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Certified Race Director Penni Bengtson hosted several paratriathletes at the Tri Santa Cruz Race Series. This is her story.

Last year at the Tri Santa Cruz Race Series we hosted twelve athletes from Team Semper Fi / Wounded Warriors— Marines recovering from injuries received during their service and deployment on our Sprint Triathlon day.  While we had previously hosted visually impaired athletes at our event we had never had a team of paratriathletes with special needs that required accommodating racing wheel chairs and hand cycles, prosthetic limbs,  and handlers to assist athletes in and out of the water.  Plus we had to make sure that the chairs and gear were situated on the beach and that the beach was clear of any seaweed, debris, or impediments to wheels or an area to change out of wetsuits and into legs for the run up to transition.  

Our race is perfectly situated on a pretty flat beach, with boardwalk assistance up to transititon – located about a block away down a flat sidewalk.  However, we needed to make sure that we had people at the edge of the water and on the beach to assist getting athletes who needed assistance into their chairs, or into their prostheses and onto the boardwalk ramp and off the beach.    

Once in transition we set aside a special area for transition that had both bike racks and room for hand cycles and running chairs.   We actually needed about three times the space generally reserved for athletes to accommodate all the additional equipment and people.  We also had special transition volunteers, in addition to the approved paratriathlon helpers, to keep traffic clear of the area and to provide any assistance required.  

It was a heartwarming experience for all of us and for the other athletes who were continually cheering on the paratriathlete participants, especially at the end when the entire team rallied to run in the final Semper Fi participant while flying the Semper Fi banner.  We are all looking forward to this year's race with a larger field of athletes and participation in both Sprint and International Distance events.  

Race Course Considerations

The following information comes from USA Triathlon Paratriathletes. Statements below are opinions of athletes based on their experiences. If you have questions regarding venue adaptations for paratriathlete inclusion, please contact USA Triathlon Event Services. For more about USA Paratriathlon Rules, categories, and other paratriathlon information, please visit our USA Paratriathlon webpage.

Swim

  • An advanced swim start gives paratriathletes a chance to get out on the course and finish at a decent hour.  

  • "Try to avoid beach starts because we either have to get in the water and float around while everyone else is on the beach or wait on the beach until everyone clears out after the gun, then enter the water." 

  • Pool swims typically are paratriathlete friendly because areas surrounding them  are smooth and level.

  • "My ideal race start is in water with a dock nearby. It's easier for certain paratriathletes to just roll down a dock, tumble in the water, and wait next to everyone else for the gun to go off." 

  • Obstacles around the start are particularly tricky e.g. rocks, stairs, and steep terrain are a challenge.  

  • Design of the swim exit is critical and very similar to the swim start. Think about slopes, terrain (wet grass is tough), distance to transition. 

  • "[As an above knee amputee] my favorite swim exit is a ladder on a dock because I can get myself up the ladder and to my gear on the dock basically unaided.  Beach exits are more work because I have to have someone to carry my crutches for me and meet me in the water."

In their shoes: Picture yourself on crutches or carrying a friend down to the beach start. If, in order for you to get to the start line or enter the water, you need to crutch over something that looks like it would cause you to tip over, consider changing the entry area for paratriathletes. Wheelchair athletes typically rely more on people carrying them into and out of the water, so keep this in mind while planning. Remember, there are all manner of paratriathletes who race at all different speeds; be sure to ask about the paces of your paratriathletes prior to the event start.

Transition Areas

  • Think about having a separate transition area for your paratriathletes. "We typically have an added amount of equipment or people in our areas, so having an area just for us is really helpful.

  • "Try to keep the run to T1 short. "Typically I put on a running leg at the swim exit and just run to T1."  

  • Things that would be a minor concern for other racers (bumps in carpeting, sticks, stumps, large rocks) are a bigger concern for some paratriathletes.

In their shoes: Picture yourself with a wheelchair, guide/handler, prostetics, and other equipment, along with the typical traithlon gear. This adds volume to paratriathlete's transiton zones, so anything to help them organize, feel less cluttered, and ease the move to get to transition areas should be done. Again, ask questions if you are unsure. 


Bike
 

  • Ideally, the mount line has sufficient room that it does not get super crowded as people take off. 

  • A hilly course, however, does not make it inherently "unfriendly" to some paratriathletes.

In their shoes: Think about who your athlete is, what their abilities are, and what might be the challenges they face. Are they handcycling the whole ride? Are they a visually impaired athlete? Just because they are a paratriathlete, does not make them slower. In fact, paratriathletes that are visually impaired ride tandem bikes, and are much quicker on the bike, leading them to have to pass numerous riders on the bike, which can be dangerous. 

 

Run
 

  • Your main concern on the run course is running surface. 

  • Do not have stairs unless an equal length ramp is in place.

In their shoes: Paratriathletes with wheelchairs and prostetics ideally would like to run on cement, concrete, and maybe some well-manicured grass. Gravel or exceptionally rough roads are challenging. Stairs for TRI 1,2,3, and 5 athletes are hard to navigate.  For a wheelchair athlete, they are a much more serious obstacle.  Something as innocuous as a single curb can be a major obstacle for a wheelie. 

Other race day considerations

  • Integrate the age group awards with the paratriathlon awards, so that everyone is included.

  • Be knowledgeable of your paratriathletes and their guides/handlers. Parafriendly races are often in the media spotlight and paratriathletes truly appreciate when you know us, our story, and our guides/handlers.

  • Handlers and guides should not be charged a race fee as they are not racing, However, they do need to sign a waiver. Also, it goes a long way to know the names of guides and handlers and announce them as they cross the finish line as well.

  • Use the proper terminology when mentioning your paratriathletes. If you are unfamiliar with what is politically correct, ask. 

  • Be sure to use proper terminology when talking about paratriathlon and paratriathletes.

  • Ask questions. Paratriathletes understand the lack of specific information out there regarding paratriathletes. In addition, each athlete is very different. It never hurts to ask questions and get clarification, so that everything goes as smooth as possible for race day. 

Special thanks to our contributors:

Susan Lacke

Deanna Babcock

Penni Bengtson

Susan Lacke

Aaron Sheidies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The views expressed in this article are based on the opinions of paratriathletes and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. 

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