Monday, June 30, 2008

US Open Ballperson Tryouts

The morning started before dawn even though the US Open Ballperson tryouts didn't begin until 4:00 PM. At 6:45 AM we pulled into the parking lot outside the National Tennis Center to meet some of the veteran ballpersons and a news crew. CW 11 was on site to cover the tryouts bright and early. I had practiced chasing tennis balls around my home courts a bit, but was immediately aware that I hadn't practiced the few skills that I would need that day. For the live tv coverage, the host set us up with a veteran ballgirl (who had been doing this for 16 years) and asked her to give us tips and then had us show her (and all of New York) what we had learned. We raced back and forth across the court picking up loose balls that some other kids were hitting into the net. Our first shot out there on the courts went smoothly enough, but it was obvious that I still had a lot to learn.

To be very honest, being a ballperson is harder than it looks. I know this because before I headed up to New York, I watched a good deal of the French Open and Wimbeldon and thought it looked pretty easy. What I realize now is that it looks easy because the men and women and boys and girls know what they're doing and are good at it. You have to know when to run out and grab the ball, where to go, and who to throw to, all the while moving quickly and efficiently around the court so as not to be noticed. I also didn't know that in the US Open you have to be able to throw the tennis ball at least half the length of the court (about 80 ft) in one bounce with exact precision to a ballperson standing at the far end of the court. That's one thing I will definitely have to work on.

I am still quite thankful for the tips and suggestions offered that morning by some of the best veterans. At 3:00 PM we headed back out to the National Tennis Center for the official tryouts. We stood in a very long registration line for some time and I think that's when it hit me. Me and the other girl with me were the only disabled athletes in line. Although a whole range of people showed up to tryout, from young kids to older professionals, there was definitely no one else like me. I was both excited and nervous about what this meant and having this opportunity to represent disable athletes. I was pretty certain it wouldn't be my leg that would hold me back.

Finally, my turn came to tryout for a US Open ballperson spot. Although I have great endurance from triathlon training, I have not recently done much sprinting at all. I wanted to clear the balls off the court as quickly as possible so I sprinted across the court each time a tennis ball was hit into the net. I was breathing a little hard after a couple times across the court, but just kept doing my best. I was a little nervous about accidentally kicking a ball when trying to pick it up or just flat out missing it, but with the two hand scoop that I'd learned earlier that morning, I am happy to report that I got every ball. My throws to the far end of the court were not quite as spot-on, but I hope they were good enough.

I will find out soon whether or not I will be called back for the second round of tryouts. Regardless though, it was an experience I will never forget and would be an incredible opportunity for all disabled athletes.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

ITU World Triathlon Championships - Thank yous

I couldn't have had such a success without the unwavering support of some many. I would like to thank:

Alex - for putting up with me after every good (and bad) workout during my training
Mom - lending an hear for all of my complaints and bad days
Dad - for checking in on how the training is coming
Team A Step Ahead and ASPIRE - for making all this possible - I couldn't race on any other legs
Amy - for being my surrogate mom and taking such good care of us
Sandy - for inspiring me to be even better
Tommy - for being such a good sport in a female run suite
Lauren - helping me kill time at the airport talking about MCAT stuff (I'm sure it wasn't a very interesting conversation for her) :)

If I missed anyone, I'm sorry and let me know! It's late and I'm tired.

Friday, June 20, 2008

ITU World Triathlon Championships - Race

It wasn't as cold as I expected the morning of the race. Probably about 50 degrees, but with all of the excitement and walk to the transition zone I was comfortable. We were to meet our handlers in the transition zone at 5:00 AM so it was an early morning for us. Unlike the night before most races I actually slept. In general, I was more calm that I've ever been before a race. I can think of two reasons for this:
(1) I've been training harder this season than ever before and was therefore more confident about how I'd do than I have been in the past
(2) I finally believed that my "best" was good enough and that all I could do was leave everything I had on the race course.

Either way, I was calm as I laid my stuff out in the transition, listened to some music, and met with my handler. My handler was a fabulous lady from Vancouver who had given up her Saturday morning to shuttle my legs from place to place and take the heat from people like me who get tunnel vision when racing. I apologized in advance for any quips or harsh words that might be thrown her way during my race. I even went so far as to tell her about my experience at my first Ironman in Arizona the year before. I had asked my mom to be my handler during the race. I gave her my running show and running leg at the start of the swim and told her that I'd need them in the transition zone when I got off the bike. So I get off my bike and my mom hands me my running leg. Then I ask for me running shoe and my mom says, "Oh, the one I put in the car?" "Yeah, that one." And I digress.

Back to the race. I was telling this story to my handler during our walk from the transition zone to the race start line. By the way, it seemed like an awful long walk and considering that it was a point-to-point swim (and we were walking from one point to the other point) the distance we walked would also be the distance we'd swim. The water temperature registered in at 55 degrees, which even with a wetsuit, is cold enough to cause hypothermia issues. I had a sleeveless wetsuit and a polar cap so I was thrilled when the announcer explained over the loudspeaker that after a long deliberation the race organizers had decided to shorten the swim to 1100m. Regardless, I was definitely coldest during the first 5 minutes in that water.

I got in the water at the last minute. I was fine until the water started to seep into my wetsuit through the ankle and arm holes. My hands were numb within minutes. The last bit of advice I got before the gun went off was to pull my swim cap as far down over my forehead as I could (thanks Tommy). That was the best advice I could've asked for even though with my swim cap and polar cap pulled down over my eyebrows I still felt that brain freeze feeling as I submerged my head under that icy water. I warmed up a bit once I got moving and tried to focus on my breathing; breathing out underwater and taking short, full breaths when I turned my head for air.

The water was like glass at 6:45 am when we pushed off from shore, but 900 meters later it was choppy. Turning for air to the right was pretty much negated by the mouthfuls of water I took in when a wave would crash over my face. The current also seemed stronger during the final stretch into the beach. Too bad it was going out to sea, which was not helpful at all. Having lost sight of a group of swimmers in front of me, I assumed I was pretty far back in the pack. I had no idea that I was the second female out of the water and first to get out on the bike.

The transition from the swim to bike was rather uneventful. I couldn't speak or rather I couldn't very well form a sentence as my handler ran down to help me out of the water. I couldn't much hop for that matter either. My foot was numb, my hands were numb, and it seemed that my brain was numb too. I was out in that water in a wetsuit for 19 minutes and that was about all I could stand. Jon, our team leader, had to shuck my wetsuit for me because I had lost all dexterity and strength in my fingers. I somehow managed to pull my liner up over my stump and then change into my bike gear for the bike leg of the race.

The bike leg went extremely well, which I learned after the fact. The bike portion of the race consisted of 4 loops around Stanley Park with rolling hills for the first 3.5 miles, followed by a 1 mile slow, steady, climb, and finishing with a 1.5 mile segment of downhills/flats. During the first loop I just tried to warm up, which didn't take long once I hit that 1 mile steady, climb. I tried a different tactic each time I came around and hit the hill - one time I tried to stand and push up the hill (didn't go well because my legs were still numb and I nearly fell over), the next time I tried to push a hard gear for as long as I could (too much lactic acid build up drained my legs though), and finally I took the advice of most cycling coaches out there and dropped into my lowest gear keeping my rpms as high as I could (by far the most rewarding tactic). By that time I was going on my fourth loop and was nearly done. What learned after the race (because I don't look at my bike computer while I race) is that I average 19 mph for 24 miles, which is 2 mph faster than my average during any previous race I've done. And this was by far a harder course. Also, what I didn't know at the time that I was the first female amputee off the bike going into the run.

By the time I got to the run I was warmed up. One short loop and two long loops would take me to the finish line. I kept my pace just past comfortable. I was breathing hard, but not too hard since I still had 6 miles to go. I saw a couple of girls on the course from my local triathlon team and there were other members of the team on the sidelines cheering for us. The team has been great. I dug deep during the last loop, trying to pass as many people as I could before I got to the finish line. It was by far my best race and I was completely satisfied when I finished. Well, looking back, I probably could've finished that run a little faster. A guy interviewed me as I finished. He asked me what I thought about the race. All I could say at that point (mind you, I was still trying to catch my breath since I wasn't exactly jogging across the finish line) was "cold". Then he goes, "Well, you seem to have an awful lot of energy left". "Okay, yeah, I don't think I left all of it out there on the course". So even though I had raced my fastest race to date, I still had something left and probably could've done it faster. Encouraging, I'd say.

And so there you have it. My third ITU World Triathlon Championships. Another silver medal. Another great race.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

ITU World Triathlon Championships - Registration

I would've preferred that the following day start a bit later than it did. 9:00 AM would've been nice, but I would've even been happy with 8:00 AM. Anything but 6:30 AM when the Juniors' Sprint Triathlon started not too far from our hotel. The race finally ended at about the same time I could no longer force the sleep so it was time to get up and face the day considering there was a lot to do. Amy, Sandy, and Tommy had gotten to the hotel awhile after I'd fallen asleep so it was another hour or so before they were ready to get up, but the day was short and we still had to register, be classified (this is where an "official" verifies that we are indeed disabled), put our bikes together, and get our bikes to the transition zone.

We started with registration. According to the hotel concierge the registration tent was no more than a mile from the hotel. We caught a cab that cost $10 then walked as far as the distance the cab had driven us and still no white tent. After following directions from a motorcart official, a poor triathlete who was running and didn't speak much English, and finally an American who didn't know the area much better than us we at long last stumbled upon it.

The disabled athletes were sent to a special section of the tent to be classified first. For other disabilties the classification process may be more worthwhile. For us amputees it really just seems a little silly. I'm missing my leg below the knee. There's really not much more to it. Sandy's missing her leg above the knee. Kind of hard to fake that. However, the fun part was the classification titles they've designated to the different degrees of disabilities. I was not in the "below knee amputee" category, but rather the "slightly disabled" category. Sandy, on the other hand, was classified as "severely disabled". I can't tell you about someone less disabled than Sandy. She lost her leg to a birth defect (like me) and has adapted very well with her prosthesis. She is an accomplished skier and athlete and can probably put most people to shame on the slopes. Uh, and she's "severely disabled". Really?

I guess the other label that is worth noting here is AWAD. What the hell does that mean? Yeah, I know, most people at the ITU Worlds Championship didn't even know. That label is to identify each of us as an Athlete With a Disability. Since I've been in disabled athletics the political correctness of the label has always been in question. Sometimes race officials use "PC (Physically Challenged) Athletes". I've heard other ones, but can't remember them off the top of my head. Sometimes though it's nice to just be called an athlete. I train like every other athlete out there. I put in the same number of hours on the road or in the gym with the same intensity and determination as any other athlete there. I just hope that sometimes that is considered too.

ITU World Triathlon Championships - The Beginning

A recap and synopsis of my adventures to Vancouver and back. What an experience. This was actually my third World Championships so the scale and eliteness of the event was initially lost on me. Until I watched the pros race. But that will come later.

In the beginning, I started to wonder if I would ever see my hotel. It was 5:30 pm when I left the east coast US state where I live and 1 am before I even made it to the Vancouver airport. Mind you that's in Pacific time so for me it was already 4:00 am. After 11 hours of traveling I really had no desire to "fight" for a cab, which was a silly thought anyways considering the row of cabs lined up outside the airport. But my bike case won't fit in a Toyota Camry. Nor a Prius. It wasn't like New York where most of the cabs make my Dodge Ram look small. No, no. It appeared Vancouver was quite the Earth-friendly city and so I was told to wait until a van cab could be dispatched to the airport. "Wait," I thought. All I've been doing all damn day is wait.

Lucky for me, there was another poor soul who had lugged his bike box across country and understood my misery. He had actually begun his travels at noon the day before from Costa Rica and was more than happy to share his oversized van cab (he had just beat me out of the airport and got in the cab line just before me) with me. I was so gracious and ecstatic that my mood was immediately lightened and we chatted the whole way to my hotel. This was his first Worlds event and he was very excited to be representing Costa Rica at the Championships. I told him about my past experiences at these races, the huge turn out, watching the pros, taking it all in. We parted ways when the cab pulled up to the Coast Plaza Inn and rest was finally in sight.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

First Triathlon Volunteer Experience

As a member of the Inside Out Sports/Team Multisport Triathlon Team I am required to participate in two volunteer activities each season. I helped clean up a highway at the beginning of the year, which counted as my first activity. With a couple of options for my second activity I finally settled for volunteering at the Swim for Smiles Youth Triathlon. The kids were up to 18 years old and there were two distances. I can't recall the numbers for longer distance, but the shorter distance was a 100m swim, 2.5 mile bike, and 1k run. I received my designated volunteer assignment a couple days before the race and was asked to arrive at the event at 8:30 am race morning.

Race morning I arrived at the Chapel Hill Country Club at 8:30 am. The clubhouse was already a madhouse with people running around everywhere. I had been assigned to finish line duty, but when I checked out the finish line there already to be way too many volunteers standing around so I offered to help with keeping kids away from the food until they'd finished the race. Oh, and parents too. And brothers and sisters who weren't racing, and just wanted the food. It was a tough job and suited me well as it was in the shade (under an veranda type thing with fans and everything). The air temperature was already up to 75 even though it was still early and the sun was strong. Just as I was getting comfortable though a bunch of the finish line volunteers left for Church (arghhhhh...) and I was moved over to my original assignment.

It wasn't bad at first. One or two kids would come in at a time. I'd tear their number off and put it in a bowl (to be used for a prize drawing later), while another volunteer cut off the chip that was around their ankle. Again, fine at first. But it kept getting hotter. I was drenched after just 15 minutes standing out there with no shade nearby. Kids kept trickling in. Then one came across the line and just as I was about to grab his number he got sick everywhere. Ugh. Then another kid got sick. There must have been about 10 pukers throughout the course of the race. You could tell sometimes, but other times they looked fine and then all of a sudden...

It was quite the experience. Started to think that it's probably easier to race than to volunteer at a race. I've taken volunteers for granted the 6 years I've been racing so I'd like to thank everyone who has volunteered in the past. It's not easy work. And I was helping out a very short, kids triathlon. I can't even begin to imagine what it's like to volunteer at an Ironman. Thank you to everyone who has. :)