My Experience As A Guide with Achilles International ~ Natalie Kronick
My Experience As A Guide Athlete With Achilles International
If you had told me 6 years ago, back at the start of my triathlon endeavor, that one day I would be swimming tethered to someone in the open water, piloting a tandem bike and running shouting out verbal cues to a visually impaired or blind / deaf athlete, I would have told you, YOU’RE NUTS. Well, guess what? I’m nuts.
I was about 2 years into this already crazy sport when I met Amy Dixon for the first time. I was training for my first Olympic triathlon (Quassy) at the time when she mentioned she was also training for her first Olympic-distance tri as well…. Only, she was blind. The first thing out of my mouth – BUT HOW DO YOU DO THAT??? She told me she had a ‘guide’. And I, knowing nothing of the sort, asked more questions…. What about the swim? “Tethered at the hip.” What about the bike? “We ride a tandem.” And the run?? Do you hold hands? (She laughed at me… but there is a little hand-holding at times.) “We run using a shoe-string tether”, she said. Immediately I was perplexed and so curious, I wanted to know more. And without understanding any of the details, I wanted to know how to DO THAT!
I was referred to the Achilles International chapter in Connecticut at the time. Amy was part of a larger chapter in NYC. So I went online and found the website and there was an application to fill out as a guide athlete. Turns out they paired able-bodied runners, triathletes, swimmers, cyclists, you name it, to other disabled-bodied or visually impaired athletes who wanted to experience racing or rehab from an injury. I instantly felt led to get involved.
There is a lot about the sport of triathlon that is incredibly selfish. There are many hours spent alone out on the bike or a long run. Many hours of saying NO to your friends and family while you are training, or recovering or can’t eat this or that. But I knew as I got more immersed into the sport that I didn’t want to hoard the enjoyment. Joining Achilles was a new door for me – and man, I never knew what it would bring…the biggest thing for me is that it has literally made me into a stronger and more confident athlete. There is no handbook for what we do. I simply showed up at a group workout one day and just started running with my athletes and learned what they needed. You learn quickly how to listen, call out directions, move confidently and fear nothing. They put a lot of their trust in you. It forces you to shut off your own selfish brain and jump into theirs. What do they need to know about the terrain? Where is that next pothole? Should you mention the jellyfish in the water? (We like to freak each other out from time to time… ha!)
To date, I’ve guided a woman, Jennifer Gonzalez, with Traumatic Brain Injury from a snowboarding accident. We did a 5k in CT and eventually I guided her for the New Haven 20k Road Race. We spent 3.5 hours out on the hottest and most humid course for Labor Day – it was after that I, myself, knew I was ready to run a marathon.
I guided a gentleman, Brett Sloan, alongside another wonderful guide, at the Hartford Half Marathon. He ran on a blade after losing his leg to a mountain biking accident. We helped lead him to a 10 min PR! I think it was after that day I wanted to race a 70.3 Ironman.
I guided this amazingly fast VI runner, David, in 2015 at the Hope and Possibilities 5 Mile Race in Central Park – his time was so aggressive that even I had a PR day!! He ended up helping ME push through the wall around mile 3 and we both finished strong. I about cried on that run.
I paced Amy Dixon at a very fast 5k in New Haven one cold, winter day – she was going after a PR. We followed up with another attempt at the Hartford 5K about a year later. She is also a VI Athlete and now an avid Para-Olympic triathlete. We worked SO HARD one winter getting her faster on the track that all the work eventually helped me to finally break the 22-min mark. I even started making podiums in my sprint races the following season.
In January of 2017, I attended the very first No Sights No Limits Triathlon Camp for Visually Impaired athletes and their guides. I worked for 5 days at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA with a woman from Arizona on nothing but Swim – Bike – Run and all the details that go with it, morning to night. I will be attending again in 2018.
One of my most memorable experiences was the day I went to run with Amy (VI) and met her friend Sarah who is Deaf/Blind. And I was the only guide. So Amy said – you can guide us both! Wait… what? HOW?? (Always how.) I ran tethered to Sarah and learned – on the spot, mind you – pro-tactile sign language so that I could communicate simple instruction to Sarah on the run. It is basically using sign language under the hand so they can feel your signs. And there was an occasional elbow-grab to mark turns. Amy ran directly behind me (she has a tiny pinhole of vision in her left eye) as I gave her verbal commands on the run. No big deal…. This is totally normal. Nothing to worry about. We ran like this for 5 miles. I kind of felt like the biggest bada__ after we finished. And I was shaking in my sneaks!
I got spoiled on my first tandem ride. I got to ride the gorgeous BOMBER – Amy’s custom Calfee design carbon road bike. I’ve been a cyclist for a while, so I feel really comfortable on bikes. This bike was so wonderfully light that riding a 2-seater felt like air. When Amy got on the back, she had to guide me a few times to get moving, but once we started to go, it was just natural. You gain a lot of confidence from your athlete because you know it’s much harder forrom them, so you immediately step up your game. If you don’t, it can end badly. You have to believe in yourself SO MUCH because that person you’re guiding NEEDS you to believe in yourself. They are counting on you to safely get them to the finish line or the end of the workout. You don’t have time for self-doubt or criticism. You are not only a pacer, you are like an ‘on the spot’ sports psychologist. Have a plan, make it happen. You’re a coach and mentor too!
I am so happy I’ve fell into this side of the sport. I am working on my own goals of becoming a stronger long-distance athlete in order to guide for the 70.3 and full Ironman distance races. I will be guiding my first full triathlon on October 1st for the Mighty Montauk Half Ironman. The truly remarkable thing about guiding is how it has helped my own personal mental game. Case in point: At Florida 70.3 this year, I was going after an aggressive time goal of around 5:30 Hours. The big issue for me has always been the run off the bike. I go too hard on the bike and get to the run and just wobble my way to the end. Not this year. I got to the run feeling very strong and knew I needed to stay relaxed and steady each mile. Just chip away. But there was a point around mile 9 that I started to sink into my own brain – ‘this is hard… you can’t keep this up… you have 4 more miles to go and you’re going to hurt’. I immediately started imagining my athlete (whoever she is) right next to me and started telling her, ”You are going to do this and you’re going to kill it! You cannot stop – you can run slower, but you can’t walk. I am not letting you. We are going to focus on 1 mile at a time.” All of a sudden my demeanor went from sorrow and despair to empowered and strong and confident. I kept the steady rhythm like a drumbeat and got to that finish line stronger than any race I’d ever done. And I slaughtered my best time by 26 min!
There are many more stories to share, but if you are reading this and want to give back to the sport or just share the love of athleticism with those who need the support, I highly suggest you reach out to a local chapter. Currently, I am working with the Tri Achilles NYC chapter. We meet in Central Park on Saturday mornings for tandem rides around the park. A great way to start and learn quickly. Also, we coordinate runs and open water swims whenever possible. If you’d like more information, please email Coach Jeff or myself for information.