Though triathlon has always prided itself as an incredibly inclusive sport, a lawsuit filed in December by Katherine Borrone points to a hole in the sport’s treatment of visually-impaired athletes. Borrone, a visually and hearing-impaired triathlete with Usher syndrome, claims in the lawsuit that both the WTC (Ironman’s parent company) and USAT are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to reasonably accommodate her disability.
In brief, the lawsuit says that Borrone requires a guide who is not only able to compete in a triathlon alongside her but also someone who can communicate with her via tactile sign language. Because Borrone is unable to hear or see, she uses a form of sign language that requires the interpreter to physically communicate with her through touch, and a person with those abilities is incredibly hard to find. “I am profoundly deaf,” says Borrone via her attorney. “Wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants do not help at all. I have “tunnel ” vision. I sense vibrations instead of hearing.”
Borrone says she has only found one person who fulfills all of her requirements, and she is unable to compete with her chosen guide, James Armstrong, because he is a man.
Because all Ironman events in the U.S. are sanctioned by USAT, Borrone must follow their rules. Under the P 1.2 Competition Categories for P5 (visually-impaired) athletes, USAT’s competitive rules document states: ”It is mandatory that only one guide of the same sex may be used throughout the race.”
The ITU’s rules have similar language (under rule 17.16 Paratriathlon PTVI Conduct): “Each athlete must have a guide of the same gender and nationality.”
According to the lawsuit, Borrone claims that the WTC “explained that the reason for this policy is that individuals competing in triathlon events must change clothes between events in tents that are separated by gender.” In her lawsuit, Borrone contests that she doesn’t use Armstrong during the clothes-changing transition—he waits outside while a female volunteer assists her.
So far, Borrone has not been prevented from racing in any WTC events yet. In 2016, her and Armstrong were given special exception and competed at Ironman Lake Placid and 70.3 Syracuse. However, she says she was told the rule would be applied to her unequivocally in 2017, making her unable to compete at her goal races Ironman Lake Placid and 70.3 Lake Placid.
As it is, visually-impaired athletes (even those with full hearing) often struggle finding someone that fits just the basic criteria to guide. Amy Dixon, a visually-impaired member of the 2016 U.S. National Paratriathlon team, who was ranked fifth in the world last year, knows all about how hard it can be to find a guide to race with; she’s searching for one right now.
Last year, Dixon was guided by 2013 Ironman 40-44 age group world champion Susanne Davis. “[Susanne] was an amazing athlete and agreed to take a year off from her athletic goals to help me prepare for Rio,” says Dixon. Unfortunately, now Davis is back to her own training, which leaves Dixon with an all-too-familiar problem: the quicker she gets, the smaller the pool of potential female guides becomes.
“I can train with men,” Dixon says. “But I’m restricted [by the rules] when it comes to racing.” She says she has plenty of local guides for swimming, biking or running, but not many of them can do all three—which is obviously required in a race situation. “The faster I get, the guides end up being pros themselves,” she says, and according to the ITU’s rules, pro ITU athletes are also disqualified from guiding visually-impaired athletes at ITU events. This further limits Dixon’s possibilities because, in her experience, ITU pros are some of the best bike handlers—another important skill a guide must possess.
“Teaching them the tandem bike is the single most difficult thing about finding a good guide,” says Dixon who relates steering a tandem to driving a semi-truck. “Someone who is a good bike handler and a competent triathlete is hard to find.”
Even more than just the technical side, a visually-impaired athlete and his or her guide must also have excellent rapport if there is to be trust and communication between the two. “It is the only type of triathlon that is truly a team sport,” says Dixon. “It’s not just about the physical guiding, there’s a lot more on the mental side that goes into it. The emotional support. The guide ends up being a psychologist and a coach at the same time.”
To have all of the above qualities and possess a functional knowledge of tactile sign language is basically like finding a needle in a haystack, but unfortunately Borrone’s best chance for a guide simultaneously prevents her from competing.
When asked for a statement on the lawsuit, USAT responded by saying, “USA Triathlon neither has been contacted by any named party regarding this matter, nor is it in receipt of any legal documentation, and therefore is not in a position to comment.”
While WTC could not be reached for comment, the latest Ironman rule changes have also not yet been released for 2017, so there is still hope that with the attention that Borrone’s lawsuit brings she will be able to compete again this year.