Caption

Athletes overcome barriers of their bodies to race in triathlon

Blind woman, man with one leg compete in U.S. Paratriathlon National Championships

Finishing a triathlon takes grit.

Athletes train for months — or years — to come out ahead of the pack in an open-water swim, then burn up their quads cranking a bike mile after mile. By the time most folks would rather collapse in a heap on the pavement, they start running.

For some athletes, though, the challenges go beyond building endurance, fine-tuning nutrition and plotting strategy before a big race.

For Damon Clifford, who will race in Monday's Capital of Texas Triathlon, running means tugging a specially designed prosthetic blade onto his right leg, which was amputated last June just below the knee.

And for Patricia Walsh, who is blind, it means tethering herself to another athlete who will guide her through a river that might as well be the inside of a dark washing machine.

For the first time, the popular Austin triathlon, which will be staged at Auditorium Shores, will double as the U.S. Paratriathlon National Championship.

Besides elite athletes and participants in age groups competing in first-timer, sprint and Olympic distance events, physically challenged multisport athletes will race over a 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike and 5-kilometer run. Top finishers will earn spots on Team USA for the 2012 Paratriathlon World Championships in New Zealand.

 

Patricia Walsh, 31

Walsh couldn't see well as a child, and doctors discovered a brain tumor when she was 5. By the time she was 14, her vision was gone. Monday, she has only a little light perception in one eye.

That hasn't kept her out of sports.

Since she started running competitively 10 years ago, she's finished a dozen marathons. Two years ago, looking for something more challenging, she branched into triathlon.

At Lost Creek Country Club recently, the defending national champion paratriathlete hugged the lane line as she stroked back and forth across the pool. She skips the flip turns, reaching for the edge of the pool with an outstretched hand instead, a technique that has resulted in a couple of head bumps and whacked ankles.

In open water and races, she's tethered to another swimmer, who tugs on the rope or punches her on the shoulder to direct her through the water. Trying to communicate during a race isn't easy. Still, Walsh, who just moved to Austin from Seattle, has finished six triathlons, including two Ironman distance events.

"The anxiety and panic that come with (open-water swimming) is something I need to work on," Walsh says.

She pedals from the back seat of a tandem bicycle and runs tethered again to her partner. She's inadvertently swum over her guide before and falls in nearly every race. She once broke her wrist jumping a creek at mile 32 of an ultramarathon.

Visually impaired athletes are required to wear black-out goggles — essentially sunglasses covered with dark electrical tape — during races to level the playing field between those who have some sight and those who have none. Walsh thinks a handicapping system like the one used in golf would be better. "I'm not in any way in favor of further disabling another athlete," she says. "To me, that never makes sense."

Finding a guide who moves at her pace can be tricky, too — Walsh keeps up a speedy 6 minutes, 30 seconds per-mile pace over long distances.

Her goal? To be among the elite of all triathletes. And to have physically challenged athletes taken more seriously.

She's on her way. Walsh, who does inspirational speaking through her company Blind Ambition, finished Ironman Texas last year in 11 hours and 40 minutes. That not only set a record for visually impaired paratriathletes, but gave her a 13th place finish among all female able-bodied age group athletes.

 

Damon Clifford, 33

Clifford was riding in the bed of a pickup at age 16, headed to a baseball game, when the truck was broadsided. His ankle was crushed and his neck fractured.

The former high school baseball and basketball player underwent a series of surgeries and suddenly had to deal with constant pain. "Every step hurt like a son of a gun," he says.

The pain kept getting worse. Even so, in 2008, he decided to do as much as his body would allow and signed up for his first triathlon. Since he couldn't run, he walked that part of the race.

Then, a year ago, doctors finally amputated the leg below the knee.

"The frustrations I deal with now are minimal compared to the pain I was in before," he says. "I didn't regret the decision and haven't doubted it one bit since. I've been able to be more active."

For the first time, he could run more than 50 yards without pain. He's still getting used to how it feels to have his one good foot and that special prosthetic running blade flying beneath him, but he can cover up to 4 miles at a time. And he's pushing his endurance.

"I'm doing it and it's, ‘Wow.' I find it amazing when I find myself running," Clifford says.

He's completed five sprint-distance triathlons. After Monday's race, he has two more sprint triathlons on his calendar, then a couple of longer, Olympic distance races before he tackles a half Ironman in October.

He races, he says, simply because he can. And, this year, he's also racing for a new friend whose leg was recently amputated after a motorcycle accident.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994 Twitter: @fitcityleblanc

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