People ask me why I do this, this crazy sport of triathlon. Why do it? Why get up at 4:45am every morning, week in and week out to train? Why put wear on tear on my already damaged body ? What am I trying to prove? Why devote so much time on this when I could be devoting it to my family, my business, my community? I ask myself the same question and the answer is simple.
Because it is important. Moving your body is important. Disabled sports are important. Disabled triathlon is important. Paratriathlon is important.
I started in disabled triathlon 14 years ago, before it was called “Paratriathlon.” It was a community of like-minded people who, suffering some sort of bodily insult, refused to let society define them and refused to be put into a box of “less than.” Many of us were driven by the need to prove that we were just as capable, viable as anyone else, despite whatever abnormality we suffered.
When I started in triathlon, the pinnacle of our sport was the ITU World Championships. The Athletes with a Disability category (AWAD) was a few years old. Winning the race was the highest honor you could obtain in the sport. It meant you were the best disabled triathlete of your class (leg amputees, arm amputees,wheelchair athletes, etc.).
I made it to my first world championships in Lausanne in 2006. There I encountered something I had never seen before: an international crowd of spectators and people like me from every corner of the globe. It was a community that I fell in love with. There were people there I admired and looked up to. They inspired me to train harder, become better as a person and as a triathlete. They lit a fire in me.
Every year, the field got tougher and tougher, broader and more diverse. We all had to train harder and harder. 40 or so athletes in 2006 morphed into over a hundred in 2014 and 2015. The field now encompassed 40+ countries across all five continents including South Africa, Morocco, Finland, Australia, Russia, China, Japan, Korea and almost every country in Europe. The Americas were well represented with the USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico in full force. National delegations were swelling in ranks. National teams began supporting their disabled athletes with training and team support. Sponsors were taking notice.
In 2010, the biggest thing to happen to our sport was the hard-won inclusion into the program of the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. I say hard won, because it took over a decade of lobbying, politicking, recruiting athletes and development of the sport across 5 continents to prove that we had the enough elite athletes to represent the sport in the Paralympics. And, we were only one of at least 11 major sports seeking inclusion. In addition to being an athlete, I played a small role in the political and organizational process as a board member of one of the earlier Paralympic inclusion committees, particularly in recruiting athletes from Latin America, where I have family roots.
Now, when I race, there is another cadre of young athletes who have been inspired by the earlier generation including myself and those that came before us. I see them with the same sense of awe and inspiration that I had when I first began racing internationally–this sense that “hey, there are others like me out there, and I know I can achieve what they have achieved, if not more.” With the prospect of competing in the Paralympics, the fire grew bigger for all of us.
Since 2006, I’ve competed in 8 World Championships, winning twice and three times taking second place–a record I’m proud of. Of course I want to compete in the 2016 Rio Paralympics, first and foremost, because it is would be an achievement of a lifetime and a long-held goal of mine. But also, it is because I want to be part of something that I played a small role in helping create. I do it as a tribute to those who fought, in the early years, to insist that race directors include a disabled division in their races. For those, like Jim McLaren (for whom the Challenged Athlete Foundation was originally conceived) who refused to sit back and let life pass them by, despite the societal expectations to do just that. I do it so that those little kids who might be alone in their disability see that we can do great things if we don’t let others define us. I do it for those who, like me, saw their normalcy abruptly interrupted on account of an accident, illness or war and perhaps might not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I also do it to set a good example to my kids, my community, my country and to make my family proud.
That is why I do it. And that is why it is important.
What’s next? Qualifying for the Paralympics this year is going to be the hardest test of my athletic career. The process is an arduous schedule of races taking place around the world, where my competitors and I will be accumulating ranking points that will ultimately qualify us for a slot. There will only be 10 or so Paralympic slots worldwide in my class which numbers in the hundreds of competitors. My first big race of the season will be in March, in Sarasota. It is a continental Panamerican championship and so it is weighted much higher than other races. A good performance there will not guarantee me a slot, but a bad performance will likely take me out of the running. No pressure.
By August, the Paralympic slots will be allotted and the start list will be published. At that point, I will know if I qualified to represent the USA at the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio (in September). If I do qualify, it will be a great honor to represent the US on the worldwide stage and to bring notoriety to the sport of triathlon in its first-ever Paralympics. To accomplish this, I will have to juggle 20+ hours of training a week, 60+ hours a week running my business (Cultural Edge which is turning 13 this year), taking my kids to soccer, horseback riding and my duties on the Elfin Forest Harmony Grove Town Council where I serve as Vice-Chair and Communications Chair.
None of this, of course, would be possible without the extensive support of my family, friends and of course sponsors. I am so thankful to: my wife, especially, for putting up with my insane training, massive food consumption, crazy travel and work schedules; my kids for being the reason I try to be the best person I can be; CAF Paratriathlon Elite Team, for the support both financial and emotional that allows me and my teammates to showcase the best in disabled athletics around the world; and the great sponsors and supporters: the great guys at Nytro Multisport, Quintana Roo for hooking me up with the best tri bikes money can buy and the great Team CAF sponsors: J&L Pie Company, Nike, Nuun, Procellera Elite, ISM Saddles, XTERRA Wetsuits and Rudy Project sunglasses and helmets.
Never a dull moment. The adventure continues.