Blind triathlon: ex­hil­a­rat­ing test of team­work for ath­letes and guides

For blind ath­lete Don­nacha McCarthy, these events are about build­ing bonds and work­ing to­gether

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health | Sport - Ar­lene Har­ris

Tak­ing part in a triathlon is no easy feat but imag­ine try­ing to swim, cy­cle and run com­pet­i­tively with­out be­ing able to see – it doesn’t seem pos­si­ble.

But many pow­er­ful ath­letes are vis­ually im­paired or even blind and rely on a teth­ered guide to help them train and com­pete safely.

Don­nacha McCarthy, who is orig­i­nally from Cork but lives in Dublin, has no sight what­so­ever but doesn’t let that stop him as he trains daily and com­petes on an in­ter­na­tional level.

And if that isn’t im­pres­sive enough, hav­ing only learned to swim last year, the 28-year-old is now reg­u­larly tak­ing part in triathlons both in Ire­land and abroad.

“Swim­ming is the most daunt­ing for me, I have to ad­mit,” he says. “I am teth­ered leg-to-leg with my guide and this helps me to stay in a straight line but it is dif­fi­cult as I am to­tally blind so have no light per­cep­tion at all and I can get ner­vous.

“For the cy­cling part, my guide and I are in tan­dem and when we run, we are teth­ered hand-to- hand so we have to en­sure we have a sim­i­lar rhythm.

“Nor­mally I would try to get as much train­ing in as pos­si­ble with my guide in or­der to de­velop a rou­tine and a rap­port but this isn’t al­ways pos­si­ble as we can be in dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try or my reg­u­lar guide may not be avail­able.”

Over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive

This is how Stephan Teel­ing Lynch be­came Don­nacha’s guide for a re­cent triathlon in Es­to­nia.

The sea­soned ath­lete, who runs in Shan­non, Co Clare, found him­self agree­ing to take on the role and says the ex­pe­ri­ence, which he un­der­took af­ter a pe­riod of per­sonal tragedy, was over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive and has led him to of­fer his ser­vices again.

“I had been strug­gling a bit with all that has gone on in life over the last four years – los­ing my fa­ther to leukaemia, my mate to sui­cide, my dogs to an ac­ci­dent and my sis­ter to sud­den death,” says the Clare man.

“I didn’t re­alise it but I was jug­gling too many balls and try­ing to raise a young fam­ily [Freya and Finn] and my busi­ness – so I wasn’t in a great place. In hind­sight I can say that my wife, Jen, was hold­ing it to­gether for us.

“But then the phone rang and Ea­monn Til­ley, Triathlon Ire­land’s Para Tri di­rec­tor, rang me out of the blue as his brother was un­able to guide at the Euro­pean cham­pi­onships in Tartu, Es­to­nia, and asked if I would do it.

“I didn’t ask too many ques­tions but if your coun­try calls, you go – and fig­ure out the rest later.”

The fa­ther of two says the idea be­hind guid­ing an ath­lete is sim­ple but in prac­tice it can be quite dif­fi­cult.

“You are ba­si­cally tied to­gether – but it is called teth­er­ing,” he says. “There are rules to its length and elas­tic­ity and dur­ing the swim you place it ei­ther on the leg or the waist. The dan­ger point will be the ex­its and runs to tran­si­tions. Dur­ing the bike we ride a tan­dem and dur­ing the run we use a tether again.

“But it’s not al­ways easy. Guides and ath­letes might not be based close to each other so train­ing time might be lim­ited to­gether. Luck­ily I man­aged a lot of train­ing days [thanks to Ea­monn and his coaches] and this is a very im­por­tant way to build a re­la­tion­ship with your part­ner.”

As a re­cent re­cruit to the guid­ing cir­cuit, the triath­lete is still learn­ing the ropes but says it is an ex­hil­a­rat­ing and re­ward­ing ac­tiv­ity which he hopes to ex­pe­ri­ence more of in the fu­ture.

“I’m new to the team, so in some cases, I’m only meet­ing my part­ners for the first time at races and this is ex­cit­ing but can be hard too,” he ad­mits. “So far, I’ve raced with four hugely tal­ented ath­letes and each one – Don­nacha, Stephen, David and Ni­cholas – all have in­di­vid­ual strengths and weak­nesses.

Min­imise weak­nesses

“So like my­self, it’s im­por­tant to put our strengths to­gether to min­imise our weak­nesses. The jour­ney for the next year or two will be highly mo­ti­vat­ing and get­ting to race in the green, white and gold again at an elite para tri level is ex­cit­ing. And it’s im­por­tant to note that these ath­letes are world class or at least train­ing to be world class. So this isn’t a ‘feel good’ ex­er­cise for guides like me. And per­son­ally the Par­a­lympics are a huge mo­ti­va­tion – a once-in-(an age­ing ath­lete’s)-life­time op­por­tu­nity.”

Stephan says the only thing he wor­ries about is let­ting the other ath­letes down as, nat­u­rally, tak­ing home a medal is the pin­na­cle of suc­cess.

“All these ath­letes sac­ri­fice a lot to do what they do,” he says. “If we have a bad day we only have our­selves to blame, but when you’re rac­ing for some­one else and their goals, it adds a bit of pres­sure. How­ever, it also mo­ti­vates more if that makes sense. I’m not the biggest fan of grav­ity so hilly cour­ses on the runs put the fear of god into me but that has forced me to put down the fork [cut down on calo­ries].

“The best as­pect of guid­ing is the win­ning; I’m not go­ing to lie. It’s great to take part but these guys have big goals and big as­pi­ra­tions. They might have had to pay ¤3,000 or more to get to a race – so get­ting a medal is re­ally im­por­tant.

“I’ve not had that joy yet but other mem­bers of the team scored third place in Canada ear­lier in the year. Guides want to win and ath­letes want to win, that’s why we race and that’s what we as­pire to.”

In­deed, Don­nacha is cur­rently pre­par­ing for his next event and trains six days a week.

“I’m con­stantly train­ing,” says the ath­lete who works for Voda­fone. “It can be dif­fi­cult to bal­ance ev­ery­thing in life but we all have to make sac­ri­fices and I’m re­ally en­joy­ing the chal­lenge.

“For most ath­letes, a triathlon is a solo sport, whereas me and my guides are a team and that is what makes it so sat­is­fy­ing – we build a rap­port and work to­gether for an end goal.”

Stephan agrees and says there are so many peo­ple in­volved which help to make the sport a team ef­fort: “It’s not of­ten in life you get to race for your coun­try, as part of team try­ing to achieve a huge goal – it’s not about me any­more and I love that,” he says.

“Some­times we wal­low in our own self-mis­ery but these guys just get on with it. They feel an ob­sta­cle, assess it, at­tack it and move on. Life has chal­lenged them and they have shouted louder than howl­ing winds to spread their wings and aim higher – we are just the lucky ones try­ing to keep up.

“There are so many peo­ple who have been re­ally sup­port­ive and there are a lot of peo­ple help­ing out – I couldn’t name them all but with­out them noth­ing would func­tion. I’ve been around this sport a long time and I’m grate­ful for their trust in me to come in do a job for the team.”

Some­times we wal­low in our own self-mis­ery but these guys just get on with it. They feel an ob­sta­cle, assess it, at­tack it and move on


Don­nacha McCarthy and Stephan Teel­ing Lynch at the Euro­pean cham­pi­onships in Tartu, Es­to­nia; A triath­lete is led out of the wa­ter at the ITU World Triathlon Ham­burg in 2016; David Bigoney and his guide at the ITU World Triathlon Cham­pi­onships in Ed­mon­ton, Canada, in 2001.

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