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Written By Patrick Cogan

I am 34 years old and over the last eight years I have done almost a dozen triathlons. These include a half iron-man and numerous Olympic and sprint distances. I learned to swim eight and a half years ago. I did all of this while suffering from Friedreich’s Ataxia (FA), a degenerative neuomuscular disease that makes even doing two simple tasks together extremely difficult. Imagine how much harder learning to swim was because you have to do a few dozen things together just to swim. Friedreich’s affects the way my brain communicates with every muscle in my body. This is everything from my heart and lungs to eyes, throat and stabilizer muscles just to name a few.

My start in triathlon was confusing and a little frustrating to say the least. It is not easy navigating the murky waters of USAT being a Physically Challenged athlete. Over the years I have come up with a few pieces of advice that I wish I knew when I got started which would have made my life boat loads easier. Hopefully the knowledge I am about to drop on you will convince you to either sign up for your first race or improve your experience.

1. Contact the race directors of races you are interested in!

Being a physically challenged (PC) triathlete is difficult, shoot, being a triathlete is difficult on its own! There are significantly more logistics that PC athletes need to plan for in order to have a successful race. In my case, I’m slow. Don’t get me wrong, given my challenges with FA I hold my own, but in comparison to non-PC athletes I take longer in each event. In my experience, many races are not USAT PC sanctioned triathlons. Due to this, I have learned that it is important to contact race directors to explain your situation to make sure they can handle your needs so you can register for the race. Every PC athlete is different but I explain that I need a handler with me for all 3 disciplines and I require a much larger space in transition areas for adaptive bike and run equipment. I also have many challenges with swimming so I need a significant head start in the water. Most race directors want physically challenged athletes at their races, they just may need some guidance from you. If there is a race you are interested, don’t be scared! Just reach out to the race director and so you can achieve your triathlon goals.

2. Follow the Race Director!

As I explained before, it is important to work with race directors to determine what will help you have a great race but not inhibit any other athlete. Most RDs are awesome and will really do everything they can to make sure you can do their race. If you have a good experience with a particular race director or triathlon company, then follow that person or group to their other races. If they run other races, then you know you should be able to do those races without an issues.  You have already built a relationship with that RD. You have helped them to expand their race offerings and they know exactly what you need. So the challenges you went through with the RD on your first race with that them will be greatly reduced. This means you will have much less stress going into race day so you should do even better at your next race. Being a PC athlete in triathlon is no different than other aspects of life. They become much easier when you realize that personal connections are key.

3. Plan ahead and remember that race day is the entire day not just the race!

It is important to remember that the race is not just swimming, biking and running.  Race day includes how you will get to the race, set up your transitions, get your number, put your gear on, use the bathroom, get to the race start and pack up and go home when it is all over. Even simple things like driving to a race can determine if you do a race or not depending on your physical challenge. I personally have my wheelchair, my recumbent trike which I use to bike and my hand cycle for the run. I am in a wheel chair so getting all my equipment to one location is difficult and requires help from others. Plan ahead and make sure you have someone who can help get you to the race or help you with your equipment and set up once you are there. If you tell the RD well ahead of time, he or she may be able to get you a dedicated volunteer for the day to help you with these types of logistics. People in the triathlon community are always happy to help but sometimes you just need to ask.

4. Make sure you practice with your guide, if you need one for your race!

Depending on your physical limitations, you may need a guide or handler. I personally can’t swim alone given my limitations. It is 100% not safe! In order for me to have a successful day on the race course, I need to find a swimmer strong enough to swim next to me and guide me through the swim and also protect me from getting pushed under by other swimmers. I can only safely swim on my back, and I pull to the right, so my handler needs to constantly keep me straight all the while protecting me from other swimmers. It is important for my swim handler to know how I swim before race day so he or she can determine the best and safest way to fulfill his or her responsibilities as my guide.  Finding a person who is able and willing to do this is NOT an easy task. People have their own lives to live but if they can help they will. Make sure to ask them well in advance of the race and have a backup plan in case life happens and the guide falls through. If you incorporate your guide in your training often, then he or she will be more committed to helping you with your goal. At this point your journey has also become their journey and they want to see it through. This will also allow you both to figure out what works, certain signals to give so you can adjust on the fly and it creates accountability to each other when either of you doesn’t feel like training. They are not just a guide, those people are now your training buddies. Triathlons are usually an individual sport but not for most PC athletes and certainly not for me!

5. Ask for help and be your own advocate!

I hate asking for help! Hate it! But sometimes doing the things you hate and are uncomfortable with are exactly what you need to do.  That is exactly the case with triathlon for some PC athletes. In order to race I am constantly humbling myself and asking for all kinds of help. Triathlon may be an individual sport, however, when you look deeper it is just a huge support group trying to help you succeed. Most volunteers want to help but they just don’t know how and don’t want to get in your way on an already stressful day. If you ask them for help and tell them exactly what to do, then they are happy to spring into action and your day just got easier! If you look around transition before a race, you will see many non-PC athletes asking volunteers and other athletes for help. Triathlon is a community and we are all there to help each other. We all put in the time, made sacrifices and suffer and because of this we want to see one another succeed. Asking for help is not a pain in the butt for those helping nor is it a sign of weakness. It shows that you are comfortable with the triathlon family that you are member of.

Finally the biggest piece of advice I have for PC athletes is just like in life, you need to be your own biggest advocate! Most RDs want you to do their race, so they will be happy to work with you. Don’t assume the RD knows what you need on race day. It is up to you to communicate with them. If you don’t communicate with them, then they won’t know the best way to help you.  Talk to your friends and family and let them know how they can help and support you. Tell them exactly what you need. Under my circumstances there is absolutely no way I could do a triathlon of any distance without help from the outside! At the end of the day it is on me to drum up the support crew so I can achieve my goal. When I see a race I want to do, then I do what is necessary to make it a reality and you should do the same!

Final Thoughts

These are some of the main tips that I have learned along the way on my journey from a new PC athlete navigating the complicated waters of triathlon to an experienced triathlete. All PC athletes are different and have different needs or challenges on race day. These are just some pieces of information to consider to give you some guidance whether you are a PC athlete thinking about getting into triathlon but have no idea where to start or have done a few races but want to make it better experience. I am always looking for more information to tell PC athletes who have come to me for advice so please leave your most helpful tips in the comments!

About Patrick Cogan

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Patrick Cogan is a PC athlete who has been involved with Triathlon for almost 9 years. His challenge is Friedrich’s Ataxia and throughout his journey he has started a foundation to help others living with FA called Project Wheels. When Pat isn’t swimming, biking or running then you can probably find him nerding out over the latest technology or superhero comic.