Patricia Walsh is a member of the CAF Elite Paratriathlon team and one of the top visually impaired triathletes in the world. She recently took gold at ITU Magog and catapulted to a No. 1 ranking in the PT5 classification. But her trip to Magog was anything but easy. Read on for her account from a wild weekend.
Recently Claudia Spooner stepped up to act as my guide. Claudia is a remarkably accomplished triathlete–participating on the PowerBar elite team, Watty Inc., having trained for Olympic Trials for marathon, and qualified for her pro card the past two years. All of her athletic achievements prepped her perfectly for the lunacy we were going to encounter in our attempt to represent Team USA at ITU Magog. A remarkable many of Claudia’s stories have either a reference or analogy from Princess Bride.
We have been through hell and back. What I’m most proud of is that we worked together as a team to problem solve and overcome obstacle after obstacle. Claudia shined in every occasion. She never expressed fear, doubt, or anything other than love of life and appetite for adventure. She was an amazing guide, friend, confidant, and partner in crime (Misdemeanors and traffic violations mostly).
The past few days have been stressful, challenging, and befuddling but as I write this I realize more and more how we have had the time of our lives. In spite of all odds we raced well and posted strong times in all three disciplines. I am more proud of this gold at ITU Magog than I am of any other previous victory. We fought, fought, fought for this one. We took this race to the octagon and we won.
Claudia is a treasure. Her good spirit and good humor kept my sanity in a trying time. I will always be thankful to have had her by my side. Thanks to Mark Sortino for all his help and as always thanks to all the ongoing support from Challenged Athletes Foundation. As a result of the points acquired at ITU Magog, I upgraded from ITU #5 to ITU #1. Make no mistake about it, I know I have my work cut out for me. The competition is fierce and there is no occasion to let up.
Our trip started with usual travel troubles. I arrived at the airport very early to check in the bike. Have you ever traveled with your grandmother and she insisted on arriving hours before it was necessary? Well, I am kind of like that—but only when I have to check the bike. I’m convinced there will be some problem. I always end up waiting at the gate for 90 minutes or more. Claudia encountered some turbulence with regard to a conference call conflict and found herself achieving an Olympic qualifying sprint to the gate to make it…just in time for the flight to be canceled.
While waiting for information I called our travel agent while Claudia vaporized. I have no idea where she went. I discovered that our travel consultant was on vacation until Monday and no one would be answering the phones until 9 a.m., which was in about four hours–leaving us without options.
I then received a frantic text from Claudia asking me to meet her at gate 15 as she got us on a flight. Claudia performs miracles; I still don’t understand how this was possible.
In an attempt to ease Mark Sortino’s nerves, I sent a text to assure him we were safely on a flight. I had a mish mash with Siri and intended to say “We are safely on a flight, see you in Magog” but really sent “We are crashing on a plane now, I’ll keep you posted, I think to be crazy.” To which he responded “Great” because somehow, someway he knew what I meant to say.
Upon our arrival to Montreal, I was stopped by the Canadian customs. I am stopped going into Canada every time as I have been red-flagged. In 1996 dear old Dad had a poorly timed joke with the customs agent heading into Canada and I have been red-flagged ever since. They still interrogate me for at least 30 minutes. They ask me crazy questions like “Who was governor general of Ontario district 217 in 1996?” to which I offer a sincere blank stare and say “I have no idea.” To be honest, to their 30 questions I have maybe one or two answers and they are guesses.
While I was dealing with customs, Claudia was dealing with our lost baggage…the next crisis. Bike and both bags are nowhere to be found. They assured us it would be in at midnight and they would rush it to our hotel, two hours away in Sherbrook.
Finally to the rental car with only our carry-ons in hand. We were about two hours later than we intended and about to try to navigate the mind craft that is Montreal roads under construction. Sure enough, we hit a detour about half way. So began our wilderness farm adventure. We were driving on one-lane dirt roads with corn and cows on either side, just trusting that our GPS understood our intent and we understood its direction. There were no other cars, no signs, and nothing but meteors to guide the way. Claudia saw a meteor and was pretty excited.
On several occasions during the drive, I asked her “Are you sure…?” She responds “Noooooooo.” We proceed anyway, as we were beyond the point of no return. We couldn’t go back if we wanted to. We finally arrive at the hotel just after 1 a.m. We were worn from the trip but in good spirits. We were laughing like children as Claudia searched up and down for the slot for the key. I said “give me that!” and introduced her to the magic of RFID and swiped the key to release the door.
We woke up first thing to go gather our bike which we had been assured would arrive. No bike. Throughout the day we called over and over to find out its most recent sighting. Every time we spoke to them they had a different answer.
Claudia mentioned she knew someone who was a retired captain with American who may have some insight. I was only paying 50 percent attention as I was reading on my computer. I thought she said she knew someone who was a retired Captain America. I gave her a puzzled look to suggest “That is not a real job someone can be, it just isn’t, no one is Captain America. Besides, between you and me, I think this is more with in Batman’s scope of influence.”
Throughout the day it is starting to seem more and more like our bike isn’t coming. So I say to myself “What would Beyoncé do in this situation?” I don’t think a Beyoncé show would be canceled just because of lost equipment or costumes, and so this is also true for our race. I called every bike shop in town and found a beach cruiser to rent. This is a 50-pound cycle cross hybrid tandem that was never intended to be ridden anywhere near a race much less in a race. You are not allowed to say “High Performance” in the same room as this bike as it would split the parallels of the universe and create a black hole.
It’s like in Princess Bride when Buttercup says “We’ll never survive. “And Wesley says “Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”
So we talk these guys into renting it to us on the condition that we add one of their stickers to the bike and ride it with the price tags waving the entire time. We agreed as we were stuck. Claudia seemed concerned and justifiably so… so I asked “Which part of this are you concerned by?” Because there were too many possible reasons to be concerned to just take a random guess. There were compounding concerns so I had to fall back on precision questioning.
As we go to leave, it occurs to us that we can’t fit the bike in the SUV. I’ll admit it, when problem solving I yell out the bad ideas peppered in with one or two decent ideas in rapid fire.
“You take the bike, I’ll drive and hear the GPS audio directions!”
“You drive and yell left or right out the car!”
“Tie it to the top of the car!”
Finally we both rode it back up a 60-percent gradient hill in flat pedals. We borrowed one helmet. I handed it to Claudia and said “you’re a mom” implying that I only have a dog and if we are going to die today I’d rather it is me. We only have four miles to ride (uphill) but my confidence in survival is low.
As we were riding, I expressed that our only saving grace is that the way that we were dressed made it pretty clear that we never intended to be doing this. In the words of John Maloney “I also don’t want me to be doing what I’m doing.” I had on a yoga outfit and flip flops with all our documents, wallets, and phones in my bra. Not a sports bra (that might have made sense), but a regular clearance bra from Target. Claudia had a running skirt and running shoes, and remember, we didn’t have a change of clothes. I’d rather people say “I wonder what happened?” than say “Those girls have escaped from an institution, call the authorities.”
There seemed to be people congregating. I asked one of them what was going on. Due to language barrier she expressed that it was the festival of show and amusement. Joel was kind enough to take the two of us (a pair of liabilities) back to the bike shop to retrieve our rental SUV.
The rest of the day was one problem at a time. Piecing together kits. What can we buy at Wal-Mart? Can we tape our shoes to the bike? And on and on. We were going to finish this race no matter what.
Join me in this visualization. Giant heavy bright purple beach cruiser. Kits out of whatever we could find at Wal-Mart to then puff-paint ITU on. Whatever helmet I could find at Walmart. Running shoes taped to flat pedals. Claudia and I attempt to seriously race this race. Can you imagine that? How could we be taken seriously?
At 9 p.m. the night before the race, at least our bags arrived. It was a relief as I had some key pieces in the bag. Lesson learned–anything I need for the race that I can fit in my carry-on will go in my carry-on in the future.
I then received a call to say our bike was on the way. I said “I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’m blind so that is never going to happen. So really I’ll believe it when my butt is on my own seat.” They had no response.
Sure enough at 5:45 I ran downstairs to verify that my own bike was there. Thank you Santa Claus. The bike shop opened at 9 a.m. We arrived at the bike shop 30 minutes before they opened. No time to lose. I started building my bike in the parking lot.
Claudia had been so curious to see me build the bike. I need complete quiet to do this, as it required a lot of concentration for a blind person to build a bike. I don’t want anyone to move anything or touch anything. Usually I insist on being alone for this process. Claudia tried so hard to be quiet. She was pacing all around me telling me how good she was being at being quiet. I thought it was hilarious.
I really do need to be on my own for this process. My concentration demands are so stringent that little distractions are blown up. I don’t think it’s reasonable of me to expect someone else be able to be that quiet. I cannot tune out people moving because I hear for space and movement. It is hard to explain to sighted people.
As we are waiting, the owners pull up. In a word they were perplexed. Claudia is pacing. I’m filthy and asking her over and over to be quiet. I had the handlebars on upside down. It was a scene. We then tried to explain our situation through gesture. “I don’t look blind, but I’m blind, and I did my best, but it was not great, and we need your help, because we are running a race in an hour…”And on and on. It was a tribune of run-on information. They relented and fixed up the bike.
Next hurdle is we now can’t fit the tandem in the SUV. So we flattened all the seats. I laid flat with my stomach on the back of the front seat and my elbows on the back of the head rest so that we could put the bike on top of me. Proving yet again we will do whatever it takes. Claudia insisted that I at least buckle my seat belt so that if we get pulled over we could suggest that we hadn’t understood the law. Our violations per second were accelerating.
We show up to the athlete check-in about 10 minutes before they closed. We set up, did our best to familiarize with the course, and got ready for our swim.
Claudia started the race with nerves of steel. We played this off like this is just how we do it every time. We had a pretty strong swim. Coach Natasha had spent some time with me this past week educating me on ways I can reduce drag in my wetsuit. Those small adaptations made a huge difference. We flew through the bike course getting smoother every stroke. We had a solid run with a small hiccup regarding a penalty. I had taken off my helmet prior to racking the bike. One of those where I knew better but honestly forgot.
All and all I was thrilled with our race. There were a few that were disappointed that we didn’t race on our beach cruiser. I myself kind of sort of wanted to prove myself on that. I just couldn’t imagine racing on that 50-pound bike with price tags waving on flat pedals trying to make those tight turns. We would have ruined our quads. We would have compromised this whole week of training. Thank God my bike arrived.
We had some fans in the audience. Our scene had attracted some attention in the parking lot of the bike shop. So at least one of those guys came to cheer us on. He is our biggest fan. Thanks Andy, new friend!
Immediately after the race we bolted to get our bike back to the shop to pack it up. Same routine. Face down with bike on top. Chaos is our first, middle, and last name. The guys at the bike shop were so happy to see us, like we were old friends. They were skeptical that my bike could fit in that box but I confidently told them it could. I said “How do you think we got it here?” They looked at me with sincere befuddlement and said “Any way, any which way!” We will always be so grateful for the great guys at Planet Sports Magog.
We then were rushing to Montreal. We hit traffic which was weird because why are people there at all? Claudia told lots of stories of her experiences as a flight attendant. I really need to see Princess Bride again so I can keep up a little better. In Montreal, the GPS and directions were Nightmare on Elm Street. We were so confused.
I had a psychic moment. At one point I reached down, grabbed my purse, and held it to my chest. A few second later I said to Claudia “I don’t mean to sound crazy, but for a second I thought you were going to reverse on the freeway.” There was a bit of a pregnant pause. She said “That is exactly what I was going to do.” So funny! I’m fine with it; I just didn’t want my stuff to get all over the floor boards.
We made it to the hotel safe and sound. The second I exited the SUV my cane snapped in half with no explanation. We stopped at a restaurant to ask for chop sticks to create a splint with some tape. Before I knew it all there head chefs were hovering over my cane with chop sticks and cane in their full apron plus hat, acting like they are performing delicate surgery in fixing my cane. We shut that restaurant down by accident.
This race came together at the last minute and it was a miracle, it’s just like in Princess Bride when Wesley comes back to life and finds Buttercup. I am so thankful for everyone’s willingness to help. I am beyond thankful for Claudia’s undying positivity and good spirit. I am thankful to Captain America for being alive in our imaginations. I am thankful to Mark for all his help. Crazy as it was, we had a great weekend and a great race. I honestly have not laughed so hard in years. As always, proud to represent CAF and Team USA.