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Australian Michellie Jones—silver medalist in triathlon’s Olympic debut in Sydney (2000) and the 2006 Ironman world champion—is in Rio to participate in another pioneering Olympic first: triathlon’s inaugural appearance in the Paralympic Games. Jones serves as a guide to Australian Paralympic medal contender Katie Kelly, a legally blind and deaf athlete.
At the age of 25, Katie Kelly was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome, a condition characterized by hearing loss and progressive vision loss. “It made sense because of little things that were always a bit tricky for me, like trying to park in underground parking. I was never a fan of hide-and-go-seek at our family BBQs—I’d be tripping over things and just couldn’t navigate as well as the other kids,” says Kelly.
Always active and undeterred by her worsening sight, Kelly became a 3:23 marathoner, a triathlete and an Ironman finisher. “I couldn’t train pre-dawn with a squad and I’d never do any close bunch riding,” says Kelly. “In shorter races, I’d never really go that hard in the bike, as it was always about safety and staying clear of congested packs.”
In January 2015, a visit to her ophthalmologist dealt Kelly a painful blow: she was diagnosed as legally blind. “I spoke to my sister and my partner, Steven, and shed a few tears,” she says. “But with a bit of tough love from both, I moved on. So much that I rang Triathlon Australia that afternoon.” Her motivation was to try to race Kona in the physically challenged division, for which she would now qualify. Triathlon Australia had a different idea: the Paralympic Games. Kelly was on the road to Rio.
A Winning Partnership
That March, Jones received a call from Corey Bacon, Australia’s Paratriathlon Head Coach, asking her to guide Kelly. “I had no idea what it really entailed. Our first race was going to be in May. I was like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve never ridden a tandem before!’ And I thought, ‘I hope she’s not a pain in the butt!’” says Jones, laughing at the memory.
Kelly recalls, “When I heard Michellie was going to be my guide I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is getting serious.’ I just couldn’t believe it.”
Kelly knew of Jones from watching triathlon’s top stars when the sport was widely televised in Australia in the 1990s. She had some anxiety about partnering with the decorated Olympic medalist, but Jones was equally nervous. “Oh my goodness, the pressure!” says Jones. “I have to make sure we don’t crash. I have to make sure I don’t get injured. What if she’s faster than me? I was having the same feelings she was having.”
The pair met face-to-face just days before their first race in Yokohama, Japan. They raced on a borrowed bike, on a technical course in the rain—and won. Next up (although their bike didn’t arrive until race day, allowing very little practice time) was victory in Franciacorta, Italy, followed by their decisive win in Chicago.
Working As One
“Trusting MJ on the bike is not hard. She really is so skillful,” says Kelly. “She always pushes me and she will have us riding that tandem on the tightest, narrowest roads—even in Italy on the cobblestone streets—and I’m thinking, ‘Is this really necessary?’ But I realize she’s preparing me for the worst case scenario so that come race day, it’s as seamless as possible.”
While Jones is the more accomplished athlete of the two, she uses her experience to help Kelly achieve her personal best. “I am smart enough not to try to make her go my pace; I try to go by her ability,” says Jones. “That’s part of the partnership—pushing her to the level that I know that she can handle, without totally blowing her up by making her think she has to try and keep pace with her guide. We do her race.”
For Kelly’s part, working with Jones brings added motivation. “I don’t want to let her down or have her think I’m not putting in. I’d be so disappointed if she thought that I wasn’t giving it my all. It’s about respect. While I’m not anywhere near the ability of MJ now or when she was at her peak, the one thing I know I can do is show that I have the determination to push—and push a bit more.”
The duo is the odds-on favorite for Paralympic gold, but Kelly and Jones, who will be 41 and 47 respectively on race day, have a holistic outlook on Rio.
“To be in Rio and to represent Australia will simply be the ultimate. It makes me so proud, and it leaves me wanting to do more and to give more back to all those who have made this possible,” says Kelly, who is in the process of creating the Sport Access Foundation to remove barriers to sport for children with disabilities. “Also it’s about living and enjoying this incredible window we have. Michellie will often remind me of that.”
There’s certainly no better guide to the Olympic experience than one who has lived it firsthand. “I tell Katie this all the time, and it’s the same attitude I had when I went to Sydney, but when it comes to Rio, it is what it is on the day,” says Jones. “I mean, how many people get to race at that level? And even for me, how many people get to guide a paratriathlete in the Paralympics? We just have to make sure we do everything we can to do our best on that day, and whatever the result, it’s a bonus. It’s been awesome so far, and we’ve always got that.” p
What It Takes
Racing together as athlete and guide poses inherent challenges. For Kelly and Jones, living on separate continents adds a unique twist. In more than a year of working together, the two have been physically together a sum total of only three weeks. “Sometimes it’s just a couple of days before each race,” says Jones. “But we get on really well. She trusts me and I trust her. And as Corey [Bacon] says, this is what we need to do and this is what we have to do it with. You deal with what you have.” Jones gives us the 4-1-1 on guiding:
“In the swim, we’re tethered together. As a guide, you’re never allowed to pull your athlete. My main objective is to make sure that we’re swimming in a straight line towards the buoy.”
“On the bike we ride a tandem. My job is to get us around the course safely, which is a challenge, because on a tandem you definitely have to be in sync. If the person in back does something that jeopardizes the safety in the back of the bike, like pedaling around the corner when you need to soft pedal, you have no control. They can work against you just like they can work with you.”
“Katie races without a hearing aid, and that’s a little bit of a challenge because I really have to say things loudly. ‘Corner left! Corner right! Speed hump! We’re going to put our right shoe on; left shoe on.’ People who have watched us race have said, ‘We noticed you were yelling a lot!’ It’s hard when you’re going hard and you’ve got to be so on top of it. As a guide, you have to give those verbal cues to your athlete. That’s where the partnership comes in and learning to be a team.”
“On the run, we’re tethered again. One of the main things I help with is guiding her around U-turns or tight corners, or a simple thing like going through a pedestrian crossing on the course. If a spectator comes out a little bit, a sight-impaired athlete can’t judge and react to that. I’m not allowed to propel Katie forward or touch her unless it’s an absolute emergency situation where she’s going to be in danger. Then I can grab her arm and pull her away.”
“I always sort of step behind her when we come into the finish, as long as I know it’s safe. It’s her moment; I’m just there to help. But I do get so emotional about it. I know how hard she’s trained and I know the emotions she’s going through, and there are extra emotions that I have because she’s so inspiring in so many ways. I’m not sure I could trust somebody to take me around on a tandem at high speed!”
Jones’ Involvement in Paratriathlon
Jones’ involvement in paratriathlon is two-fold; in addition to guiding Kelly, she coaches U.S. paratriathletes Sarah Reinertsen and JP Theberge. As a coach, Jones considers each athlete’s unique physical abilities and limitations, as well as an array of adaptive equipment choices. “It’s been educational,” says Jones. “But what I love most about being involved in paratriathlon is that every athlete I’ve met has a great story. Some of them are some of the most tragic stories you’ll hear, but the athletes are overcoming adversity to do something that they love. And now that they’ve been given the opportunity to go to an Olympics, they’re going to be role models inspiring the entire sport of paratriathlon. There will be young kids who have disabilities running around after they watch paratriathlon in Rio saying, ‘I want to be a paratriathlete!’”
Triathlon will make its Paralympic debut at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, September 7–18, 2016. For more information visit Rio2016.com/en/paralympics.