Guiding Eyes: One Guide’s Journey Racing with Athletes with Visual Impairments
By Christy Fritts, CAF Athlete Guide
It all started with a phone call…, “Hi Christy, my name is Amy Dixon. Are you available to guide me in 12 days in Cozumel?” I had met Amy, a blind triathlete, earlier in the year at a Braveheart Triathlon Camp while she was training for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. I expressed an interest in learning to be a guide and boom – here was my shot!
“Ummm, well, ehh, ah, I’ve never been a blind guide but I’m not passing up this opportunity to learn,” I said nervously.
“I’ll teach you everything, I just need you to help me WIN the ITU Aquathlon World Championships,” replied Amy.
“WIN? Now we have to WIN?” It was like my body sensed what I was about to get myself into. I felt a hot rush of adrenaline and immediately started sweating. I’m always the first to jump at new and exciting adventures, and this was no exception, however, it was very different. I was taking on the responsibility to help someone — a stranger almost — to not only win a gold medal but to ensure her safety while doing so.
My name became “GUIDE” and it was all about getting Amy to the finishing tape safely. With only two days to learn, she taught me about ITU para triathlon racing rules, transitioning, swimming, and then running while tethered together.
We were a team and I loved being part of something bigger than my own success, in a sport I love. She counted on me to give her constant verbal cues, protect her from the other athletes racing, and monitor her heart rate and speed to ensure we’d both make it, in one piece, to the finish line, and in a Paralympic-worthy time.
Not only did we win that day, we raced fast, laughed, and celebrated together. Trust and communication were key to our success. It was the start of a new friendship, a new responsibility and a new athletic interest for me in guiding blind athletes. It wasn’t about me. It was about helping someone achieve her dreams and that, I realized, lit up my soul.
Since that day, we continued racing, traveling (and winning) and gaining points and qualifications on her road to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Along the way, we found Age Group World Champion, Kirsten Sass to take over guiding Amy, while I recovered from a much-needed back surgery. Blind athletes need a handful of capable guides at their disposal and after my recovery I was thrilled to be her backup when she needed me.
“Finding guides – especially at the elite and competitive levels – is like finding a unicorn. The guide must be an excellent communicator, have ninja-like bike handling skills, and play therapist and coach while navigating someone with vision loss during swim, bike, and run.
Oh yeah, and they have to be at least 5% faster than the athlete on their WORST day (injured, poor nutrition, jet lag etc). Truly a triathlon unicorn”
– Amy Dixon, Paralympic Para Triathlete and ITU Aquathlon World Champion
And then, this June, another phone call…
“Christy, how would you like to be a part of a pivotal moment in someone’s life?” said Travis Ricks, CAF Program Director. “I need a capable guide for a visually impaired teen triathlete.”
Every year CAF hosts a youth paratriathlon camp at Mission Bay. In 2021, CAF funded 12 youth athletes to fly out to San Diego and train with USA Triathlon coaches while honing their skills in the sport of triathlon. For some teens, it was their first introduction to triathlon. For others, it was their chance to train alongside others, try new adaptive equipment, and meet other teens from around the country with physical challenges.
At the camp, Travis paired me with 17-year-old Maggie, an emerging star in the sport of triathlon.
Maggie lost nearly all of her sight due to a retinal problem as a newborn. As she matured, she found that swimming and track and field events helped her gain a sense of power and control in her life. Whether it’s tri training or competing in para swimming events, Maggie has overcome her disability with grit and grace. She doesn’t let her visual impairment stand in her way and remains determined to make Team USA someday.
Maggie and I first took the tandem bike out for several laps around Fiesta Island. “Three-two-one…Go!” We pushed off the pavement and clicked in and matched our pedal strokes to begin our first few practice laps. I immediately felt her strength behind me with each pedal stroke. So naturally, I responded and next thing we knew, we were flying around Fiesta Island! I called out the turns, a few bumps in the pavement, watched for traffic, and described to her how beautiful the bay looked that day.
With each lap we fell more in sync while smiling and enjoying the smooth speed of the nine-foot tandem. I mentioned to her that I had guided elite para-triathlete Amy Dixon several times. “Amy Dixon? Oh wow, she’s an amazzzing athlete. I can’t believe you guide her!” she exclaimed. Maggie has been following Amy’s successful career in triathlon and has been inspired by her for years.
The following day, as part of the CAF camp, Maggie and I raced a triathlon together for the first time. We thoughtfully set up our transition spot, reviewed the course, and came up with a plan for the swim and run segments. Tethered together, we headed out for the swim and executed our plan seamlessly.
A few times, I tapped (and grabbed) Maggie to come closer and alerted her when the buoy was coming for our turn. We quickly transitioned to the bike and mounted the tandem for one 4-mile lap around the island before slipping into our running shoes for the 2-mile run.
This time we were tethered at the waist and Maggie, like Amy, was most comfortable having me on her left side. I listened to her breathing pattern, matched her leg turnover, and communicated how far the turn-around cone was. She asked, “How far ‘til the finish?” I reminded her, “Settle in, pump your arms, and breathe. We’ve got the equivalent of one more lap at the track. You’ve got this girl!”
As cars went by, I made sure I was protecting my athlete while still staying on pace for a strong finish. We approached the cheering volunteers and I saw a twinkle in her eyes. After a finish line hug we caught our breath and enjoyed the exhilarating feeling of our accomplishment. She thanked me up and down, but I thanked her back for trusting me to be her eyes, coach, and cheerleader!
As we packed up, I had set up a surprise call from her hero, Amy Dixon, who was just named to the Team USA Paralympic roster. Amy congratulated her on her recent accomplishments and made plans to meet her at her next race. That put a smile on Maggie’s face and on mine! I felt fortunate to make the connection and have had the opportunity to help both of these athletes compete at their best.
In a few short weeks I’ll be joining Maggie and the world as we watch Team USA’s Paralympic star Amy Dixon racing in Tokyo on the world’s biggest stage! What’s next for Maggie? She is already being recruited by colleges and I expect to see her continue to shine in the world of para sports. I’m thankful to have played a small part in both of their journeys.
But that isn’t where this ends. I’ll be joining hundreds of CAF athletes, supporters, and friends at the CAF Community Challenge October 22-24 for a transformational weekend. And you can join us!
The CAF Community Challenge featuring the 28th annual San Diego Triathlon Challenge is the start of many athletes with physical challenges journey into sport. This year, you can help empower these individuals to continue their journey by joining us in Mission Bay, San Diego.
This action-packed fundraising weekend celebrates the power of sport and how it can transform lives, build community, and change perceptions. The funds raised directly support CAF’s mission to provide opportunities and support to people with physical challenges so they can pursue sports, fitness and competitive athletics.
When you register for this community weekend, your donation allows CAF to provide grants to individuals with physical challenges who need adaptive equipment, training expenses, travel and competition expenses, camps and clinics, mentoring opportunities, and more.