guides.

This isn’t Bergeron’s first time doing a crazy challenge. “This all began in 2009 when I started making challenges,” says Bergeron. She skydived, drove a race car, repelled down a building, and then her friends said, “You should do a triathlon.” “At the time, I was 47 years old, a couch potato and I wanted to do something about it,” says Bergeron.

So, she set her goal – an Olympic distance triathlon six-months away. Joined by her friend, colleague and guide, Cheryl Vordenhout, they completed the race in 4:26. “I did it and thought I was done with it. Then Cheryl said, ‘Let’s do a half.’ I thought you’re crazy and I’m not talking to you anymore,” says Bergeron. But a month later, she and Cheryl were talking again and training for the Great White North Half Triathlon.

Diane Bergeron and Kory MacDonald on the bike.

“Halfway through GWN I said to Cheryl, ‘When I turn 50 I want to do a full.'” So, in 2015 she did the 70.3 in Mont-Tremblant and then returned in August for the full. “That year was tough for me. My house was flooded and that put a lot of stress on my training. As a blind athlete, I do most of my training indoors on a treadmill, spin bike and endless pool. So, I came into the race unprepared and wasn’t ready for the heat.” On race day, the temperatures soared to 40 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the heat got the best of Bergeron, and she dropped out halfway through the run with heat stroke. “I’m wasn’t there to win a gold medal and knew I needed to take care of myself.”

“In 2017, I went back to Mont-Tremblant for both the 70.3 and full. And we did it,” rejoices Bergeron. With her guide, Kory MacDonald, they completed the 3.8K swim, the 180K bike and 42.1K run to become an IRONMAN. A year after the race, Bergeron is still in shock and amazed at the human will to do something. “When you look at the distances I wonder how in God’s name anyone can do that… It’s empowering and deeply emotional – I feel can do anything,” says Bergeron.

As we ended our phone call, I asked Bergeron to share more on the logistics of training, the paratriathlon community, her guides and upcoming endurance challenges.

Diane Bergeron and Kory MacDonald embrace after IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant in 2017.

TMC: Diane, do you mind just sharing some of the logistics that go into training as a blind athlete?

DB: When blind, total blind, if I’m going to go out and train I need to be with a sighted guide. So, most of my training occurs inside. I’ll swim (endless pool), bike (spin bike) and run (treadmill) all in the comfort of my home. With my coach at Fitness Dynamics, we’ll do bike sessions over Skype. I’ll set up the trainer in front of the laptop, and we’ll do a session.

Also in the neighbourhood, there are a number of running guides that I go out for runs with. And then for races, I normally will race with a specific guide. When I was living and racing in Alberta it was Cheryl, and in the Ottawa it’s Kory.

TMC: What is the paratriathlon community like?

DB: It’s a small close-knit group. Ottawa has a very connected community with Achilles International. They do a lot of great stuff around different disabilities and are very supportive.

For example, I was in California for work and wanted to run. I mean it’s one of the most beautiful areas to run in the world. So, I let Achilles know and they found me a guide. It was awesome.

I think it’s a much bigger community than people realize and does so much good.

TMC: How much do your guides mean to you?

BD: The guides job description is to assist you (the visually impaired) as a tool, to get you to your goals. It’s a selfless job. I even ask, “What makes you want to do this?”

After doing the full last year, Kory did the 70.3 in Lake Placid. After she called me and said completing the race wasn’t as fun or as fulfilling as doing it with me. The relationship and teamwork involved forms a connection so strong.

It started with my friend and work colleague, Cheryl. She’s 20 years younger and yet she changed everything for me.

After a race, I turned to my guide absolutely balling and said, “I couldn’t do this without you. Without you, this is impossible for me.” No words express the feeling of gratitude that I have for my guides. This person is entirely giving of themselves.

TMC: And the future, what is next?

BD: I’m back training now. I’ll be doing a marathon in Mont-Tremblant this October. I hope to qualify for Boston. Next year I’ll aim to do the 70.3 race in Edinburgh. And then I plan on returning to the Ironman distance in 2020.

I’m in love with this sport. I’m not a gold medalist or a pro; I’m just doing something I love.