- 18-65 years old
- A regular manual wheelchair user
My Road of Life and Road to Rio Travel Down the Same Path
Those that know me are aware that my Road of Life has been a little different. Not different because it has had obstacles whereas others have not. No matter who we are or what we have accomplished, the road of life is a bumpy, winding and many times unpredictable one that challenges our strength, perseverance and commitment. The road of life forces us to question our purpose and our motivation to achieve that purpose. Even more importantly, the road of life teaches us resiliency. Resiliency is a learned ability that each and every one of us is instilled but it is up to us to develop. Resiliency is learned through challenges and hardships and is the ability to do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter the difficulty or the risk.
The first major detour on my road came at a young age. At nine years old, I began to quickly lose my sight and for nearly five years the cause was unknown. As I entered into the tough teenage years, what seemed like a “Proceed with Caution” sign quickly became a “Road Closed” sign in my mind. Dreams of being a professional soccer player were swept to the waste side and constant mental battles questioning “Why me?” ran rampant in my head. For three years I was stopped behind the road block, trying to figure out how I could get around it. These were very tough times in which I was diagnosed with OCD, an eating disorder and severe depression.
Through endurance sports I found an outlet that allowed me to take down the “Road Closed” sign. Beginning with swimming, endurance sports gave me a brand new road to travel. I slowly overcame the constant psychological battle of depression, OCD and the eating disorder and began looking for new challenges and obstacles to overcome. One of these challenges included a triathlon. A triathlon is a challenge in itself to most people but when you add in the dimension of being legally blind and doing the race all alone without a guide, you step it up to a whole new level. Most people wouldn’t even think to attempt what I did in those first few years of triathlon but I wasn’t thinking about the danger and risk, I only cared about doing whatever it took to get the job done. The psychological struggles and obstacles that I faced in my teenage years had taught me resiliency which would become the most important and powerful trait that I would ever need on the Road of Life.
For a few years, the road was fairly smooth and straight in my athletic career. With my vision continuing to decline, I came to the realization that it was in my best interest to use a guide and I began seeing opportunities in sport that I never thought possible. I went to my first World Championships in 2002 and realized that maybe triathlon was more than just a little weekend hobby. The sport of Paratriathlon was in its infancy back then and depth and level of elite competition was lacking. In fact, a common obstacle I had to face was questions from many in the sport, including officials and race directors where I was visually impaired at all. The common assumption in society that if you can compete at an elite level but have a disability than you must be less impaired or have some sort of advantage is one that I have been confronted with numerous times in my athletic career. Its unfortunate that this type of questioning is common place but it has been just another bump in the road along my athletic journey.
Another major obstacle in my Road of Life came not long after it was announced that Paratriathlon had been accepted into the Paralympic games for 2016. In its attempts to decrease the number of categories and level the playing field for competition, new rules were introduced into the sport. One of these rules was the implementation of the “blackout glasses” rule which stated that all those competing in the blind/visually impaired category must wear blacked out glasses on the run portion of triathlon. The intent of the rule was to eliminate any advantage those with partial sight had over those in complete darkness. The rule did not accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. Those in the blind/visually impaired community were up in arms. Many blind/visually impaired athletes came to me with their concerns and wanted to know what I could do to help eliminate this rule. After experimenting with these “blackout glasses” and realizing the safety, ethical and counterproductive impact that it would have on the sport, I faced a very difficult decision. I could succumb to those making the rules as just “the way it is” thereby going against my own philosophy of doing what is best for the sport and the blind/visually impaired community or I could serve as the voice for all the blind/visually impaired athletes and take a stance to never compete under these regulations. I chose the path to take a stand against this ruling. In doing so I had chose to forfeit my opportunity to race in all international competition. Giving up the sport I loved was a very difficult decision and for three years I dealt with an emotional battle as it took legal litigation to get rid of the rule.
Looking back at the decision I made when I was at the fork in the road contemplating which way to go, I believe it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. The three year battle challenged the inner strength of who I am as a person but it made me more resilient and it has made the sport better as a result. Beginning in 2013, there was no “blackout glasses” rule and once again blind/visually impaired individuals were able to compete under a two category system.
2013 marked my return to international competition and began the early planning for my Road to Rio for the 2016 Paralympics. The level of competition was getting better but this was hard to gauge because for the most part those in North America wouldn’t be racing against those from Europe until the World Championships in London late in the summer. When that day came on a wet and cold day in Hyde Park, I was beaten by a young phoneme from Great Britain name David Ellis. This marked the first time I had ever been beaten by another blind/visually impaired
athlete and it was a very humbling experience. It was another unexpected bump on my road that I had to react to and decide which direction I would go next. Thankfully I had many challenging and difficult experiences in my past that had taught me what I needed to do. From that day in September in London in 2013 I was on a mission to do whatever it would take to reclaim my title in 2014 at the World Championships.
With guide Colin Riley, I arrived in Edmonton at the end of August of last year and was on a mission. There was only one path, and that path was victory. Colin and I had scouted out every inch of the challenging Edmonton course and had went through every scenario in our head so we were prepared for anything on the day of the race. The pressure was definitely on me and there were expectations from my country to win gold. To deal with all of the pressure and excitement, I even called on the services of a sport psychologist to ease my mind. When the gun went off though, it was just another day in the office. Colin and I would be down 3:43 right from the start as there had been a new staggered start rule imposed in 2014 in which the totally blind athletes (B1) started 3:43 in front of the partially sighted (B2/B3) athletes in order to level out differences that may be related to vision on performance. Making up this amount of time in a sprint distance triathlon was a daunting task but we were up for the challenge. We made up almost half the difference in time in the swim alone and headed out on the very hilly four loop bike course eager to make up even more ground. We passed Ellis on the first loop and would not see him again the rest of the day. When we got to the run, we were 45seconds down but I was confident in my run as I knew I had at least a minute on every one of my competitors out there in the run. Almost halfway through the first of two loops on the run, we blew by the leader and from there I knew there was nothing left but celebration.
The triumph and joys of winning gold at the World Championships were all swept away in October as I heard the shocking news that the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced that the male PT 5 Blind/Visually Impaired category would not be included at the 2016 Rio Paralympic games. Upon hearing this news, my heart was shattered and I was in total disbelief. Once again, my Road of Life was turned upside down and I had no idea what direction to go.
For many days I contemplated my future in athletics and whether this was the sign that my athletic career was coming to an end. In the back of my mind I had a strong voice telling me, “You can’t let it end like this.” I had fully committed to the Road to Rio and although this road would no longer include triathlon, I had to stay committed to my mission. This wasn’t the first time that I was called on to be resilient. This trait was now programmed into me. So I scouted out my options and it seemed that the marathon or cycling gave me the best chances to make it to Rio. My best marathon time of 2:44 put me at 12th fastest in the world and the fastest blind/VI runner in the US. In any other country besides Kenya and Ethiopia, I would qualify for Rio based upon that alone. However, based on the selection procedure in the US, I would need to go faster. I would need to go under 2:40 for the marathon to ensure a spot and over the late fall and early winter of 2014 I began training intensely for running.
I signed up for the Houston Marathon with the goal of running under 2:40 at this race in mid January 2015. Training was going well up until about a month out when I began having pain and discomfort in my left foot. The pain seemed to subside after 5-6 miles and so initially I continued to train through it but when the pain extended into walking and standing I decided to get it checked out. An MRI showed a stress fracture all along my 5th metatarsal on the lateral side of my left foot. Being a physical therapist myself, I knew this was not a good place to get a fracture. As a result, I took the doctors advice and went in a walking boot for five weeks. This ended my chances of running the time I wanted to run in the Houston Marathon and made me second guess whether running was the right sport for me to qualify for Rio in.
Once again my road was blocked and after reading this many may think that I would just throw in the towel and say “there’s always 2020.” Many people may choose this route but not me. I am different than most and I am on a mission. My Road to Rio still continues and it is through Para Cycling. 2015 will be a very important year for me in cycling as I will need to prove myself both on a national and international level. I will starting at ground zero and I will be paving my own road that will end in Rio 2016.
Follow me on my Road to Rio by subscribing to my blog “Through My Eyes” at www.cdifferentwithaaron.com/throughmyeyes
You can also follow me on Twitter @aaronscheidies and like my fan page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/cdifferentwithaaron
Challenged athlete Nick Roumonada’s reflects on Wildflower, AKA “The Woodstock for Triathlons.”
“As soon as my race season ended last year with another, but most memorable, IRONMAN Arizona finish, I thought to myself, what’s next? It’s always – rest, recover and then TRAIN FOR WILDFLOWER! It’s one of those races you can’t just show up to “have fun” or have a “catered training day.” Are those types of races out there? Sure, but Wildflower isn’t that race and that’s what makes it perfect for people like us, triathletes. It’s the bucket list race of all bucket list races. It’s one of those you have to start frantically training for WAY too soon in the season because you don’t want to suffer. Suffer you will, but the race, the race experience, the venue and the people will make it all worthwhile.
I started doing triathlons 5 years ago as a way to help heal from all the loss I’ve experienced in my life. Challenge #1 – At the age of 13 I was stricken with and survived bacterial meningitis. Thanks to my folks and their quick response, I was rushed to the hospital which saved my life, but unfortunately, not all of my limbs. After 6 months in the hospital, and a dozen surgeries, I was given the choice whether or not to amputate a foot that was devastated by the disease. I took the chance and chose amputation below the knee in order to have a chance at regaining an active lifestyle; one that I had lived up to that point. I did what I could but due to financial restrictions my family couldn’t afford the special sports prosthetics I needed in order to get back into the game. It was then that I took up music. I replaced my sports with music and ran with it. I went on to play the trumpet professionally from the age of 17. Challenge #2 – Music was my passion, it was my life, it’s what paid the bills and it took me to all parts of the world. That was until the age of 30 while I was living in New York City trying to “make it.” After struggling with a lot of pain while playing, I was referred to a specialist at Columbia Medical Center where I was given the paralyzing news that I was no longer going to be able to play music. A neurological disorder, focal dystonia, was causing all the pain and I was told I would have to put down the horn and move on… Move on?? Tough pill to swallow. The only reason I did was because I was told if I didn’t, there was a chance the symptoms I was experiencing would begin to disrupt my ability to eat and speak.
Here’s where the story gets good. After my diagnosis I was able to get back into life, through sport, thanks to an incredible organization that some of you might be familiar with, The Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). CAF provides adaptive sporting equipment such as racing wheelchairs, training/coaching grants and running prosthetics to people like me. CAF’s gift of a running foot was the catalyst to all that was to come. I began training in Central Park, running late at night after work and school. I got my distance up and entered into my first 5k, 10k and ½ marathon races. I found success in all of these distances and was ready to take it to the next level, triathlon! CAF has had a long and wonderful relationship with everyone at Tri Cal, and Wildflower was the one race that everyone talked about. I was ready… at least I thought I was…
My first two years at Wildflower were definitely humbling. Let’s be honest, every year racing Wildflower is a humbling experience. “My PR is at Wildflower” said NO ONE!
Wildflower take one: After a strong start, I was almost stopped by the inability to keep my leg on – yes, keep my leg on. Due to the extreme heat, uneven terrain and the fact that I sweat like a beast, keeping my running prosthetic attached was impossible and I struggled to finish the Olympic Distance. Wildflower take two: Since I had gone and done my first couple ½ IRONMAN races and was racing around the five and half hour mark, I was sure I was ready for the full distance at Wildflower… RIGHT! It was another HOT year and I was experiencing the same challenge with my prosthetic staying on… that was until I stopped sweating. NOT GOOD! Let’s just say it was that race I discovered the magic of SaltStick. At mile 12 of the run, I was heading down hill towards the finish and BOOM, my whole right quad cramped. Another competitor saw me fall straight into, and go over the guardrail, coming to my aid with salt. I managed to limp my way to a finish which left me both scared to death about my scheduled first full IRONMAN and yet confident at the same time. I thought to myself, “If I can survive the Wildflower long course, I can finish IRONMAN.” So I went and did it – in 11hrs and 13min.
That is why I will always race Wildflower. It’s tough enough that you can’t show up unprepared and by beating you down it can somehow give you the confidence to tackle any race you once thought was impossible. As you might be able to tell, I like to take challenges and turn them into opportunities. Each and every year Tri Cal and CAF gives challenged athletes like me the opportunity to take on Wildflower because they know if they set the bar high enough, great things are possible. Take the opportunity to race Wildflower and run with it… you’ll be stronger for it.”
Would you like to be featured? Send an email with your name, contact information, affiliation with CAF, story, and pictures to Jamie@challengedathletes.org.
New Year’s Resolutions
Get to know the faces behind CAF and their new goals for 2015.
A good way to set a new goal is to write it down, even better – share it on social media!
We went around the offices of CAF and asked members to write some of their new year’s resolutions.
There were some funny ones and some others that were tough to follow, but the best part was everyone encouraged one another with their goals and was excited to share ideas with each other.
Jenna Loftus, Marketing Manager: “I want to be more bold in every aspect of my life, in my career, in goal setting, and in everything else.”
James Sa Amanda Geffen Virginia Tinley
CAF Athlete & Special Events Coordinator Executive Director
Emelie Sosa Julia Duggan Jason Karavidas
Marketing Intern Special Events Manager Development Coordinator
Kim Rohr Jennifer Rose
Office Manager Development Manager
What new goals have you set this year?
From the blog of Max Conserva
It’s Sunday 9am in La Jolla, California and I’m naked in public for the first time in my life. I’m sitting on a folding chair surrounded by a few thousand others who have traveled here to occupy the nicely manicured park for the day. An energy, unnatural for this early in the morning, emanates from the mass. The buzzing crowd and brightly colored temporary structures create a surreal feel that complements the strange level of comfort I am experiencing. Athletes move hurriedly to specific destinations. Spectators seem to rush around to nowhere in particular. I simply sit, my stare far-off, my race done. My gaze transitions back into the foreground, the shaved head of a competitor takes focus directly in front of me. We are in mid-conversation, his rapid speech aligned with the pitch of the commotion. Like me, he has just completed the one mile open water swim of the Challenged Athletes Foundation San Diego Triathlon. A swim that only one month ago I had no idea how I would complete. With his speedy monologue seemingly only near it’s midpoint, I subconsciously give myself permission to drift off again. I look down at the white towel wrapped around my waist. It’s only long enough to cover down to around my knees. I gaze further down, past the towel, to my deformed right leg. I see it all in the morning sun. The awkward angle, the abnormal rotation, the child-like girth, the wholesale vacancy of standard anatomical reference points. I know these hallmarks well. I have stared at them for the last twenty-five years. My stare deepens, past the physical damage to the emotional scaring that lies beneath. Hopelessness. Embarrassment. Inadequacy. Shame. A familiar urge begins welling within to grab for another towel and cover up my limb. However, for the first time in my life, I don’t. I simply continue to stare. Then, spell broken, I look up and reengage in the conversation.
In 1989, at the age of eight, my body and a twenty ton semi-truck attempted to occupy the same space. Marred from that day forward, I became an expert at hiding the resulting damage. It started small. I stopped wearing shorts. I only bought pants that were baggy enough to hide the abnormal contour of my leg. I wouldn’t change clothes in front of others. For most of my life this self-preservation was seemingly superficial, a minor inconvenience, an everyday accommodation. However in the last few years I began to realize how deep the charade had progressed. I noticed how more and more I was tactically managing the environments I was exposing myself to. Heeding an anxious inner voice to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations. Hot tubbing? Nope, everyone will see my awkward leg on the way to the tub. Pick-up basketball? I can wear track pants but I don’t want people to see me limping around the court. Beach? Okay, but I will wear pants and not go in the water. Every activity had to first pass this screen. I’d attempted to banish my deformity to an unscalable tower, behind a locked gate, in a sealed box, convinced the imprisonment would nullify it’s impact on the rest of my life. However in doing so I successfully accomplished the opposite. I inserted my fear into a position of maximum effect; I had granted it first veto power over every decision in my life. Regardless of the merit of the experience, fear now stood as the unyielding judge, jury and executioner. What I’d attempted to relegate to a corner now held court over the rest of my faculties.
After living for decades under this arrangement of inhibitions and lost opportunities, I began to grow weary. Emotionally exhausted, it became abundantly clear that the bargain I made so long ago was holding me back. With the path to unwind this construct unclear, I did the only thing I could think of, walk straight towards my fear. Force myself into situations where I had to deal with the uncomfortable. The last year of navigating this path has taken me many places, this weekend I found myself at a triathlon. A competition I committed to specifically because I knew with the crowds of people there would be nowhere to hide. Where would I change into my wetsuit in privacy? How would I manage getting down to the beach without the brace that covered up my disability? I didn’t have the time to fret over the answers because a much larger question loomed. How do I swim a mile in the waves without drowning? I had no training. No trainer. No wetsuit. No access to a pool. My first time in the water revealed, with my horrible technique, that I couldn’t swim more than 100 yards before losing my breath. By signing up with only four weeks to prepare, I placed myself in an emergency situation that required an override of all normal operating procedures. Under threat of flood, the court was indefinitely suspended, all veto powers revoked.
I didn’t drown. In seven days I found a pool, a wetsuit and even a trainer of sorts. In fourteen days I swam a half mile. In twenty-one I swam my first mile. On race day, my fifth time in open water, I smashed my previous time by over fifteen minutes which even included mid-race breaks for pictures and a pee. A few years ago I would have never dreamed of sitting in a public place so exposed, my disability naked for all to see. I now sit casually in the triathlon transition area among other challenged athletes, individuals who, by virtue of their presence, overthrew the same internal arbitrator. It has been a long road to this point, and I know there is still work to be done. The specter remains. I can still feel it as a layer upon me. But now it’s thin, almost transparent. The sting has been blunted. I’m buoyed by a new sense of contentment, the exhilaration of accomplishment, the spent adrenaline of physical exhaustion, but perhaps most of all, by the knowledge of a commitment to another competition in less than 7 days. A completely different event, in a different city, with a new set of urgent questions. Court will have to remain dismissed.
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