Challenge Athlete

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 Aaron_Sponsorsdifferent. 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.

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