Racing as a Physically Challenged Athlete

When I registered for the Egg Hunt triathlon, I noticed that for the first time they had a PC division – for the physically challenged.  I contacted the origanisers and made sure that my name was put against this category.  On Saturday March 30th, rather than my age on my calf, I had the letters “PC”.

You may recall back in May 2012 at the USA Paratriathlon National Championships at the CapTex Triathlon that I lost ability to compete at a national or international level as a paratriathlete.  It was a bittersweet moment – I had improved enough in sport to qualify for nationals, but had strengthened too much to compete as a classified paratriathlete. 

To compete at national or international level paratriathlon events, an athlete must demonstrate a greater than 15% impairment of ability caused by whatever disability they have.  All athletes have to provide medical certification of their disability, but for many categories it is pretty easy to tell if someone is a paratriathlete – it is visually obvious.  But for neuromuscular diseases like CMT (my nerve disease) or MS, for stroke survivors, for spinal injury cases, and for a myriad of other “hard to see” conditions that make up what is called “LES AUTRES” or “The Others” category in paratriathlon, it is much tougher to tell just how impaired someone is.  For those of us in this category we go through an annual testing and reassessment process, as our conditions can be variable and our strength can improve or degenerate.  In 2012 I fell “out of competition” and become an “out of class” athlete. When I lost my classification in some ways I felt like I had lost my direction, but it also gave me the chance to reflect on why I was really doing triathlon…

The fact that I lost my classification begs the question – how was I able to compete in the Physically Challenged category at The Egg Hunt?  And why did I?

Although I am out of classification at the moment, my commitment to parasport remains as strong as ever.  I firmly believe, based on my own experiences, that exercise is medicine—participation in triathlon has hugely improved my life, it has made me stronger and happier, and has helped me to get stronger and in my opinion hold off declines from my neuromuscular disease.

When I fell out of classification at Nationals the classifiers told me that just because I was out of class did not mean that I did not have a physcial challenge – in fact, they encouraged me to continue to compete as a Physically Challenged athlete.  I completed Nationals in the Physically Challenged Open Division, and based on the encouragement of the USA Triathlon officials I registered in the PC division at the Egg Hunt.  I feel that it is vital for me to continue to register and compete as a physically challenged athlete wherever the opportunity is offered. 

I was the only female athlete in the Physically Challenged division at The Egg Hunt Triathlon.  Meaning I got my first “W” in a race, and stood on the top step of the podium for the first time in my life. 

I was surprised that I was the only one…  Participation is vital – it will help paratriathlon to grow and become more competitive for athletes.  Participation of all types of athletes with all types of physical challenges will help to create awareness for the myriad of medical conditions people have, and of the fact that sport is possible for almost anyone.  And with increased participation – particularly in “The Others” category – we can challenge the system to become more accepting and better able to classify and assess the “less visible” disabilities that athletes manage.  I will go so far as to say that without participation from “harder to classify” athletes that we risk being phased out of the official paratriathlon classification system – if there are not enough athletes competing then why have the classification available?

Right now the whole system of classification – the measurement of impairment – is under review by the International Triathlon Union as a condition for the inclusion of paratriathlon in the slate of event at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.  My neurophysiotherapist Gita Ramdharry has offered her expertise – and that of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Neurology of which she is the chairperson – to the ITU committee looking at the system.  I have worked with Clare Cunningham, one of the ITU athlete representatives, to submit a paper to the ITU committee outlining various concerns and factors to consider when reconfiguring testing for neuromuscular athletes.  So in addition to being supportive of the parasport movement through my participation, I have tried to progressively impact its future development by connecting people and offering to share expertise to improve the system and its credibility from an athlete’s perspective.  So far we have received little response to our offers and input to the process – but the lack of response will not stop me from trying to be positive and proactive.

Until the new system of classification is rolled out, I will not be participating in national or international level paratriathlon events.  I can’t risk targeting races and then being denied the opportunity to race because I am “not impaired enough”.  Instead, I am focusing on races and events that motivate me and help me to continue to grow and develop as an athlete and as a person.

This does not mean I am turning my back on parasport or paratriathlon. 

I will continue to participate in open events, I will continue to be a part of the conversation, and I will continue to be a cheerleader.  And I will keep my fingers crossed that the new classification system will better measure and assess the challenges that athletes like me – those with complicated or non-standard conditions – face so that the door is opened for our participation at the highest level of our sport.  But until then… I hope that my participation will encourage more people to get involved – to aim high and dream big… 

Triathlon has shown me that I am capable of doing far more than I had ever dreamed.  And that is what my participation is all about – sharing that message to anyone and everyone. The message?

No matter what your background or challenge or current state of fitness, have the courage BOTH to dream AND to live your dreams…

One response to “Racing as a Physically Challenged Athlete”

  1. I’m so glad to have found your blog.  I too am suffering from an invisible neurological disease that is progressing. I’ve got pretty significant neuropathy and lost feeling and muscle function in my left foot and leg due to nerve damage. I began doing triathlons following weight loss surgery as a way of keeping my weight off & staying fit. Inevitably, it has been very tough to compete against women my own age because I just don’t have the same level of functioning physically.  I often come in last, or second to last because I can’t run & I have tremendous pain at all times – it has been very fulfilling to just keep on “Tri-ing”, but I am a competitive person and wish I could compete against others in my own classification. I was in London to watch the para triathletes compete in the world championships and was so impressed. I began to wonder if I actually had a chance to qualify for something like this – my wife, who was 62 years old and finished nearly last in all of our local triathlons was able to qualify for the nationals and then the worlds because of the fewer people in her age group.

    I applaud your efforts to committing energy towards getting back into classification. I will keep following you and help advocate for the same.

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