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Back Page Podium: Leading the Blind

Sydney Trefiak captains a tandem bike with Ryan Van Praet.

A year ago, if you told me that I would be captaining a tandem bike in Clearwater with a blind guy on the back, I would have laughed. How did I get there? Pretty easily it turns out.

Through the magic of social networking, I met an interesting guy who was attempting to continue his triathlon career despite being unable to see well enough to get himself around a race course safely. After a few general requests for help on his part and, some may say foolish, replies on mine, I was now a guide for a blind guy. (Sorry, I probably should say visually impaired, but someone needs to keep his ego in check.)

Many people know Ryan Van Praet through his tireless efforts to raise funds for the fight against amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). This is actually how I met him. Only later, through an article in Triathlon Magazine Canada (TMC, May 2008), did I learn that he was fighting his own battle against retinitis pigmentosa. Basically this means he has lost most of his peripheral vision, and is slowly losing all of his sight.

I hadn’t met, never mind guided, a visually impaired athlete before. So this was entirely new territory for me. Quite honestly, it was a little scary, especially when I started to think about the logistics of getting the two of us around a course safely. As it turns out, it isn’t too hard, just a different mindset.

Riding a tandem is all about communication. From start to stop, you must communicate. It is all about talking to one another. If he needs to take a drink, he needs to tell me. In the longer races we have learned to stand up together to give our butts a break.

Our first race together was a half Ironman in Peterborough, Ontario. At the start line we had never swam together or run together. We use a four-foot tether that attaches around our waists for the swim. We placed ourselves conservatively near the middle of the pack so we wouldn’t get in anyone’s way. During the swim I ended up being more of a body guard for Ryan than anything else. (During one race we got our tether caught around an anchor buoy. I had to stay calm and get untangled and start back up again. It’s these little things that guiding is all about.)

Once out of the water things are pretty normal. In T1 it is my responsibility to get myself ready and to make sure that he has everything he needs within reach. My transition needs to be quick so that I can help him. The bike is interesting for us, as this is the one sport that I can actually contribute to our overall speed. Many people make the assumption that the two of us together should go much faster than a single person. This really isn’t the case. Our top speed is most likely a little faster, but because of the clumsiness of maneuvering a tandem in tight situations and turns, our bike split is similar to that of a top age group triathlete.

During the race, communication amongst other athletes is really important as well. In the New York City triathlon this year I went hoarse yelling “On your left” as we had to pass so many people. T2 is similar to T1. Make sure he has all of his gear, change quick and put the tether back on. Ryan’s vision right now is good enough for him to run on open roads safely. However, if he runs into a shadow, the lights go out for him. I need to be really conscious of this especially on tight tree lined courses.

Since his peripheral vision is shot, I need to warn him about roots, bumps, pot holes, dips in the road and, most importantly, “groin highs,” objects like posts that are two to three feet high. I generally run directly beside him and even though we are tethered we are usually less than arms reach from each other. Hence we have coined another term. To guide a blind athlete you need to endure a lot of “sweaty man (or woman) touching”.

In addition to leading him around the course I also help with his pacing. I give him splits, and help him mete out his effort. We’ve had to learn how to adapt our styles as I like to build my effort during each leg of a triathlon while Ryan heads out of transition at full speed.

Finally, to guide a visually impaired athlete you need to be comfortable being stared at. At the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, not only was he being interviewed for the NBC broadcast, he was also at the pro press conference. Everyone knew who he was and what we were doing. Walking through the expo was an experience. People were constantly snapping pictures of the bike and of us.

It’s been quite a year: racing in NYC at the Paratriathlon National Champs and in Clearwater. Most importantly finding a new friendship with Ryan and his wife Mindy. What is really exciting is where it is going. Ryan has signed up for Lake Placid, and is also hoping to go to the ITU World Championship in Budapest with the goal of becoming the fastest visually impaired triathlete in the world. He also has unfinished business in Kona, which I am sure he will take care of in the not too distant future.

Never be afraid to try something different. Athletes such as Ryan with physical impairments do this every day. Spending time with someone like him really opens up your eyes as to what is really important. I have been lucky to have the opportunity to be part of his continued journey in this sport, and hopefully will race with him well into the future.