WE’RE IN­SPIRED BY...

Triathlon has opened up a whole new world to Stephan and Di Cou­ture as well as their very spe­cial daugh­ter, Chloe – a para-triath­lete in the mak­ing

Triathlon Plus - - Con­tents - Words Fiona Duffy Pho­tos Andy Hooper; Cou­ture fam­ily

STEPHAN AND CHLOE COU­TURE’S STORY PROVES THAT THERE’S NO BAR­RIER TOO BIG TO STOP YOU COM­PET­ING.

“There’s a say­ing, ‘dis­abled child, dis­abled fam­ily’. But that is not us”

Ly­ing in a bob­bing kayak, with the warm sun on her face, Chloe Cou­ture is the pic­ture of con­tent­ment.

Her hand trails in the wa­ter as she is towed by her de­voted dad Stephan, 51. He per­forms a care­ful, smooth breast-stroke, glanc­ing back ev­ery few sec­onds to check she’s ok.

All too soon for Chloe, she’s back on dry land. Like any triath­lete she needs to ease back into train­ing gen­tly. She has a few big events com­ing up this sea­son and Stephan doesn’t want her to overdo it.

Ten-year-old Chloe has been at­tract­ing at­ten­tion and melt­ing hearts at triathlons all over the coun­try since she started com­pet­ing with her dad last sum­mer.

Stephan and Di adopted Chloe six years ago. She had cere­bral palsy and sight prob­lems and as a re­sult, has no peripheral vi­sion and ex­pe­ri­ences a delay in pro­cess­ing vi­sion in her line of sight.

“Doc­tors warned she would never sit up, speak, or feed her­self. She didn’t speak, didn’t move, but now look at her,” says Stephan.

Be­hind us, his deter­mined daugh­ter is push­ing her­self up and down the dock in her wheel­chair – her lit­tle jaw set de­ter­minedly, her pony­tail-plait swing­ing with ef­fort. As she comes to a gen­tle slope, she in­stinc­tively hun­kers down in the seat to make her­self more stream­lined – in­creas­ing her speed. “She’s a nat­u­ral,” says Stephan.

“There’s a say­ing ‘dis­abled child, dis­abled fam­ily,” says Di. “Yes, look­ing after a dis­abled child is ex­haust­ing – but we were deter­mined that wouldn’t be us.”

As a teenager, Stephan had been a keen cy­clist – com­pet­ing in time tri­als and road races. “I al­ways loved cy­cling but it fell by the way­side over the years,” he says. “But I’ve al­ways been fit and ac­tive – swim­ming for fun and climb­ing peaks like Snow­don and Mont Blanc.

“We bought a child car­rier big enough for Chloe, and climbed Snow­don with her on my back, twice.”

Break­ing into a trot dur­ing one walk, Chloe squealed with de­light. “If we re­ally se­cured her into the car­rier, I could hold onto her feet, to stop her legs swing­ing, and jog along. She loved it. With her free hands she’d fid­dle with the la­bels on the back of my neck, or grab leaves from trees as we passed.”

On a fam­ily day out at a Na­tional Trust prop­erty, Stephan broke into a run push­ing her buggy down­hill. “She laughed as we picked up speed. I re­alised that be­ing out­doors just sparked some­thing

within her, and this was some­thing we could do to­gether.”

Stephan tracked down an all-ter­rain buggy that could man­age cross-coun­try routes. He started off with brisk walk­ing, then in­tro­duced a mix­ture of walk­ing and run­ning be­tween lamp-posts, grad­u­ally build­ing up dis­tances; their first race was a 5k Santa run in Strat­ford in 2011.

Mean­while, Chloe was developing in leaps and bounds. One af­ter­noon, the fam­ily were at a gar­den cen­tre cof­fee shop when Chloe started to use the metal bars around the ser­vice is­land to pull her­self along. As she pulled, the buggy wheels turned a frac­tion. Sens­ing the move­ment, she pulled again. While her par­ents watched in as­ton­ish­ment, Chloe be­gan to inch her way around the is­land.

The proud par­ents in­vested in a wheel­chair and painstak­ingly taught her to turn the wheels her­self. At the same time Stephan in­tro­duced cy­cling to their regime. “By re­mov­ing the front wheel of the buggy, I could at­tach it to my bike and take her out cy­cling. I fash­ioned lit­tle wedges and cush­ions to make her se­cure and she loved it.”

As Stephan picked up speed, he could hear her de­lighted cries be­hind him. “If we’re go­ing faster I’ll shout ‘hold tight’ and will also shout ‘left, left’ or ‘right, right’ which tells her which way she needs to lean if we’re turn­ing a cor­ner.”

Just one more dis­ci­pline and they’d be able to do a triathlon. Chloe couldn’t swim, but what was to stop Stephan tow­ing her in a kayak? So last sum­mer, a ner­vous Di watched as Chloe’s kayak was low­ered into nearby Cliff Lakes, War­wick­shire – an open wa­ter swim venue. Chloe, wear­ing a wet­suit and life­jacket, sim­ply ex­claimed “ooooh,” and laughed joy­fully.

“Swim­ming breast-stroke means I can spot eas­ily and see, hear and even ‘feel’ how Chloe is at the same time,” Stephan ex­plains. “Be­tween strokes, I can shout ‘Chloe good?’ and she’ll shout back ‘Good,’ to let me know she’s ok. I was wor­ried that front crawl would stop me do­ing that. I also learned that to get round a buoy I’d have to al­most hug it be­fore go­ing wide to get the kayak around it as well.”

Their first triathlon was a Para Tri event at Dor­ney Lake, Eton, last July. “It was bril­liant – Chloe loved the whole race at­mos­phere and the cheers,” says Stephan. “In fact, we loved it so much we did three races in one day. As we crossed the line, Chloe had her arms out tri­umphantly. It gave us the con­fi­dence to carry on tak­ing part.”

Within weeks they had com­pleted a triathlon in Derby and the Brown­lee triathlon at Hare­wood House in Leeds.

“Why shouldn’t they have that thrill to com­pete in triathlons?

“I al­ways say to or­gan­is­ers ‘we’ll start wher­ever and when­ever you want; all we want to do is take part. In Leeds,we swam so well we even caught up other rac­ers!

“At Derby, Chloe wheeled her­self the last 300 me­tres of the run and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

The fam­ily has been over­whelmed at the sup­port. “Huub have pro­vided wet­suits, booties and gloves to keep her warm in the kayak while other spon­sors like Ron­hill and Spray­way have given tech­ni­cal cloth­ing so Chloe stays snug in the buggy all year round.

“Staff at Cliff Lakes have given us our own chang­ing room and even ac­com­pa­nied us to the Brown­lee Triathlon to pro­vide safety sup­port on the wa­ter.”

Dad and daugh­ter now train ev­ery day, and the fam­ily has more races lined up this year. “Our next race is in a lake shal­low enough for me to walk along, sup­port­ing her for the 50 me­tre swim while she kicks her legs. Then we’ll do the 2.5km bike and 750m run to­gether.

“Our ear­li­est races were just 5k on the bike, but we’re aim­ing for a half Iron­man dis­tance next.”

The par­ents are also wait­ing for the de­liv­ery of a be­spoke tri­cy­cle for Chloe – which sup­ports her while al­low­ing her to pedal. “The sales­man in­sisted she wouldn’t be able to man­age it, but I sat her on it and off she went,” he says proudly.

“The tri­cy­cle will re­ally build up her leg strength,” adds Di. “In time, we would love her to walk and we’re go­ing to give her ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. Stephan is con­vinced she has it in her to one day do triathlon by her­self.”

Stephan is pas­sion­ate about get­ting more fam­i­lies in­volved and has set up The LadyBugs Trust (la­dy­bugstrust.org.uk) – with the motto “Life’s too short not to”.

“It’s hard work and takes a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion to get a dis­abled per­son ready for the event. Our tran­si­tion times are shock­ing,” he laughs, “but why shouldn’t they have that thrill? Even when a per­son can’t com­mu­ni­cate, you can just see some­thing in their eyes – that spark.”

When it’s time to leave, Chloe signs a heart­felt “thank you” to me and smiles as she blows me a kiss. Like every­one else who meets this in­cred­i­ble lit­tle girl, I melt.

She’s a cham­pion – in ev­ery sense.

The fam­ily pose with the Brown­lee broth­ers after rac­ing their epony­mous race

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