[Part 2] Why leading a blind athlete through a triathlon changed my life

* Continued from Part 1

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,

My alarm sounded at 4:45am on Sunday morning. I think I was already awake.

I had fallen asleep thinking about swimming into darkness, but I woke up thinking about crashing on a tandem bicycle…with the paratriathlon national champ on the back.

I showered, started the coffee and my oatmeal, and then packed my bag for the race. I fixed my bottles. One with Base Performance Amino for the drive to Nashville and one with Gu Roctane for the bike. When I was packed I woke up Mommy.

She woke up you two little ones while I woke you up, Izzy. Part of me felt guilty for dragging all of you out of bed at 5:15am, but I wanted for all of you to be there. I think it was important. We left the house at 5:45 to make the 45 minute drive North to downtown Nashville for the Music City Triathlon.

Jeremy Winters called me at 6:30 to see if we were there yet. We were sitting in traffic waiting to turn in. But I was glad Jeremy was there already. I told him to have someone connect him with Faye Yates or Therese Bynum and they would help him get set up in transition until I got there. As I made my way to the transition area a gentleman I didn’t recognize called my name.

“You must be Chad,” he said.

“I am,” I said and I reached to shake his hand.

“I’m Jeremy’s dad. Nice to meet you. I recognized the C-different shirt. Thank you what you’re doing today. Jeremy’s over there waiting for you,” he said as he pointed toward the far side of transition.

I shook his hand again and assured him that I was happy to help Jeremy out. I wanted to tell him more. I wanted to tell him how nervous I was. How honored I was to be entrusted with the job. But all I could manage was “Oh sure. Can’t wait. It’s not going to be an easy day for either of us. Jeremy’s going to push me.” He smiled and told me to have fun.

I found Jeremy and our tandem bike beside an empty rack. We shook hands and he explained that the entire rack for us. We could have both sides of the bike for our stuff. Not your usual transition area chaos. It was a nice change for me, but a necessary one for Jeremy. Having plenty of space made the difficult task of finding his stuff in transition a little easier.

We got everything ready, talked a little more about the day ahead, and then headed towards the river for the swim start. As we approached the PA announcer said:

“We’re pleased to have one of the best paratriathletes in the country leading us off today. Jeremy Winters is a blind athlete. He and his guide Chad Nikazy will start us off today. Please welcome them.”

We both laughed a little. Jeremy is humble guy, so I don’t think he knew how to react. I held him by one arm, close to my side, as we made our way through the crowd and down the narrow walk way to the starting dock. Once on the dock we talked to Therese about the course and how it was going to work. A photographer from the Tennessean newspaper snapped pictures of us, as we prepared for the start.

I bit my lip during the national anthem. I watched Jeremy staring up at the sky. As the anthem came to a close I pulled my goggles over my eyes. They quickly filled with tears and I had to pull them off and dip them in the water.

Therese instructed us to slip into the water and wait for the start. We waited with a couple of other paratriathletes. One a double leg amputee, the other a man with a rare disease being pulled in a raft by a triathlete like me. I’ve done dozens of races. But I’d never felt like I did in that moment. I can’t describe the emotion.

THE SWIM: 300 yards in the Cumberland River

(photo courtesy of The Tennessean)

The race starter looked at me and said “Ready?” Before I could say anything she said “Go.” I nudged Jeremy and said “here we go buddy.” We set out towards the first big orange bouy 100 yards away swimming diagonally up river to the right. I’d wondered how this moment might feel, but the reality of it was pretty normal. I could feel the tension in the one meter tether that kept Jeremy and I attached at the waist, but other than the tenion it felt like an easy swim.

As we approached the bouy I swam breast stroke for a few yards, grabbed Jeremy’s arm and told him that we’d reached the first bouy. I grabbed both of his shoulders, turned his body to face our new direction and said “Okay, here we go again. Swim straight.” We set off for the 2nd marker, still swimming easy. Jeremy was doing great, only occasionally pulling against the tether.

At the 2nd bouy we repeated the process from the 1st bouy and set out for the finish dock. I swam with my head up part of the way, fighting the strong current, looking at the faces of the other racers and volunteers on the dock. They watched our approach in wonder, as we came out of the water still at the front of the race (we’d been given a 1:00 head start). I don’t think they expected to pull us from the water first.

I pulled Jeremy close to me again as we made our way up the walkaway from the dock. 1000 triathletes waiting to start and 1000’s of spectators yelled encouragements as we passed. It was an awesome moment.

“Jeremy, we’re still in front man,” I said. “All of this cheering is for us.”

“It’s pretty cool, huh?” he said.

THE BIKE – 12.3 miles

Our bike was racked just inside of the transition area. I lead Jeremy to his towel where his stuff was set out. He started putting on his shoes and gathering the rest of his stuff. While he did his thing I got my c-different shirt, helmet, sunglasses and shoes ready to go. I handed Jeremy his helmet and off we went.

At the mount line we stopped and both stepped over the bike. Right foot up, left foot down was the plan. Then we counted to 3 and shoved off, coasting. We wobbled a little while we both worked to get our left foot secured on the pedals. Steady finally, we began to pedal.

I called out commands to Jeremy as we negotiated the many sharp turns of the first quarter mile.

“Hard left. Pick up your left foot”

“Curving right. Pick up your right”

And so on. Once we reached the completely closed down Ellington Parkway we were able to open up a little. I told Jeremy it was time to go for it and we started hammering. Just us and the lead motor cycle.

I called out the miles as they passed. Around mile 4 Jeremy said “It’s awfully quiet out here.”

“Well that’s because it’s just me and you. And the lead motor cycle up ahead. There’s still a blind guy at the front of this race.” He laughed a little, but the pace kept us from talking too much. We ran through the gears, climbing painfully on the tandem, going downhill at speeds that made me uncomfortable. Music City is a rolling bike course. I asked Jeremy how far he thought we’d make it before the fast guys started coming past us on their bikes. He said 6 miles.

We reached the turn around at the 6.1 mile mark still all alone. I informed Jeremy that there was still no one in sight. He changed our goal to 9 miles. At that point I started to see bikes headed the other way towards the turn around. Something clicked in me. I wanted to get Jeremy to T2 still at the front of the race. I cursed the other athletes in my head. I wasn’t mad at them, but I needed to convince myself that I was. I didn’t want anyone to take away the thrill of coming back off of the bike still at the front.

For the last half of the ride I turned myself inside out. I’ve never ridden a bike that hard. Especially a bike thats way too big for me and weighs 3x what my carbon fiber race bike weighs. I grimaced, occasionally looking back. No one. Just Jeremy on that back seat hammering away at the pedals with me. I was hurting. But we were going to do this.

In the final 200 meters a Team USA development rider passed us. But we’d made it. Jeremy Winters and I pulled into T2 still on the front of the race. People were dumbfounded to see the blind guy still out front.

THE RUN -5k

We transitioned more quickly from the bike to the run than we had from the swim to the bike. With our running shoes and hats on, we pulled the tether back around our waists and took off for the 5k run.

I pulled Jeremy close to me again with the tether as we negotiated the narrow chute exiting the transition area. Once onto the course we were free to run. We reached a curb where I instructed Jeremy to step up. He did, but missed and stumbled a bit. In that second reality set in on me again. This guy, despite being an awesome athlete is blind. He’s totally dependant upon me to guide him. I steadied him. And off we went again.

We climbed a bridge that passes over the river. It was lined with spectators. I saw more stunned looks as we passed. People cheered more loudly as it sank in on them what they’d just seen pass.

I was a little worried about the run, because Jeremy is a faster runner than I am. Not by a lot, but by enough that I worried I may slow him down. But we worked well as a team. I coached him through turns, pulling him close as we rounded them. I helped him avoid man hole covers, pot holes and other obstacles, things we take for granted as sighted athletes and just step over.

At 1.5 miles there was still just one kid ahead of us. Another Team USA runner passed us and congratulated Jeremy on an awesome race and being an inspiration. And then another kid. And finally one more. Each pausing to honor Jeremy’s ability and tenacity on the course. I was honored just to be there.

Twice I had to ask Jeremy to slow down. I was cracking on the hills. I had worked harder on the bike than I ever have on a bicycle and I was paying for it. As we started a hill I said:

“Jeremy, I’m cracking man. This hill is hurting me. Can we slow down a little?”

“yeah, no problem,” he said. “We’re doing great.” Now he was encouraging me.

“Hey,” he said. “Don’t tell me when we’re on hills, okay? I can’t see them, so I don’t feel them. They don’t bother me.”

My eyes filled with tears again. I wiped at them beneath my sunglasses. I’ll never forget those words  or that moment.

We rounded the final turn back towards the finish line and the cheering intensified up ahead. The crowd saw us coming. “The blind guy” was 5th across the finish line. I came to stop immediately, but Jeremy took a few more steps. “Are we done? Are we there?” he said.

“Yeah man, we made it,” I said. “We’re done.” I hugged him. No more tears. Just a huge smile on both of our faces.

We spent the rest of the morning with our families awaiting the awards ceremony. Jeremy won the paratriathlon division with a time of 1:15. If he had raced in the age group division he still would have finished 16th out of 47…against athletes who can see. He was 107th out of 513 athletes.

We talked about random stuff the rest of the morning. A lot about training and races and past athletic experiences. The normal triathlete talk. I was thinking during the lulls in conversation about racing. I thought back to your mommy asking me what it’s all about and why I do it. I guess I still thought there was something to prove. But there’s not. It’s about getting the best out of yourself at that given point in your life. In that moment. In your current position in life. For me it’s not about PRs or age group victories anymore. It’s just not. It’s about finding the beauty in the moment.

Jeremy is a normal guy. Except that he’s better than a lot of people. Better than most people saddly. He’s exceptional in the fact that the doesn’t let perception become his reality. He doesn’t let his current situation limit his future possibilities. He talked to me about the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. That’s vision. The most many of us can manage is sight.

Jeremy Winters is exceptional because he doesn’t let hills slow him down. They’re all in your head he told me. And I believe him. Jeremy Winters changed my life. Because now I know how to see through mountains instead of looking up at that them and wondering how to get up or around them.

I started writing these letters to you kids, because I wanted to change my life. I wanted to stop obsessing about my own position in life. I wanted to know that I was making a difference and that you kids would be proud of your dad one day. I learned on Sunday that it’s not about me. Helping someone who needs you is how you change your life. Find ways to do that kids and you’ll never wish for more.

“Hills are all in your head.” – Jeremy Winters

I love you kids,

– Daddy

ps. We’ll be spending more time with Jeremy and his family soon.