Setting Her Sights Higher
By Wayne Shedrake
ISSUE #12, August/September 2001 – You’re at the pool’s edge, ready for your first triathlon. You’re prepared but nervous. You’ve never done any competitive swimming or cycling, but you were a pretty good runner in high school, so you’re confident you’ll finish. Still, you have a touch of those pre race butterflies. You place your feet carefully, toes just over the pool’s edge, heart rate rising as you anticipate the start. As you crouch, ready, your focus aimed intently at the water; suddenly someone throws a blindfold over your eyes.
With little more than a cloudy, foggy sense of light, you realize all the rules have changed.
Too hard? Unfair?
Blind triathlete Amelia Dickerson of Greenwood Village, Colorado doesn’t see it that way. Already a high school track and cross country competitor, Amelia, 18, has made her transition to triathlete guided by that cloudy, foggy sense of light, and a friend.
In her first tri, the YMCA Triathlon for Ordinary Mortals (May 12, Pueblo, CO), she did better than just try. She finished third in her age group, 49th overall in a field of almost 200 women.
How did she do it? Simple teamwork and refreshing common sense. In the pool she counts strokes, taking verbal cues from pool side to stay on line. At the end of each length of the 525 meter swim a ringing cow bell prompts her for the wall. She rides tandem (20k) and runs (5k) with her longtime competitive partner, 49-year-old Jim Flint, also the family friend who nudged her into the sport with the same sort of subtle finesse he uses to synchronize his arm swing and running strides with hers.
As Regional Director of USAT officials, Jim says, "I would disqualify us."
He means because of the tandem cycling. But it’s good-natured concession, and he points out that USAT does have sanctioned events for the Physically Challenged. But a DQ wouldn’t bother or stop Amelia. Winning isn’t why she’s racing.
"Every time I go out I want to be better than the last time," she explains, energetically.
She kept her transitions simple on a cool, gray, windy Saturday–shorts, helmet, t-shirt, same shoes for the bike and the run–scoring splits of 13:18/44:56/25:54.
Like many first-timers she admitted she worried, "I hope I survive the swim," before the race.
As a team Amelia and Jim are practiced improvisers. Jim got the cow bell idea the day of the race. Laughing at herself, Amelia tells of coming to the race with a pair of mismatched shoes, leaving the tether they normally use for the run tucked in a shoe at home on the couch 100 miles away. Jim, a systems engineer by trade, rigged up another with climbing webbing scrounged from the back of his truck, and Amelia ran in the old sneakers she showed up in that morning. Their cycling leg in Pueblo was only the second time they’d been on the secondhand mountain tandem.
"I think we went around the block maybe once to try it out," Amelia confessed.
That spontaneity and a sense of humor have tempered the competitiveness of the team from the beginning.
"I tease Amelia all the time. She loves it," Jim claims.
Before her Pueblo start, he joked with her about the cow bell idea. "It wouldn’t work if there were more than one blind swimmer," he realized, conjuring up a picture of every blind swimmer turning and swimming the other direction every time he rang the cow bell.
Jim teased her, "That would be a funny sight, like something out of Monty Python movie."
Once Jim showed up for a cross-country meet without his running shoes. Desperate, he took off for a nearby Runner’s Roost. When he returned, now in his new running shoes, he found Amelia had started the race without him. She’d talked a girlfriend who’d come along to watch into running with her. Rather than bemoaning the missed race, Amelia giggles at Jim’s blunder. On that day she ran "just for the fun of it." It’s been that way with this team since the first difficult run of Amelia’s blind life.
"Anyone could do this," Jim says, encouragingly, referring both to Amelia as a blind competitor and to himself as a teammate. "You just have to go out and try things."
Amelia echoes Jim, "There’s no reason anyone can’t do this," she says.
She points out that she’s done most of her running with a variety of guides and she even runs without a tether on a couple of her favorite runs. In three years she’s had only one mishap–a sprained ankle. To the prospect that others, physically challenged or not, might be motivated to get out there and try it because they’ve seen or heard of her competing, Amelia’s engaging enthusiasm is boosted a notch.
"That would be cool," she says.
For now, a sanctioned PC event will have to wait. Amelia is a busy young woman. Honor student (3.75 GPA, including four AP courses), homecoming queen, and graduate of Cherry Creek High School, she’ll travel to Oregon this summer to meet and work with her first seeing eye dog. In the Fall, she will attend Colorado College as a recipient of the prestigious Boettcher Scholarship.
What will Amelia "tri" next? She’s preparing for an event with an open water swim.
"That will be interesting," she says with the same talent for humble understatement she displayed as her inspired, awed and admiring competitors congratulated her finish in Pueblo.
A couple of CC track athletes she met in Pueblo have encouraged her to run for the college team. Someday she’d like to ride a bike across the United States.
Now and again someone who hasn’t seen Amelia in action or just doesn’t get it will ask why she does it.
She says, "Sometimes people ask me why I do it and I say, ‘Yeah, I’m blind, but I still have fun.’ Why does anybody else do it? That’s why I do it. I want to be better than I was the last time."
Jim Flint envisions Amelia as a potential world class Para Olympics competitor. With drive like hers, it’s easy to see why.