Handicap for the Handicapped

I talked to Aaron Scheidies last week and we made a deal. If the world triathlon Corporation and USAT will allow it, I’ll guide him at Clearwater this year. The problem is, Aaron has been told that with ITU’s new campaign to get triathlon into the paralympics, they are imposing some new rules that will make this impossible.

First, Aaron and the other visually impaired athletes will have to run in black-out goggles. My first thought was, “that is going to make guiding much harder.” Thinking that the major difference would be that when I tell Aaron there’s a step or a root to watch out for, he’s going to have no perception of where that obstacle is, whereas with his natural vision he can at least perceive how quickly objects are coming at him, and even, perhaps, the location of larger objects – like trees. Aaron had further insight however. He suggests that taking away all vision from someone that is normally able to see something induces vertigo and some nasty other problems. The feedback from C Different regarding this rule has been extremely negative, and not because the athletes are afraid of being slowed down. They’re afraid of being made sick and of having to deal with a challenge that’s beyond reasonable. Since I’m not willing to risk injury from trying to run in blackout goggles, you’ll have to judge for yourself if it’s possible for someone without complete loss of vision to run with that temporarily taken away.

Second, and this one affects Aaron and myself, visually impaired athletes are no longer going to be able to accept pros for guides. This rule, evidently, is mirroring paracycling’s rule. The problem is that, unlike in cycling, completing a triathlon requires two sports where a guide’s weakness cannot be overcome by the visually impaired (VI) athlete. Let me explain. In cycling, VI athletes are on a tandem bicycle. The guide is on the front, and that guide pedals with the VI athlete, so the times are a result of both athletes working together. To allow a professional would simply mean allowing the wealthiest VI athlete to buy the best time trialist from the pro ranks, and just relax on the back end while that cyclist earns the VI athlete a medal (admittedly an oversimplification). One would expect the same precaution to be needed in triathlon, but the problem comes in the swim and run. Now, I know from my amateur career that swimmers like myself are pretty hard to find outside the professional ranks. Same with sub-35 10K runners, and finding the two together is pretty much impossible. So you take Aaron, force him to pick either a stellar swimmer who can keep up with him in the swim (and from my experience, that person will also need to fend off the struggling age-groupers who veer off course and are threaten to be tangled in the elastic tether connecting athlete and guide), or a stellar runner who can allow Aaron to find his own limit while being sufficiently within his own abilities to be able to guide an runner who’s suffering from black-out goggle induced vertigo. Personally, if I’m running at my limit, I am not capable of forming words to describe approaching obstacles.

So does Aaron pay a top age-grouper to guide him? Will he have to train a new guide every season, or can he find a sponsor with enough money to pay a pro to remain amateur? The extra firepower on the bike may seem like an unfair advantage if Aaron is guided by, say, Chris Lieto, but how can someone with the talent of Aaron Scheidies even attempt to reach his own potential if he’s restricted to guides who are not capable of leading him in the swim and run? Doesn’t that added handicap outweigh the potential problems that paracycling foresaw with professional guides?



Published by Ben

Ben Collins Professional Triathlete

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  1. Hi Ben, I’m a guide with Achilles International – having recently guided a VI blind athlete (zero-sight) at Du nationals (http://www.usatriathlon.org/resources/multisport-zone/my-story/guiding-a-blind-athlete-at-duathlon-nationals/)

    I’m confused as to what you mean regarding the black-out goggles and who this is applicable for. As I understand it, Aaron is a VI athlete and can see 10% of a sighted athlete. For this reason, the rules state for him to wear black-out goggles to have an even playing field with those in VI? (zero sight)

    Are these new rules (including not accepting a pro guide) only effective at world championship events or any usat sanctioned event? We had a pro triathlete guide one of our athletes and I’m wondering if this will affect us in the future.

    I can tell you from personal experience, to guide a completely blind athlete over course obstacles like curbs, roots, potholes, etc requires constant constant communication. The guide, ideally has to be in better condition i.e conversational while the PC (physyically challenged) athlete is at his race pace. But for Aaron to go sub-35 on a 10K, I don’t know if any athlete can be conversational at that pace! If he becomes zero-sighted due to the goggles, we as guides have no choice but to slow down on curbs/roots which obviously negates performance.

    One other rule that Achilles is challenging USAT on is their rule on allowing only ONE guide to a P.C athlete. We have an athlete who’s scheduled to compete in Ironman Florida but we can’t find an athlete that is strong enough for him to reach his potential in all 3 disciplines. The only other possibility is to bring two or three individuals, to guide him on the respective swim-bike-run legs. We hope USAT will re-think this rule….

    Especially when the athlete reaches and contends in the higher echelon of age groupers, it becomes even more difficult to find a guide to consistently train and race with. More often than not, the guide has his own training/race schedule that may not coincide with the P.C athlete’s schedule. It’s common to see our athletes being guided by someone different every week which results in inconsistent training.

    For whatever its worth, at Du Nationals — the guides were not even checked in and had zero paperwork to report. We showed up and guided our athletes. I’m not sure if this is handled differently in other events.

    Glad you raised this topic Ben


  2. I was thinking about this once when Aaron was in one of my races. Wouldn’t it be possible to have a bike where the front person didn’t pedal? Obviously, that would be harder for a para-athlete to bike with a heavier person who wasn’t pulling their weight. But, I don’t know the physics; it seems like you could negate the unfair advantage by having what would amount to a trailer but in front that could guide the bike. Hmm. I’m thinking about this more. How you could design this so it wouldn’t suck to pedal, but also wouldn’t give a huge advantage. Could you disconnect the two drive chains, so each person was only pulling their weight, with a third wheel in the middle or side by side. ok. i’m done.

  3. Thanks for the insight Andy.

    My first reaction to the black-out goggle rule was the same a yours, but since I know very little about having 10% of my vision I turned to Aaron for his impression of what the black-out goggles would do for him. My expectation was that it would be harder to guide (like you said) but that a VI athlete would still be able to run hard. I was mostly just glad that he wouldn’t have to wear black-out goggles in the water because I know from experience that this will cause a panic attack for anyone that’s not used to being submerged without sight. It would be like water boarding.

    The problem with the rule is that VI athletes have adapted to their specific disability. If they have no sight they have adapted to using other senses completely, but if that athlete has 10% of his/her vision, then he/she would have adapted to using that 10% to its full potential and only partially making up for it with other senses. To then take away that 10% would cause vertigo, nausea, and other side effects that would not be issues for the athlete that is completely blind all day every day. Aaron and other VI athletes with some vision use their vision for balance, orientation, and other functions besides obstacle avoidance, so removing it would not level the playing field so much as cause a potential health risk for non-blind VI athletes.

    That’s my understanding of the argument against blackout goggles.

    USAT has imposed the “no pro guides” rule for all sanctioned races. Like you said, it’s possible to find three non-pro guides for Aaron, but finding an athlete who can swim a 19 minute 1500m and run sub 35 off the bike is probably not going to happen. The best solution would be to find a way to ensure that each VI athlete can have a capable guide for the swim and bike without enabling that athlete to over-benefit on a tandem bike. Perhaps a fancy governor on the front bottom bracket?

  4. This is what happens when a writer tries to be a mechanical engineer. Great idea. If there were money in para-triathlon this device would have already been made.

  5. Ugh, lost my first reply when I tried to post a link – (to the 27 page USAT rules of competition doc, I’m sure you have this anyway). Where does it say no pro’s? All I can find is the stipulation of “a single guide of the same sex.”

    I, too feel that this is an unnecessary limit to impose on athletes who already work so hard to get to the starting line. One could even argue that a strong tandem enthusiast might be an even bigger threat than a pro triathlete…after all anyone who has captained a tandem knows they propose some very specific handling demands.

    As far as the blackout goggles, it seems like a rather primitive way of dealing with the grades of VI. In contrast, Boston Marathon (and many other sports) has chosen to use subclassifications.

    Other sports, such as goal ball, do use the blindfold method. I understand the theory, but blindfolding during triathlon sounds somewhat counterintuitive.

    Interesting changes. At Achilles we field not only blind athletes but amputees, quads, every category actually. There have been some sweeping changes in the rules this year in almost every category, especially Tri1 and Tri3. In particular they are requiring handcrank users to compete in the recumbent position. I am still researching this but my Tri1 National Champ tells me that position is not easily adaptable and may require an athlete to purchase an entirely new handcycle.

    So, don’t feel special, it’s not just Tri6’s having to scramble.

    FYI, Andy, I gave the race organizers your info separately, that’s what I was doing with those forms in the van. Ben, thanks for posting and best of luck. H Chadwick, Achilles International.

  6. that’s a stupid rationale. by that theory, if there was money to be made in anything it already would have been done. therefore, why bother inventing anything. you should just give up.

    secondly, whether or not there’s money in it is a separate question to whether it can be done.

    no, i’m still maintaining that there is an engineering solution to the bike problem, which I don’t know exactly because it’s been like 4 years since I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, but if you could solve the problem so that someone could guide the bike without contributing to the power output, then that would solve the other problems.

  7. Regarding the bike point that Kelly brings up, is seems that what you really want is to decouple the power input of the guide from that of the PC athlete. The simplest solution I can think of is to rig up a bottom-bracket-based power meter to the drivetrain of the guide and mandate that they only input up to a certain amount of power. Its not perfect, and would be expensive, but it could be done consistently across across a variety of bikes and athletes. You could adjust the max input power number for the weight of the guide or whatever to make it fair. Surely pushing fatty-ben around the course should incurr a bigger penalty.

    A more elegant purely mechanical solution would be to rig up a slip-drive mechanism in the drivetrain. It could work like this: each of the two athletes adds power to the drivetrain, which translates to chain tension. When the power/tension the guide adds exceed that of the PC athlete, the drivetrain of the guide would disengage and would just spin out. The downside here is that the better the PC athlete, the higher overall power the team can reach, since the guide is allowed to match up to the power input of the PC athlete. The ultimately nerdy solution would be to marry a power tap with a slip-drive drivetrain, which disengages automatically at certain power levels.

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