Venturing Into New Waters...
Please allow me to introduce you to an incredible woman. Her name is Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt. At age 1 she was diagnosed with retinoblastoma (retinal cancer), curable but with a steep price, the loss of both of her eyes. Despite this fact, she has tackled more challenges than most of us with both eyes and full sight. Growing up in New York City, she learned to dance tap, ballet and jazz with the National Dance Institute - and performed at places like the Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden (NYC), and the JFK Center (Washington D.C.). She can rock-climb, cross-country ski, downhill ski, and hike (she has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro). In 2001 Ivonne started running, and excelled. She has done 14 marathons (including a 3:22 in the 2008 Boston Marathon), and currently holds the American record for Totally Blind Women in the 1,500, 3,000, and 5,000 meters.
Eventually she ventured into the world of triathlon, and again excelled winning the Visually Impaired Female Triathlon USA National Championship in the Olympic Distance from 2007-2010, and she also holds Paratriathlon World Championship gold medals in both the sprint and olympic distances.
When paratriathlon was excluded from the Paralympic games in London (2012), she switched gears and focused on her strength and passion - running. With her goal of making it to Rio (2016) she encountered a major setback . . . . experiencing extreme fatigue and other troublesome symptoms, she was diagnosed with a rare bladder cancer in May of 2014. She started chemo in July, and had surgery in November. Still not deterred, she went through her treatments and kept her dream alive, returning to running and competing in the 1500 meter finals World Championship in October of 2015. Yet another challenge reared its head when she began having pain in her left foot – and ended up with a stress fracture. Time was ticking, there were still races on the line leading up for a slot to Rio and a decision had to be made - run the race and chance the foot? The answer was yes - but sometimes a chance taken does not have the desired result, in this case Ivonne’s body had other plans and the stressed bone broke during the 2016 National Trials with 60 meters to go – but she completed the race and secured her spot on the Paralympic Track & Field Team for Rio.
Intensive rehab followed yet again, and in her tenacious way she refused to throw in the towel. Her efforts paid off - Ivonne made it to Rio and finished 6th at the Paralympic Games for the 1500 meters!!!!!!
After Rio, for a number of reasons, Ivonne decided to test the waters of triathlon again. Which is how our paths converged. She needed a guide, started asking some other guides, and eventually I was asked if I would be interested. This is something I have actually been contemplating for a while, and I tend to believe everything happens for a reason, so I jumped at the opportunity. Now, granted, at this time I had never been on a tandem bike (I have to admit, as much as I LOVE to bike, there just aren’t many people I trust with me on a tandem…..), and I sure had no idea what all being a guide would entail. That didn’t phase Ivonne one bit. She assured me I would be fine - and the race was on. I was still pretty nervous, and was kindly directed to a long-time guide, Caroline Gaynor, who took the time to chat with me at length, and gave me some valuable insight and tips - which made me feel much, much better. (Check out https://carolinebikes.com )
So, the race? The CAMTRI in Sarasota, Florida. Saturday, March 11. My friend, Justin Lowe, lent me his tandem, and my sister, Robyn, was brave enough to ride it with me. We rode it twice - and it was time to head to Florida. I met Ivonne and her husband (John Schmidt) the Thursday before the race. I confess, I have never been around anyone completely blind before, and I learned a lot. The tandem they brought for the race broke down into 30 pieces. Now, my other confession is, I am no bike mechanic. I can clean my bike, I can change my tires, but for anything much more extensive than that I am more than happy to utilize my wonderful Gran Fondo Bicycles shop - or beg a bike mechanically inclined friend to help me with. So here is John telling me about how he taught Ivonne to put this bike together. Even taking pictures of all the different pieces so that if he wasn’t with her she could call him and he could look at his pictures, see what stage she was at, and help guide her through it. Yep, I was super impressed. And I witnessed it. And - I guess I have no excuses now. None.
So, Friday was our first chance to actually practice together. Riding the tandem. Running. Swimming. Let me tell you, paratriathlon was like entering a whole different world. For the swim, you have a tether between the guide and athlete. The rule is no further than a meter apart. But - there are no standard tethers, so the athletes are left to come up with their own device that meets the regulations. Ivonne and John basically used small dog collars (easy to adjust) which were attached just between the top of the calf and below the knee, and were joined together by several elastic shoestrings. We practiced a couple hundred yards out and around a buoy, me trying to match her stroke - her left arm with my right, and keep us on course. It was all good until we turned around the buoy and I had to figure out how to get her to turn with me - the tether being on our legs meant when I turned left it pulled her leg and turned her right. Good thing we practiced!
The tandem riding went well - kind of like a group ride where you point out the bumps and rough spots - except I was just talking her through it. “Bump coming up, curve to the right, turning left in 25 yards, uphill coming up, unclipping right foot, stopping in 3-2-1”, that sort of thing. We also had a slight uphill start - so we practiced that.
Then, the run. So, you also have to have a tether on the run, and can be no further than half a meter apart. We used race belts and Ivonne just clipped a carabiner to mine, with the tether joining the two. It was easy to see running is where she was most comfortable. All I had to do was help guide her through the turns, make sure to warn her where the bumps or rough spots were, and make sure she didn’t get too close to the edge of the pavement. Whew. I felt better having practiced - but I was still pretty nervous. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re racing for yourself and something happens – but I wanted to make sure Ivonne had a great race (and had FUN) - and I could only hope that my inexperience wouldn’t jeopardize that.
Race day. We didn’t race until after 2:30. Talk about a leisurely start. It was a beautiful day - upper 70s, slight wind, blue skies. We went through all the check-in procedures, set up transition, and were ready to go. So the visually impaired category is divided into totals and partials. There was one other athlete/guide in our “total” category, and several racing in the “partial” category. All still compete against each other, but the totals got to start first. Ivonne was called to the line, we took our place, and off we went. Things went really well - there were no sharp buoy turns, we stayed on course, and I was pretty well able to match her strokes. 750 meter swim down. Out of the swim, unhook the tether, and into transition. I put Ivonne’s hand on her bike handlebars and she knew where all her gear was. Then it was out on the bike. We made it up the hill (yay), and it was a 3 loop course (18K) with a winding section on the far side of the lake, and a straight highway, headwind section back towards transition. We made it through uneventfully, made our dismount before the line (yay), and back into transition. Change into running shoes, hook tether, out on the run which was a one loop 5K.
About 3/4 of the way to the turnaround Ivonne started to slow a bit. She mentioned maybe needing to walk. We were almost to the turnaround - so I told her. Now, yet another confession, I am not the greatest judge of distance. She - being a track runner, knows much better than I the distance covered. But - I could see the turnaround, so I made my best guess. I figured it worked, ‘cause she kept running to the turnaround, and even picked it up afterwards. Then she asked about a water stop. Well, there was one up ahead, so I made my best guess again. I tried to distract her by talking about some things I had seen during the race, but then she asked, “OK, but I’m wondering where that water stop is” - and I made my next best guess, then told her how close we would be to the finish when we reached it. We finally DID make it to the water stop, and then we were 1/2 mile out, so I just kept talking her through the course. She did amazing (and never did walk) – and crossed the finish line strong. She did call me out on my distance guessing afterwards, and we got a pretty good laugh out of it.
Ivonne ended up 4th, and we were both happy with that. It was her first tri back in several years, our first time racing together, and the whole goal was to test things out and have fun. I think we did both successfully. I have to say, I have the utmost respect for all those athletes. For those of us who race and get caught up in our pre-race nerves, and think our training is so tough - it is easy to take what we have for granted. For those facing obstacles that make every-day life a challenge and yet are undeterred, unstoppable, and refuse to be limited - that I find extremely humbling. Think about it, next time you go out to swim, bike, run, or walk; think about it when you wake up in the morning and it is completely dark and you try to get out of the bedroom and down the hall without turning on any lights and waking up the family. Imagine the courage needed to swim in unknown waters, bike without seeing the course, run without knowing how much farther you have to go - and the absolute trust you have to put in someone who is guiding you. That is pretty freaking brave. And that’s just my experience with Ivonne. My hat’s off to all those parathletes out there - doing what they do, triathlon and otherwise. You are incredibly inspiring and reinforce the belief that Anything.Is.Possible.
As a side-note, it seems there is always a need for guides - so if you are willing I would highly, highly recommend it. It’s an incredible experience. You will be inspired, humbled, awed, and grateful - in a number of ways.
Thanks for reading.
And thank you, Ivonne, for trusting me to be your "guide" - although it was really you who were guiding me.