Terry Gardner looked in the mirror and saw nothing. His sight was gone. The life he had known for 46 years was over. He suddenly felt lost.
“I went four years not only trying to deal with vision loss but I was looking for something to give my life purpose,” Gardner says. After having worked 12 to 14 hectic hours a day as a self-employed courier broker, he found himself at home doing nothing.
Then Gardner got a call from Jan Ditchfield.
Ditchfield asked Gardner, then 50, to compete at Joe’s Team Triathlon in Muskoka, Ontario. While his previous athletic experience consisted of watching sports on TV, he says, he “jumped” at the opportunity.
“I have a purpose now,” the Cornerbrook, Newfoundland-based age-grouper says.
In two short years, one of Canada’s newest national athletic teams has emerged. Gardner is one of the 13 members of the 2011 edition of the Paratriathlete team, Won with One, sponsored by the Canadian Council of the Blind in Ottawa.
Demand for a place on the team has overwhelmed Ditchfield, manager of accessible sports and development at the Council. There are plans to expand each year, though she’s holding back because she “doesn’t want to let anyone down”.
As a self-funded program, the team also has limited resources and can’t afford to expand too fast. With athletes and guides, there are double race fees at some events, the cost of two flights and then the $8000 needed to buy a decent tandem.
While there are constraints, they haven’t diminished Ditchfield’s enthusiasm nor her vision for where the team is headed. “Equals in life, equals in sport,” she says.
Ditchfield’s longer-term objective is to get triathlon into the Paralympic Games in 2016.
For that to happen, at least five countries must have teams; so far, there’s Canada and the US, through The C Different Foundation.
Ditchfield is looking to encourage Australia, New Zealand and the UK to develop teams. The more, the better, she says.
Two athletes on Won with One are on the elite fast track: Ryan Van Praet and Brian Cowie. And while part of the reason for developing the team is to help these athletes attain a higher standard in the sport, Ditchfield says elite development isn’t the raison d’etre for the team.
“No one person on the team is more important than anyone else,” Ditchfield says.
The current team ranges in age as well as their level of experience in the sport.
Myra Rodrigues has no illusions about representing Canada at the Olympic level. But the 67-year-old athlete, who has been blind since childhood, power walked her way to the finish of the New York City Triathlon in July.
Some team members have been blind since birth, while others have lost their sight through their lives. Robbie Burt was born legally blind. Dave Carragher started to lose his sight when he was 12.
Van Praet had a degenerative disease that took his sight as did Cowie. Both athletes competed in the sport before having to tap guides for directions; both have competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Cowie won the Physically Challenged division in Hawaii in 2009.
“We’ve got the typical Type-A personality that you have for all triathletes,” Cathy Rober, the team’s volunteer head coach, says. “They want so badly to get strong and do well and work really hard.”
The team’s motto is: Dream. Achieve. TRIumph.
“Most of the athletes, throughout their lives, have been treated as if they can’t, as if they’re disabled,” Rober says. “But they’re not. They are totally able-bodied. They can race at the same speed or better than sighted people.”
For a sense of the competitiveness of the athletes: Cowie finished Ironman Canada in August in 12:54, first place in his division. In terms of all competitors, Cowie finished ahead of more than 1100 others on the day. Note: Cowie’s guide, Meyrick Jones, has an artificial leg. Both Cowie and Jones live in the Vancouver area.
Toronto-based Rober says “I’m constantly having to change the way I think.”
Rober points to an early conversation with one athlete, an Olympic-level swimmer transitioning to triathlon, who believed he’d had a disappointing race. She asked the athlete what he had taken in terms of nutrition during the race. He said: Water.
“I was shocked,” Rober said. “I felt guilty,” she said, because she had taken for granted he knew about energy drinks, bars and gels. But he didn’t know they even existed because he had never seen an ad for any of them, watched other athletes using them or viewed them on a store shelf.
Rober says, except for the need for visual cues, there’s no difference in how the Won with One athletes approach the sport compared with sighted athletes – they each want to train longer and go faster.
“These athletes can’t wait to get training.” Gardner, for example, is keen for Rober to give him the green light to increase his training volume. When he first took the plunge in his local pool, Gardner says he could barely complete one 25-metre lap. Now his regular set is 80 laps, or 2 kilometres. “It’s the every day competition with myself that makes it great for me,” Gardner says.
In a sense Gardner has an advantage over some team members because he has an image of what swimming, cycling and running look like.
But for the athletes who’ve been blind since birth, visual clues won’t work, Rober says. That’s when she needs to physically manipulate an athlete’s hand, for example, on the deck of a pool or in the water to teach proper entry and pull positions.
“The added challenge with swimming is that a lot of visual impaired athletes rely so heavily on their sense of hearing but it’s lost when their head is immersed,” Rober says, so some athletes first need to learn to relax around water before they can learn to swim. For that reason, the team has had to initially focus on accepting athletes with at least some basic swimming skill.
Rober says there’s one other key challenge for her athletes: the need for a guide. First, the guide must live close to you. Second, the guide must have a schedule that matches your own. Third, the guide has to be better than you.
“You need your guide to be faster than you,” Rober says because they have to be able to not only keep up with you but also to talk you through the session.
“A guide can’t just say ‘watch out’ because that doesn’t mean anything to anyone who can’t see. A guide has to be able to tell that a person is coming on the left, there’s a woman with a stroller on the right or grab the athlete’s hands when the ground gets rough.”
The team recently completed a recruitment campaign for guides but there’s always a need for more of them. Without a guide, riding or running outside is out of the question for the athletes.
“Our athletes won’t slow you down,” Ditchfield says of one of the misconceptions she’s trying to dispel. None of the team’s members “view themselves as disabled. They are there to compete, to win.”
It’s a theme constant in chatting with everyone involved. These athletes want nothing except the chance for a sense of normalcy.
Being part of the team has an even simpler meaning for Gardner.
“It gives me purpose to get up every day, to go do my training, to look forward to competitions, to compete not only alongside, but against, able-bodied athletes.”
*Timothy Moore is a Squamish-based online editor and journalist as well as a long-distance triathlete.
**NOTE: Paratriathlon is now a part of the Paralympic Games and will make its debut at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games.