Another race, another race report. This is a big one. Last month, I went down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the ITU Paralympic Test Event. A lot of big words that really just mean that it was a race held on the same course that we will be racing at the 2016 Paralympic Games – a sort of course preview, if you will. This race was part of the ITU circuit, with valuable points on the line, as well as an opportunity to provisionally qualify for the 2016 Paralympic team.
After my two early season races in Sunshine Coast and Monterrey, I had a nice 12-week “break” from racing. While this by no means meant a break from training, it was nice to not have to deal with the stress of international travel, and to train through 3 months without worrying about tapering for and recovering from races. After a bit of a mid-summer training funk (that’s for another post), I came out of it just in time to feel strong and ready to go for Rio.
There was a total of 12 athletes from the US that went down to Rio to compete. Our 10-hour flight (who knew Rio was so far away?) put us into Rio on Wednesday morning, giving us a good amount of time to get familiar with our surroundings before our Saturday morning race. Rio itself was a beautiful city. There was a great energy throughout Copacobana Beach, and all the locals seemed so excited to have us there.
The entire trip felt strangely like a dress rehearsal for the real thing next year. Visualization is a huge part of mentally preparing for a race, but I’ve always found it hard to visualize a city or a course that I’ve never seen before. To get to know the course, the hotel, the food, the streets of Rio, the training environment, the people, the energy – it was absolutely invaluable.
Going into the race, we were hearing all sorts of stories about the water quality. ITU and the USOC both ran tests on the water that met safety standards for competition, and I trusted the results of these tests. I got in the water the day before the race for course familiarization, and it felt like any other ocean (quite honestly, I’ve swum in much worse!).
The field of PT2 women was a solid one. While the field was missing a few strong women that I have not yet had a chance to race (they will be at Worlds next week) my toughest competition would come from my two fellow Americans.
I woke up Race Morning knowing it was going to be a good day. The weather was beautiful (sunny, low 70s, and surprisingly similar to the Chicago weather we’d been having), my spirits were high, and there was espresso in the Athlete Lounge, eliminating the stress of trying to procure an espresso shot an hour before the gun (a pre-race ritual of mine that is not always easy to execute).
The swim was fast, hook-shaped course with a nice little current on the back half. I had a good swim (that is, good for me), but still came out of the water 3 minutes behind first place. It was a decent gap, but close to what I was expecting, and one that I was confident about closing on the bike and run. I set out on the bike ready to hunt.
The bike course was a three-lap, M-shaped loop, making it easy to see where my competitors were. I knew I had made up good time on the first lap, so I used the second lap to make my moves and jockey for first position. I decided at the last second that I was not going to turn my watch on, so I had no concept of how fast I was going. I just knew I was going hard. And when I passed into first place at the end of the second lap, it became clear to me that I was having the bike of my life. I was shocked to learn after the race that I averaged a full mile per hour faster than I ever have in a tri.
I went into the run with a narrow lead over the rest of the field, but given that my run is my strongest sport, I felt confident that I could hold it. Still, I just kept reminding myself to stay in the moment. “It’s not over til it’s over,” I told myself. “Stay focused, stay strong, do not let up the pace. You’ve still got 25 minutes of the race left, and in 25 minutes, anything can happen.”
It turns out, I was right. In the last half mile, my hamstring started spasming. Now I’ve experienced muscle cramps in a race before, but never this severe. I stopped and pulled over to one of the fences to stretch it out, all the while screaming on the inside. I had a decent lead, but one that would be very easy to lose if my hamstring didn’t calm down. I had about a 30-second meltdown where I pitied the thought that after all these months of hard work, my race would end like this. But then I collected myself, and told myself the same thing that I had been repeating inside the whole run: “it’s not over til it’s over.” I channeled my inner Kimberly, told myself to get my shit together, and forced myself to run through it. I had to alter my form in order to get the cramping to cease, but after a few more strides, I was on my way to the finish chute.
And then there was the finish chute. The same one that I had been dreaming about for three years. The same one that I will be running through at the Paralympics next year. The same one that, next year, will welcome the first ever Paralympic triathlon gold medalist. It was an overwhelming moment, to say the least. And as I ran through it, I did my best to savor the experience, to remember what it felt like, so I can use it to fuel my motivation for the next 13 months. Breaking that finish tape gave me a small taste of what it would feel like to win a Paralympic medal, and left me hungry for the main course next year.
Speaking of next year, the test event in Rio has big implications for qualifying for the Paralympic Games in 2016. For an athlete to qualify for 2016, they need to earn two things: a country spot and an individual spot. No country is guaranteed to send athletes—they need to earn this right. Then once a country has spots, it is up to each nation’s governing body to decide how they are allocated to individual athletes. My win at the test event clinched my individual spot for Rio next year; however, I still need to get that country spot for the U.S. This can be done by winning World Championships (which, in case you didn’t know, are going down RIGHT HERE IN CHICAGO on September 18th!) or by being in the top 6 in the world rankings in June 2016. Based on where I am in the rankings, I am confident that I’ll be able to get that country spot. So while nothing is official until the country spot is earned, I’m in a pretty good place.
All in all, the entire experience in Rio could not have gone better. There is a weight off my shoulders knowing that I’ve secured my individual spot for next year, and there’s a feeling of comfort heading into next year knowing that I’m familiar with the Paralympics course. But most importantly, it made the idea of competing at the Paraympics so…tangible. For a long time, the idea of competing in Rio felt very abstract. Even though it was something I talked about, thought about, and worked toward every day for the last few years, it was a dream so big and so far away that it almost didn’t feel real. The test event changed all of that for me. It made Rio 2016 something that I can hear, smell, see, and feel.
Today marks one year to the day that paratriathlon will be contested at the Paralympics. One year to finalize preparations that have been in motion for many months. One year to realize a dream that was once nothing more than a fantasty. One year, and I’ve never felt more ready.