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Q&A: In Tandem with the Athlete-Guide Duo of Amy Dixon and Kirsten Sass

What's it like to have that kind of relationship? How do they work together?

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Amy Dixon, who lost 98% of her vision in her 30s due to complications related to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, is a seven-time World Triathlon gold medalist. Her guide, Kirsten Sass, is one of the most successful age-group athletes in USA Triathlon and a multi-time age-group world champion. Together, they’ll toe the line at the Tokyo Paralympics on Friday evening, grateful to be there—and with visions of gold dancing in their heads. We caught up with Dixon, 46, and Sass, 42, to talk training, Tokyo, and beyond.

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Amy, you live in California, and Kirsten is in Tennessee. Have you been able to practice together in the build up to Tokyo?

Amy Dixon (AD): Not as much as we’d like. We’ve both been pretty busy, with Kirsten being a physician’s assistant on the frontlines of COVID, and I’ve had a hell of a year with illness and injury. Normally, we’d get together for a week or two in the off-season, but this year that wasn’t possible.

Kirsten Sass (KS): We’re very fortunate in that we’re good to pick up right where we left off. Usually, it’s just a session in the pool and a session on the bike, and we’re ready to go.

AD: And Kirsten’s coach communicates with my coach so we can make sure that we’re on the same page, somewhat, especially on the bike. Even if we’re not riding together, we can work on training with a similar cadence so when we get on the tandem, we’re in sync.

What was the trickiest part of learning to ride a tandem bike together?

KS: Oh, we have had our slow speed crashes. Safety is my number one priority on that tandem. I always say, you can give up a few seconds, or you can crash and be done. I can handle a bike pretty well, but I’m not taking any chances, especially with Amy on the back.

AD: I joke that you’ll see me in Tokyo with bubble wrap surrounding me. Kirsten will keep me protected no matter what.

Amy, aside from Kirsten telling you the important stuff during the race, like directional cues and what’s going on with your competitors, what other role does she play?

AD: Not only is she my guide, but she plays the role of my therapist, coach, and pacer while we’re out there. With guiding, you can never talk too much, unless I’m in a horrible place and then I don’t want to talk to anyone. Once, at a race in Rotterdam, I needed to finish in the top five to secure my funding for USA Triathlon for the following year. I was in a dark place, and my form was going. Kirsten picked up on that and said, “I want you to pretend you’re auditioning for a Nike commercial for the next 200 meters. Chest up, shoulders back, drive with your knees, and give me your best form.” I feel like among other paratriathletes, visually impaired athletes have the best possible scenario in that we are suffering together. When I’m spiraling, Kirsten brings me back to the present, and that’s so helpful.

Kirsten, does that kind of support in the moment come naturally to you?

KS: My experience in racing for over 20 years definitely helps. I’ve been in dark places myself and I know how bad it gets if you focus on things you can’t control. And I just love racing, and I’m so happy out there. I try to keep that upbeat attitude and share it with Amy.

AD: Kirsten is so fast that she’s actually jogging at my race pace, so she can talk until the cows come home. She always has lots of gas left in the tank. In every race photo, Kirsten is just smiling from ear to ear, and I’m ready to just lay down.

The duo race on the bike. (Photo: Tommy Zaferes/World Triathlon)

Kirsten, as a mom of two boys, a PA, and juggling your own busy race schedule as well, how have you factored in the demands of being a guide for Amy?

KS: Honestly, I’d have a hard time giving up the time away just for myself and for my career. But to do it for someone else and to be able to help Amy, it makes it all worth it. My family is super supportive. We’ve had Amy at our house and they know her. I live in a small town of McKenzie, Tennessee, and everyone has just rallied around us. When we race in Tokyo, they’ll have a big watch party at my house.

After Tokyo, will you continue to race together?

AD: This has been the hardest year of my life, and I am grateful to be healthy enough to race, yet alone qualifying for the Games. For a while, I thought the Paralympics would be the end of my career, but I have a little bit of gas left in the tank. So I’d like to do some World Cups in the fall.

Kirsten, will you join her?

KS: Absolutely, I’ll be there.

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