Without Sight, Athletes Set Hearts on Rio

Paralympic triathletes make their debut in Rio

Michellie Jones has an addiction.  Three, actually. She lives to swim, bike and run, and she’s made a name for herself along the way.

“Triathlon is one of those lifestyle sports,” she says.

In 2000, Jones won the silver medal in the first Olympic triathlon. She lives in Carlsbad and competes for her home country of Australia.   Jones also won the Iron Man Hawaii, but says her addiction to the sport invented in San Diego County, is about more than accolades.

“It’s about getting through the demons that you face every time that you get out on the race course.” She says, “And that’s what I love about it.”

Now, she’s ready for another first, but with every stroke she takes at the Magdalena Ecke Family YMCA pool in Encinitas, Jones knows this time it’s not all about her.

“I am a triathlete, but I’m also a guide,” she says.

This month, Rio will host the Paralympic games, and for the first time, Paralympic triathlon will be an event.   Jones will be a guide for fellow Australian Katie Kelly.

“There’s a lot more pressure when you have to participate for somebody else,” says Jones.

Kelly is legally blind and hearing impaired, but doesn’t let that stop her from competing.  She started Paralympic triathlon a little more than a year ago, and almost immediately had success.   Kelly and Jones won the 2015 world championship.

While triathlon is considered one of the most grueling sports, the challenges of Paralympic triathlon may go a step further. 

“Just think of closing your eyes and swimming, biking and running,” says Jones.

Athletes and guides are tethered together for the swim and the run, and the two are not allowed to make contact.  The ride is done on a tandem bike.  For Jones and Kelly, it’s even more challenging because, to save time during transitions, Kelly doesn’t wear her hearing aids during the race.  So, Jones has to be especially loud in order to communicate what’s ahead of them and what direction they need to turn.

 “It’s a communication you have to build, a trust you have to build, and they have to have faith that you’re going to do everything in your power to guide them through the race.”

For these world champions it seems like the trust is there, but Jones says she still feels the pressure for Rio.

“When you’re guiding an athlete, you don’t want to let them down,” says Jones.  “You’re their eyes.”

Jones says one of the most common questions she's asked is whether she also receives a medal, should they end up on the podium.  The answer is yes.

While Katie Kelly is her top priority at the moment, Jones says she knows this moment is about more than one athlete.

“What I’m most excited about is you’re going to get little kids that have an impairment and they’re gonna say, I want to be a paratriathlete.”

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