Red Top Swim – September 2016 Newsletter Interview

I was honoured to be featured in the latest Red Top Swim newsletter. Below is my interview with coach Tim Denyer. I hope you enjoy it!

This month’s Spotlight is on Donna DeWick, a seriously tough cookie when it comes to training, whether it be swim, bike, run or in the gym!

Passionate about all things training, read on to discover her trials and tribulations, what training means to her and how she over-comes her own very personal obstacles…

T) Hi Donna! Many thanks for doing this interview with me!

D) No problem, Tim!

T) Having been raised in Hawaii, I expect water sports were a big part of your early life!! Were you a pool-swimmer as well as an open-water swimmer? Did you partake in other sports when you were younger?

D) I was a complete beach bum growing up, but far from sporty! I had some serious knee issues from about the age of 9, so the doctors actually advised me NOT to do any sport. So instead of organised sport, I spent a lot of time body surfing and body boarding, and reading my school work on the beach. But… I was on the junior varsity bowling team!

T) You’re known as being a keen triathlete as well as a stand-alone OW swimmer. What first at-tracted you to triathlon?

D) Back in 2006 we moved to a house with a lot of stairs. Going up and down the stairs all the time started to feel difficult for me, due to my nerve disease Charcot Marie Tooth, and I had developed what I called “frankenlegs” – a feeling of permanent stiffness in my legs. With the swim-bike-run elements basically equaling total body conditioning, triathlon seemed like a great way to get strong-er and to become more able – to get comfortable climbing my stairs. I bravely hit the register button for my first race after a friend that I shared my plans with told me she would help me with my first tri. That was the London Triathlon at the Excel Centre in 2007.

T) Life for you includes managing 2 health conditions, namely Charcot Marie Tooth disease and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Can you summarise their symptoms and explain how they affect you in both a day-to-day sense as well as a sporting environment?

D) Charcot Marie Tooth impacts 1 in 2500 people. It is a problem of the nerves – my myelin protein forms incorrectly, meaning my nerves do not transmit signals well. This leads to progressive degenerative muscle atrophy and loss of mobility, from the extremities (hands and feet) to the core.

CMT means that for me, anything with speed is tough. Think of it this way – if a normal person has 10 nerve cells firing a muscle, maybe I only have between 1 and 4 functioning cells doing the same job. And if a normal person has nerves that are at Autobahn speeds, mine struggle to get above the school zone limits. With raw speed not my strength, I have had to focus on developing good technical ability.

I also lack a push function in my calves, due to muscle atro-phy, and struggle with tendonitis in my ankles. This means that running is exceptionally difficult for me.

Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder. Es-sentially, my collagen is flawed. I have hypermobile type EDS meaning that my joints are loose and can dislocate easi-ly (I alluded to this when I mentioned my knee problems grow-ing up, I have also had major reconstructive surgery on my elbow in 2007). I have crossover symptoms with classical EDS, meaning I can have an erratic or exceptionally high heart rate (my max. heart rate on a track was about 210!) and that my blood pressure may not regulate right, meaning that I can pass out easily. This is particularly fun to manage in the context of a triathlon when you jump from horizontal to vertical in transition one…

I think EDS has given me the most to manage when it comes to sport. I find understanding where my body is in space quite challenging, so developing the good technique to compensate for the CMT lack of speed is vital – but learning good tech-nique can be hard for me. EDS also means that it can be hard to build muscle – and incredibly easy to lose it. So I do lots of functional strength training. EDS also means that when I do get injured – for example when I tore my suprasprinatus ten-don in July 2015 – it can take me a long time to rebuild and heal.

You can always read more about me, sport, CMT and EDS on my blog,

T) How important is sport and exercise to you in terms of managing your health, both physically and mentally?

D) As neither of my medical conditions has a cure, exercise, quite literally, is my medicine. I use exercise to manage the impacts of CMT and EDS on my life. And honestly, I am definitely way better physically today than I was growing up. The doctors were clearly wrong in advising me to stay clear of sport! Thank goodness the advice has now evolved so kids don’t wind up like me – now kids with EDS and CMT are encouraged to discover the joy and power of sport from an early age.

T) In 2015 you represented USA at the World Paratriathlon Open Championships across the Sprint distance, and in 2014 you competed in the ITU Paratriathlon Elite field. You also got on the podium! Talk us through this awesome race experience and result!

D) In 2013 after a terrible knee problem which flared after doing a 5km run on New Year’s Day, I received the medical advice to stop doing all triathlons or to face a total knee replacement. With the help of a great sports rehab doctor, I was able to get back to a decent level of sport.

When my classification in parasport was validated before the elite race I did (the 2014 ITU World Paratriathlon Event in Chicago) I felt truly humbled. Also scared. I mean, have you seen how small a TYR compression suit is before you put it on?! How was I going to fit into my Team USA kit?!

Racing for the USA in Chicago in 2014, and then again at Worlds in 2015, was a true honour. I love paratriathlon, as honestly I believe that triathlon was the path that helped me to reclaim my health. And to represent my home country on home soil was just amazing.

It was hard in 2015, though. It was my third season racing with my knees in very bad shape. Toeing the line to start, I knew that I would rely on a run-walk strategy to finish. And not everyone was accepting of this – including some of my fellow paratriathletes. With my knee troubles, finishing was a triumph. And the podium? The podium was a gift. And in its own way, the podium was also a sign.


I like to leave a party on a high note, when things are still in full swing and while everyone is still laughing. That bronze in 2015 was my sign. Worlds was the last time I would race for USA Par-atriathlon. Now I’m just a fan 🙂

T) What do you feel has been your most enjoyable sporting achievement? I ask this because for many people simply repre-senting their country is the greatest achievement, but I feel for you that something like the satisfaction of swimming a distance without your wetsuit, or perhaps a stunning open-water swim such as the Monte Cristo event might top it?

D) Hmm… Most enjoyable moment. That is tough! The most en-joyable moments for me are the ones when I have felt the edge and gone past my own perceived limits. There are different mo-ments that stick in my mind. Like when I went to a cycle training camp in Spain. I was a complete newbie and went on a hard core camp in 2011. I had no idea how hard riding up a mountain would be. That camp pushed me way beyond what I thought I could do, and indeed one of the pros on the camp quite literally pushed me (technical term: gave me an elevator ride) up an extremely hard climb. I sat at the top of the climb and cried. It was so hard, but I did it, with a lot of help and support.

And when I swam across the Chesapeake Bay. That was before I joined Red Top – and a key motivator for me in joining Red Top. On almost blind faith in my swimming abilities and a little training, I swam the 7km across the bay. The ship channel current in the middle of the swim was CRAZY. I had to learn really fast that to move forward, I needed to swim perpendicularly. It was a swim that was full of beautiful moments, that I did with a bunch of friends I met on Twitter where we all shared our swim training for the event, it was full of challenge, and I had such an enormous sense of accomplishment when I walked ashore.

great chesapeake bay swim

And finally, when I did the West Reservoir swim in July this year without a wetsuit. I am prone to terrible cold cramping from my nerve disease, but after Croatia and the colder waters we had this year, I figured I could handle a race without my wetsuit. It was a real mind-over-body challenge. Although not long by any stretch, it was just as important as an endurance challenge for me, and it gave me the confidence in my body to do more and longer “proper” non-wetsuit swims in my future.

T) Do you feel that the legacy of 2012 (and indeed 2016) has helped paratriathlon in a similar way to that in which it has helped triathlon? Where do you see the future of Paratriathlon in the cap-ital and indeed on the national and international stage? Having been voted London Paratriathlete of the year in 2015 as well as having an audience at the Triathlon England London regional committee meeting earlier this year, you clearly have some clout!

D) Oh my. That’s a big question and one I could write an essay on! I’ll try to be brief… I think in the UK we have a unique opportunity for para-sport. The profile of the Paralympics here is HUGE. But for how large the opportunity could be, the sports themselves – and the media – have a long way to go to reach full potential.

What do I mean? In particular, for paratriathlon?

This year, the date and location for Paratriathlon National Championships were not announced until July. The race was in August. And the England National Championship held in 2015 was not of-fered again in 2016. From an opportunity to race perspective, this simply is not good enough. Brit-ish Triathlon knows this. I am optimistic that we can change the scope of opportunities to race in 2017. Because it is through good grassroots opportunities to race that the sport itself can devel-op.

I am hoping to build on the back of a successful debut of paratriathlon at the Paralympics to develop a Triathlon England London Region training day for coaches / tester day for athletes during this off season. This idea has been a long time in the making, now is the time to put it into action. If we can train club coaches and event organisers a bit in paratriathlon, that can help to in-crease possibilities for participation. Without participation there would not be sport!

T) For you, this year has been a season of consolidation and recharging the batteries. So, what’s next on the racing agenda as well as the bucket-list of ambitions?!

D) I’m not quite sure what next year will hold. I learned about the British Open Water Swim Nation-als a bit late this year. Maybe that is something to target in 2017?!

I’d love to do some iconic swims. Things like Gibraltar. Or the Scilly Isles swim that Juliette Bigley did. Or the Lanai to Maui ocean swim in my home state. The list seems endless.

But it all starts with getting back into the pool, which I hope to do very soon! I miss swimming!

T) Yes Donna, and we miss you at the pool too 😉 Many thanks for answering all those questions in such detail. Still can’t get over your 210 max heart rate!! See you on poolside… soon!!

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