We plunge forward into the water.
The coolness comes as a shock as it washes over my head. I rotate my arms and kick my feet. My face is submerged. My ears are covered by a compressing rubber cap. The cap kind of smells funny. My wetsuit kind of smells funny. I don’t like how the wetsuit compresses my forearms or restricts my shoulders.
But, that doesn’t matter now. I’m racing. All of the oddities of this sport that I’ve grown to love get lost in the rhythm of my arms and the need to control my breathing. I roll to my right side and breathe. For most people, this would provide a momentary glimpse of their surroundings: perhaps the sun shining or a snapshot of their competition swimming around them. For me, all it provides is fresh air for my working lungs. You see, I’m completely blind and I’m a triathlete.
I'm often asked, “How did you get into triathlon?” I used to think the answer was quite simple: I thought it sounded like a cool sport. And to some extent, this is still true. How cool is it to speed along on a bike at 45 km/h, trying your damnednest to stay ahead of the next team of women hurtling along behind you? Now, however, I think the answer is a bit more complicated.
In some ways, I think I was always in training for triathlon; not only physically, but mentally as well. Once upon a time I was an elite swimmer, representing Canada with pride at three Paralympic Games and bringing home a silver medal in the 50- metre freestyle. But for numerous reasons, things never quite came together in the way I thought they would for me in swimming. I just kept missing what I considered to be success. I always seemed to fall just short, at least in my mind. I retired from swimming convinced that I was done with competitive sport, and that I would take up triathlon for fun and to stay healthy.
Turns out I was very wrong. The competitive fire in my belly hadn’t been extinguished. And so, in 2017, just three years out from the next Paralympic Games, I made the tough decision to quit my full-time job and move across the country by myself to pursue something I wasn’t even sure I was good at. Hard decisions aren’t foreign to me and so I jumped in with both feet. We have choices, even when sometimes it seems we don’t.
Make it up as we go along
By now you must be thinking: enough with the history lesson, how do you do triathlon without being able to see anything? The simple answer is: with a guide. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. Thankfully, other, more experienced triathletes with visual disabilities paved the way before me, and they were willing to share their knowledge. Some of it, my coach and I still make up as we go along.
Triathlon isn’t an easy sport, even when you can see. Add in the blindness factor and things get even murkier, so to speak. It’s a fast-paced sport, requiring competitors to make snap decisions while working hard at top speeds. I don’t have that luxury. I spend the entirety of the race essentially tied to another human being. You know that personal space bubble that we North Americans like so much? Well it's practically nonexistent when you are a blind triathlete and guide team. We bump, bounce off of, hit, spit or snot on, trip over, and anything else most people would consider to be uncomfortable.
During the swim, we are connected at the thigh by a simple piece of shock cord. This cord is basically my life line. We can’t talk to each other in the swim. That would slow us down. So, I take all my cues from what the rope is telling me. When it tugs me to the left, I move left. I try to swim as close to my guide’s body as possible, without disrupting our strokes, in order to be able to read her body language; hence the punching and hitting. I often describe the swim as a strange experience of sensory deprivation and overload.
I can’t hear properly, I already can’t see, and no one’s talking for over 10 minutes. Couple that with weird tastes and smells, like fish or fuel in the water, and my brain starts to milkshake. I haven’t even mentioned the strange and wonderful things we swim into such as seaweed, logs, jelly fish and other swimmers. I use my hands to see and when they are busy swimming, they can’t tell me what’s just touched my face or wrapped itself around my neck. I’ve had to learn how to let it all go.
Another hard decision I had to make: even after making the move to Victoria in 2017 to be a full-time athlete, and enjoying the training, I contemplated foregoing another shot at the Paralympic Games. I had been to three Games already. Why did I need to put myself through something that made me so uncomfortable? I didn’t have to. But I wanted to.
As a woman with a visible disability, the uncomfortable truth is that I've experienced a lot of discrimination throughout my life; as have most people within a visible minority group. Sport was where I felt as though I was afforded the respect I deserved. The successes or failures I experienced were my own. At the end of the day, I was just a human being trying to swim, bike and run as fast as I could. And so, I stayed.
When I was 16 I was offered the opportunity to have facial reconstructive surgery. The surgery would take no less than 18 hours, and would involve quite literally peeling my face away to try and rebuild the damage caused by radiation treatment I had undergone as a child. The radiation had stunted the growth of my right cheekbone, leaving my right cheek smaller than the left, and my right eye in shadows. There was no guarantee the surgery would work — and yet the doctors were flabbergasted when I declined the offer.
All I could think about when the proposal was made was: “ewwww no. This is my face.” Then the enormity of the surgery sunk in, and that scared me. I don’t even think I listened to the surgeons. I remember asking if there was any functional reason for the surgery. The answer was no. So, my answer was no. That was my choice. I chose to live with my own face, despite the social repercussions.
Favourite triathlon leg
Even though I came from a swimming background, the bike quickly became my favorite leg of triathlon training and racing. Mostly, I think, it’s because I could comprehend the speed and feel the power we were exerting. On the bike, the guide and athlete with the visual disability come together even more as a team. We race on a tandem bike, but not one of those rolling, comfy, couch type bikes that come to mind when someone says “tandem bike.” Our bike is meant for speed. The wind rushing past my ears and the hum of the tires on the pavement all indicate to me just how fast we’re going.
During one training session my guide and I hit nearly 80 kilometers an hour going down a hill. We ran out of gears, so we had to stop pedaling. A little scary to think that there was a whole lot of nothing keeping us upright. The frame of the bike was whistling. I couldn’t see the cars as we flew by, but I can certainly imagine that they would have been just blurs.
Throughout a triathlon, my guide acts as my eyes. On the bike we become a cohesive unit, far beyond her just being my eyes. She calls out to me in advance of bumps, tells me what leg to put down on turns, and warns me if we're about to try to surge past someone. On the bike it’s her voice, the wind, my burning quads and the tires that carry us toward our second transition. It’s in those moments of the race, and of being pushed far beyond physical exertion that I choose to keep fighting along with her; sometimes it's knowing that she’s in front of me sweating, gasping and hurting as much as I am that makes me choose to keep the pressure on the pedals. That’s my choice.
The third and final leg of the triathlon is the run, and it is by far the hardest for me. Already exhausted from swimming and biking, I now have to complete the weakest of my three disciplines. During the run, my guide and I are connected by a small length of climbing rope that has two loops at each end. The loops are for our thumbs to go through to help prevent us from dropping the tether — a little trick one of the more experienced blind athletes I was talking about earlier taught me.
Unlike the swim, my guide can talk to me during the run, until she can’t anymore. It’s probably the thing that saves me. Most of her dialogue consists of directional cues such as “turning left,” or “lift your feet. There’s uneven ground.” Sometimes I accidentally hit her arm during our arm swing since we’re running so close together — more punching. I used to fixate, almost to my detriment, on the ground under my feet. I could feel cracks in the pavement, surface changes and even temperature changes. It was something I had to learn to block out — just like the smells and bad tastes in the swim. All of this information, which normally I would use in my everyday life to navigate the world, had to be reduced to white noise. In a race, I have to react faster because we’re just moving faster.
I have to fully trust my guide’s instructions and ignore stimulus that would usually have meaning. I set the pace, since I am the one pushing myself. But in every other way, I have relinquished control to another human being, trusting that they will make the best decisions for the two of us, trusting that they are fast enough, trusting that they will get us through the race without injury. This was ultimately my hardest decision in triathlon. Could I, a fiercely independent, notoriously strong-willed person, put that much faith and that much trust into someone else?
It’s been two years since my competitive triathlon journey started. Despite everything, jelly fish included, I’m still as committed as the first morning I stepped on to the pontoon for my first race. If I had known then what I know now, would I have made the same decision? The answer is yes.
And really, that’s the only answer. Just as my sixteen year old self unknowingly made a life-altering decision all those years ago, my older self took the plunge and jumped in with both feet, damn the consequences. Because the person you have to be able to live with is yourself. We make hard decisions. Some of them wrong and some of them right. But, it’s what we do with the outcomes that determines who we are in this world, and who we can become.
We have choices. Even when sometimes it seems we don’t.
The Jessica Tuomela edition
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: Harry Potter, hands down. Not because it’s a literary masterpiece, but because of how the reader gets drawn in. That series made me cry, shake with rage and pee my pants laughing…now, that’s a good read.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: Um…pod what? Who? For some reason, it’s a medium I just haven’t gotten involved in; even though I think the concept is brilliant.
Q: Best advice you've ever received?
A: I think the most recent one is something my coach said: “There’s going to come a point when you’re going to want to quit…don’t quit.” I think she meant it to apply to the workout and maybe to races, but it’s something that plays in the back of my head even during non-athletic events in my life. It’s so simple, but so true.
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: Don’t tell me What to Do!” (Is there a font called “sass pants”)?
Q: What word or phrase do you over use?
A: What is this? Why do we have this? This is weird!” …usually after I’ve discovered something I didn’t know existed within the household. That happens a lot when you can’t see.
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: I wish I had better conflict management skills. I just want everyone to get along and life to be rainbows and unicorns…so when people get angry, I have a hard time with it.
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: …I’m deaf in one ear, I love singing… I’m a giant nerd. I mean, I have a tattoo of a line from Tolkien’s poem written in Elvish on my foot, I research for fun and one of my dog’s names is Hermione. Need I say more?
Q: What scares you?
A: Disappointing the people who mean the most to me.
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the people you'd invite?
A: My grandma, my coach, my mom, my previous guide, my dad, and the swim coach who coached me to my first Paralympic Games. These are people who have influenced my life. It’s so hard to only pick six.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Animal movies: Homeward Bound, Marley and Me (the book made me cry too).
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: The 2020 Paralympic Games are definitely at the top of the list. After that, the sky’s the limit. I’d love to start a dog rescue; open my own retreat; and pursue my writing career.