Making its Paralympic debut this year, paratriathlon gives athletes the chance to unleash their inner beast mode, and you can do it, too.
Krige Schabort has raced in countless marathons, winning plenty. Schabort has set course records in winning Ironman triathlons and he’s not only medaled at the Paralympic Games, but he’s competed in five Games overall, representing two countries.
Still, when Schabort lines up at the start of a paratriathlon race, he feels something — something that he doesn’t anymore for the other events in which he made his name.
“I really enjoy marathons, I love marathons, been great, but I was at a point where I could feel marathons didn’t really do much for me,” Schabort says. “Now when I get to a starting line or to a triathlon event, I feel the jitters in my stomach build up. It’s like the old days in marathons where I really felt nervous beforehand. I feel it more and that brings the excitement out for me, and if it does bring the excitement out I perform better. Because if there’s no nerves, there’s no performance. It’s like a training session.
“That is really great for me to have that again and feel like almost a renewed athlete, like the old days when I was young.”
In September, Schabort, a naturalized American who lost his legs as a young man while serving in his native South Africa’s army, has a chance to appear at his sixth Paralympic Games, but his first in paratriathlon, which is making its Paralympic debut this September at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I thought, ‘You know, if (paratriathlon is) going to be in Rio and there’s a chance, I’d like for one more Paralympic Games to go for,’” Schabort says.
Very, Very Intense
While paratriathlon races can range from super sprint to Ironman distances, the standard paratriathlon, and the one raced in Paralympic competition, is a sprint course, consisting of a 750-meter (about a half-mile) swim, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) of cycling or handcycling and 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) of running or using a racing wheelchair.
“The sprint distance is a very, very intense distance. You’re basically red-lining it from gun to finish,” Schabort says. “It’s just below a full-speed event for you to race.”
The International Triathlon Union (ITU) recognizes five classifications of paratriathletes, from PT1 which covers wheelchair users, PT2-4 which are varying degrees of impairment for ambulatory athletes and PT5 which includes the visually impaired.
The race components differ slightly for each, but the distances don’t. PT1 athletes “swim, cycle on a handbike and compete in a racing wheelchair for the run section.” PT2-4 athletes “ swim, cycle on a conventional bike with or without approved adaptations and run with or without the use of an approved prosthesis and/or supportive devices.” PT5 athletes “swim, ride a tandem cycle and run with a guide.”
“Swim, bike and run combined into one event sounds really overwhelming,” paratriathlete Mary Kate Callahan says. “But something about being able to swim, being able to run and being able to bike, it’s been something that — my training days are so different every day because I’m combining two of the three most days, sometimes all three. So I think that’s something that makes me love [para]triathlon that much more, because you’re not just swimming, you’re not just biking, you’re not just running, you’re doing all three. Every day you can get better in one of those aspects.”
Callahan was hooked as soon as she crossed the finish line of her first super sprint triathlon. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Callahan, who was paralyzed at a young age because of a virus entering her spine, had always been active and willing to try any sport, from wheelchair basketball and tennis to swimming, biking and skiing.
For Rio-bound PT2 athlete Allysa Seely, she loved triathlons even before she lost part of her left leg.
“I did my first triathlon my sophomore year in college … just fell in love with it and I couldn’t imagine my life without it now,” Seely says.
When neurological damage forced her leg to be amputated below the knee in 2013, she never doubted that she would get back to competing. She was talking about returning to triathlons before she left the hospital. It was all she would talk about, whether her doctors liked it or not.
In the years since, both women have become among the best paratriathletes in the world in their classifications. Callahan is currently ranked third in the ITU’s world rankings for her PT1 classification, while Seely is third in the world among those in PT2 and recently clinched her spot in Rio. Callahan has often shared podiums with another American, Kendall Gretsch from Wisconsin, the top-ranked PT1 athlete in the world.
Schabort was the top-ranked man in PT1 at the start of the 2016 season.
As Callahan says, training for such a demanding sport can involve multiple workouts a day focusing on different aspects of the race. Seely says she trains about 25 hours per week with an able-bodied triathlon group in Phoenix. Callahan is a student at the University of Arizona, where she trains with other adaptive athletes. Schabort and Callahan both acknowledge how wheelchair athletes need to be conscious of all the daily use their arms get in addition to their training.
“The muscle groups are a lot smaller. The recovery time’s a long time when you only use one muscle group for all three events,” Schabort says. “And that’s not only for all three events, it’s for day-to-day activity, getting out of the car, pushing yourself around. It’s hard, and to find that sweet spot between over-training your arms and under-training is not easy, so you have to know yourself well.”
While the Paralympic inclusion is a big moment, it’s not without its problems.
In a vote last October, the International Paralympic Committee pared down the classifications that would compete at the 2016 games. As early as 2013 they knew two classifications were going to be cut, but since athletes didn’t know which it would be, they all just kept working toward qualification. In July 2014, the first couple classes were announced, then in October 2014 came the final decision.
The full lineup of medal events in Rio will be PT1, PT2 and PT4 for the men and PT2, PT4 and PT5 for the women.
“That was a huge bummer,” Callahan says. “But I love the sport and I didn’t want to let that decision kind of scare me away from the sport, so that’s when I decided I was going to tackle Ironman.”
The ITU released a statement on its website at the time, saying, in part:
“While paratriathlon’s debut at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games is an exciting cornerstone moment for the sport, ITU hopes to include all five men’s and women’s sport classes on future Olympic programs.
“ITU would like to assure all paratriathletes that we will remain committed to both campaigning for the inclusion of all remaining sport classes in Tokyo 2020, as well as to their continued development at ITU paratriathlon events.”
The 2016 Summer Paralympics are clearly the next step for the sport. Since she won’t be there as a competitor, only a supporter, Callahan hopes there is still more to come. She knows plenty about helping change events in which she wants to participate.
In high school, Callahan’s lawsuit against the Illinois High School Association ended with a settlement that helped create events and accommodations for athletes with disabilities at the swimming state finals.
“It’s so exciting that it’s going to make its debut in Rio and even though none of the women in wheelchairs will be represented in Rio, we hope that they’ll reverse that decision for 2020. But, I mean, I’ve met so many great people over the course of training and racing, both in the U.S. and internationally, so I’m super excited for them to be able to have that chance to go to Rio,” Callahan says. “For the sport, it’s super exciting and it’s grown so much in the last four years that I’ve been participating, so I can’t even imagine how much it’s going to grow between now and 2020.”
For more information on the sport, visit rio2016.com/en/paralympics/triathlon.