Athletes get ‘out of the comfort zone’ | VailDaily.com

Athletes get ‘out of the comfort zone’

Joelle Milholm
Vail, CO Colorado

Kelley Cox/Post IndepedentBlind triathlete Margaret Zalenska of Virginia is guided by Jamie Darien of Glenwood Springs as they near the finish line at Two Rivers Park.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” Seven women not deterred by blindness were determined to compete. Inspired by Nancy Stevens, they did it.

Some learned to swim and some learned to bike, but all mastered a mini triathlon in the inaugural Tri It Camp for blind women athletes Friday through Sunday in Glenwood Springs.

Dreamed up and created by Stevens, a Glenwood resident who is a world champion blind triathlete and former U.S. Paralympic cross-country skier, Tri It has been in Stevens’ mind for years and in the works for a year and a half. With help from members of the Roaring Fork Women’s Triathlon team, volunteers throughout Glenwood and guides from all over the country, Stevens’ dream became a reality.

“We had three beginning swimmers who swam for 15 minutes today. They stayed in there the whole time. We couldn’t ask for any more,” Stevens said. “Some people had never run with a string before. We threw a lot of new stuff at them, and they soaked it all in.”

The blind athletes came from California, Indiana, Texas and Virginia to participate. The camp started on Friday when the blind athletes were paired up with their guides and began to learn what it takes to do a blind triathlon ” team work, communication, trust and confidence.

On Friday and Saturday, the blind athletes and guides swam, biked and ran together. All to prepare for Sunday morning’s mini triathlon. The women swam for 15 minutes, tandemn biked one to five miles, and ran from the Hot Springs to Two Rivers Park.

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During the run, guides were fitted with or held on to a tether that the blind athletes held on to.

Lori Miller, a member of the U.S. cycling team in the 2000 Paralympics in Australia, came from Indiana to come to the camp. An accomplished athlete, Miller didn’t need instruction on swimming, biking or running. Instead, she was thrilled to have a group to compete with, she said.

“I have always done blind sports, but there is never enough blind athletes. And it is really tough to always be one or two and it is really hard to keep training and get faster because you need competition to motivate you,” Miller said.

“I believe that any time we are out in the community doing stuff like this we inspire someone. Whether it is a guide or another blind athlete or a family member of somebody, they look and they say, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s get out of our comfort zone,'” she said.

Miller jelled so well with her guide ” Karen Ishibashi of Boulder, whom she just met on Friday ” that when they swam it looked synchronized. Stroke for stoke, the pair’s movements were identical.

“I felt really good on the swim today. I love it and my sport has always been cycling, but the swim was where it was at today. The run was brutal, but I made it,” Miller said.

Ishibashi, who has served as a guide for blind skiers in the past, said she was moved by all of the athletes’ abilities.

“All of the women here, everyone has a story, and I am just blown away thinking, ‘Oh my goodness.’ It is so inspiring,” Ishibashi said.

Other guides were overcome by the same admiration. Roaring Fork Women’s Triathlon team member Jane Szucs, who was paired with Kristin Mathe of California, felt like her role was reversed by learning how to explain pace to Mathe, how to work together on the bike and how to feel each other swimming side-by-side fluidly, without bumping into each other.

“I have been constantly reminded of how I take my sight for granted. So this weekend has been really educational for me,” Szucs said. “I felt like she was my guide.”

The camp’s participants ranged from veteran athletes like Miller to beginners like Michelle Toney of Austin, Texas, who didn’t consider herself an athlete before the camp. She came to “get off my butt.”

“I didn’t know how to swim but doggy paddle before I got here,” Toney said. “I am still not an expert, but it was fun.”

Margaret Zaleska, from Virginia, took things a little more seriously. After cruising through the swimming leg with guidance from her 13-year-old daughter Bianka Michalski, then switching guides to complete the biking portion, she kicked it up a notch in the last running leg with another new guide, Jamie Darien.

“We were passing people and we were running and all of a sudden we could hear Tinker Duclo (a guide from Silt) and Nancy Stevens behind us saying, ‘Good job ladies, way to go!'” Dairen said. “Margaret said, ‘Is that Nancy Stevens behind us?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she said, ‘Pick it up!’ She grabbed me.”

At the conclusion of the mini triathlon, all of the athletes, guides and volunteers were awarded medals. The swimmer, cyclist and runner on the medals were raised, so the blind athletes could run their fingers over the miniature figures representing them.

Afterward Stevens ” who wrote a grant and recruited volunteers, resources and sponsorships ” thanked everyone for coming. After introducing these women to each other, Stevens hopes they will continue to try and do.

“We went from having two women guides in the world to at least 15. We are just looking to plant some seeds and get some more people inspired to do triathlons or at least pick one of these sports and know how to network in their community and stay active,” Stevens said. “That was our goal.”