A blind athlete racing Ironman is not new. When I raced in Kona's first year, in 1981, the famous tough-as-nails totally sightless Harry Cordellos competed. But it's less common for blind women. Caroline Gaynor was the first female to guide a female athlete in an Ironman. She's guided 7 athletes in triathlons; she's raced Ironman races with 3 different female athletes.
I first came across Caroline just a week ago, when I found out that USA Triathlon had changed the date of its paratriathlon championships and it had caused a hubbub in the paratriathlon community. I peeked into it, let Google be my guide, and came across her.
She is attractive, young, accomplished, athletic, driven, well spoken and full of life. She could be perfect raw material for the prototypical self-absorbed triathlete, but she followed a different trajectory. What is her idea of the very best way to enjoy a triathlon? Setting a PR? Getting on the podium? Nope. It's guiding a blind triathlete through her race. What causes somebody to subordinate his or her athletic ambitions in order to help others attain theirs?
She's also, in her spare spare time, co-director of Team RWB (red, white, blue), along with our own Brad Williams (afbadbrad on the Slowtwitch Reader forum), creating "local opportunities for veterans and the community to connect through physical and social activity."
SLOWTWITCH: First, you need to help me with nomenclature. The athletes with whom you work, how do I best refer to them? Challenged Athletes? Paralympians?
CAROLINE GAYNOR: Depends if you're talking about guiding, or all physically challenged athletes. I'd typically say paratriathlete.
ST: That encompasses everybody, regardless of disability, including blindness?
ST: You work especially with blind athletes. You do the race with them. In a triathlon, you swim and run with them, what, on a tether? And you captain a tandem?
CG: Yes, so for example Patricia Walsh, I did Ironman Lake Placid with her in 2010.
ST: I cannot imagine doing triathlon the way you do it.
CG: I can't imagine doing triathlon any other way.
ST: How do you find these athletes, or how do they find you?
CG: A friend of mine was looking for a guide in 2008, last minute, I jumped in, that's how I got started. After that first race I got totally addicted. A couple years ago I met a girl, Rachel Weeks, we did Ironman Texas last year. Now I do the hunting. I've been trying to make it known that I'll work out with men. But you're not allowed to compete with a member of the opposite sex.
ST: Wait! Wait! Are you telling me that you can't legally enter a USAT race if you're a woman and a man is guiding you, or vice versa?
CG: In running races it's a little more flexible but as I understand it under USAT rules you must race with a member of the same sex. Now that triathlon is a paralympic sport the rules have become more strict, because of the advantage you would have if a man captained a tandem for a blind female competitor.
ST: What got you into triathlon? What's your background?
CG: I was a runner and water polo player in high school, a collegiate rower, and I wrote my college entrance exam on what it was like to train to do my first triathlon.
ST: How long have you been a triathlete?
CG: This will be my 14th season.
ST: I presume you have your own athletic ambitions. How many races do you do a year, and how many of these races do you subordinate your solo ambitions in order to partner with another athlete?
CG: Lately, the past few years, I have put guiding first, I ask to do certain races, that's my focus. I'd like to become competitive again as a solo athlete, but I find it hard to do both.
ST: Have you ever been in a situation where you are the weak partner in a race with a blind or challenged athlete?
CG: I wasn't the weak one in the race, but I have blown up in a race, and that was terrible. I think of myself as equipment, anything can happen in a race, but, in a couple of races I went slower than that athlete wanted to go, it was terrible, but you need to have a good relationship with the person you're racing, and they're very understanding. Another goal of mine is to get more women interested in guiding. That's challenging, because most competitive athletes have their own goals.
ST: Do you feel pressure to keep up to a certain fitness level so that you are not the weak link?
CG: Absolutely! Especially considering this is my primary reason for racing. I absolutely feel that pressure.
ST: If a blind athlete has real talent, and can compete on a national or international level, I would imagine that you might be pressed into a travel date in order to compete.
CG: That's another reason I'm trying to get more people qualified. That's another problem with jobs, life commitments. It's hard to find people who can afford travel.
ST: USAT budgets for paratriathlon and the Paralympics. Does it help with costs?
CG: If you qualify for a higher level of competition, you can qualify for some help. I don't know if blind athletes are afforded travel help for guides. The athletes I know who have been in that position needed to set up private fundraising.
ST: Have you ever said to a very talented blind athlete, "Hey, I'm happy to help you, but you've grown beyond my capacity to help you compete; you're going to have to find another partner if you want to win in a Paralympic contest."?
CG: Absolutely. It hasn't been a conversation that, "I'm stepping down." It's an understanding. Like Patricia Walsh. She's a faster runner. We have an understanding now, maybe I can't be with her in a triathlon, but I'm happy to help her in any way she needs. Sometimes that's the important thing. If an athlete wants to go out they have to find somebody for a run. If they want to ride off a trainer they have to find a tandem and a pilot.
ST: Where do you live?
CG: I just moved to Austin, Texas. I was in New York for the past 11 years.
ST: Speaking of being tethered, is there an incredibly sympathetic, generous significant other, who does not complain?
CG: He complains! No, my boyfriend is a combat Marine, 2 Purple Hearts, I met him in Alabama at a paracycling camp. When he saw me he was trying to figure out what my disability was. But he knew from the start what he was getting into. He was invited because he was wounded in combat, but he himself is not a paratriathlete or paracyclist.
ST: So again, not to belabor, but triathletes are narcissists, I find what you do astounding, and that very fact makes me a narcissist.
CG: Yes. I took a step out of triathlon for awhile, I took up bike racing...
ST: They're worst narcissists.
CG: And there are a lot of issues in paratriathlon, that's why I'm interested in bringing in more athletes. But I get really pumped seeing somebody finish an Ironman, so pumped.