How paratriathlon became an Olympic sport for the first time
PARATRIATHLON is making its Paralympic debut this weekend at the Rio Games, with six Aussie athletes vying to take their own place in history racing as the first Paralympic Medals are decided in the water off Copacabana beach and on Atlantic Avenue beneath Christ the Redeemer.
As Australia's first female Para triathlete and Paratriathlon medallist, I know first hand the journey this group of elite triathletes has travelled adapting their equipment, training and technique to put them amongst the best in the world.
Imagine having to recruit and train competitors who could potentially beat you, all in a quest to have your sport included in the Paralympic Games.
That was the journey I was part of over the past seven years helping to ensure Paratriathlon met the criteria to be included in the Paralympics.
There had to be depth of competition in each classification, from each gender and region in the world competing in a regular series of events with stringent rules and classification. While I'm not competing due to injury I'm proud of how far the sport has come.
Athletes will contest a sprint distance triathlon, swim for 750 metres, cycle or handcycle for 20 kilometres and run or push a racing wheelchair for five kilometres.
Paratriathlon is open to athletes in six different classifications - athletes in the PT1 classification use a hand cycle to complete the bike leg and racing wheelchair for the run, while athletes with vision impairment compete on a tandem bicycle, and are tethered to a guide during the run. But as a new sport with just six medal events on offer (three male and three female) not all classes and genders have an event in Rio.
When triathlon was announced as a Paralympic sport in 2010, Rio Team member Katie Kelly had not lost her sight let alone met triathlon legend Olympic Silver medalist Michele Jones who will be her guide in Rio.
The opportunity for athletes like Kelly to compete is a result of a decade long effort culminating in the sports inclusion in 2010.
One year before the announcement that two new sports would be added for Rio, Australia's top placed competitor Bill Chaffey, who came 4th in the men's pt1 event in Rio overnight, was powering to the first of five world championship gold's at his home games on the Gold Coast.
I was also competing- but in the age group division ticking an item off my bucket list to 'do a triathlon.' The idea was dreamed up while bedbound with an injury for six months following the Beijing Paralympics.
My introduction to the sport was haphazard to say the least, as being a trailblazer and only one in the country starting at the same time as Bill I had to one to ask for help.
A triathlon consists of three legs- swim, cycle and run.
I soon discovered it should be called a quintuplon- as there's two extra 'sports' not mentioned- the two transitions.
For a wheelchair user transition one is a logistical brainteaser.
First there's the need to get across sand without being able to walk through shallows or get bogged to reach your handcycle, then needing to laydown to wrestle out of a clingy wetsuit, which requires assistance- with the only location available being the grass in transition.
Finally then one must get from the ground or day wheelchair into the handcyle ensuring your helmet is on and that the wider turning circuit required you don't collide with able-bodied cyclists walking bikes out of transition.
Time taken for this time counts to your total race result time.
Transition two was equally entertaining, getting from the handcycle to the racing wheelchair, which requires a kneeling position and laying facedown to the road.
Some athletes who can walk simply stand up and stride between the two. I had to transfer from bike to my regular wheelchair before entering the race chair from behind.
My initial training consisted of copious hours spent scouring the internet for YouTube clips or articles about international athletes, and purchasing any biographies I could get my hands on to gain insight into the world of paratriathlon.
Not to mention paralysed legs being dragged out to sea in currents or summersaulting me upside down like I was in a washing machine.
In one early open water swim I was (I'm not proud to admit) retrieved from the same rip three times by lifesavers before making is safely ashore and learning the required technique.
I bought a second hand (far too small as it turned out) un-used racing wheelchair from a child's garage and taught myself how to 'run' by googling how to push a racing wheelchair because I couldn't find a coach.
I quickly worked out using a water bottle was out, considering I needed my arms to push and my hands were contained in what looks like fingerless boxing gloves to get purchase o the push rims.
Solution- I installed a camel back and tubing system. After a little practice and was set to race.
I made it through that first triathlon out of pure mental grit and a dogged determination to never give up rather than any actual skill.
It was the first time triathlon Australia had included a wheelchair athlete in the able bodied event (being a first timer I hardly saw it fit to attempt to race the elite paratriathlon category) so no guidelines were in place.
My first discovery was the challenge of getting across the sand and through breaking waves into water to swim (everyone else ran from the beach).
Fortunately some volunteers knew me from my swimming days and carried me across the sand into an rubber ducky where I jumped off the side to the start.
There were some logistical issues, such as my mum not being allowed into transition to assist me transferring between equipment or removing my wetsuit or retrieve my wheelchair for me to use at the end of the run, and turns too steep to navigate in a racing chair without coming to a dead stop.
Fortunately these were resolved with lengthy 'diplomatic' discussions with well meaning officials.
Now it is standard for pt1 athletes in the wheelchair class to be allowed two handlers wearing identification vests, who train with the athlete rehearsing lifting from chair to equipment and removing wetsuit to get the fastest time possible.
But as the sport started out in Australia, Bill, myself and a growing bunch of others we roped in competed in able bodied races around Australia and figured things out as we went.
Its early 2010 and as I emerge from the water in the arms of two handlers who are carrying me across the sand to my waiting wheelchair I gasp in horror- my wetsuit and bikini bottoms have floated away leaving me bare- exactly at the moment the announcer choses to declare "ladies and gentlemen turn your attention to the water where Paralympian Marayke Jonkers is heading to transition."
I am making history as the first Para triathlete to compete in the QLD State championships, alongside able-bodied competitors.
This was step one in my quest to qualify for the world championships in Budapest, where I hoped to become Australia's first female paratriathlon competitor and ultimately won bronze- becoming Australia's first female paratriathlon medallist at a world championship.
But first I needed to buy a better wetsuit- the idea of swim tights and triathlon singlet has not worked.
I settle on a two-piece wetsuit and keep the bottom on during cycles and runs. This was faster in transition and I don't need to use my legs.
Next race I find myself flat on my back like an upturned beetle strapped to my racing chair with the front wheel pointed to the sky in the Kingscliff triathlon, at Bill's suggestion, watching him fly up a hill.
Lesson learned: these racing wheelchairs are tippy and I have to either get my head down to lower my centre of gravity, zig zag or even go up backwards if the hill is steep enough.
Eventually I qualify for the Nationals in Canberra.
I (of course) win the race as the only female competitor- but the organisers have no medal for female paratriathlon and present me with a bouquet of flowers.
I never claim to be national champion, as lets face it, where's the honour in winning because you're the only one in the event!
A year to the day after my first triathlon I competed in the world Championships in Budapest (exactly six years ago today), by now with an international classification and a training regime covering six days a week in the pool, followed by training in a shopping centre car park at night after work on my bike or racing chair (to avoid getting hit on the roads) or on a stationary wind trainer and rollers in front of my television.
I even bought a comp trainer, which connected via a laptop to the television displaying scenery such as hills or flats and applied appropriate resistance. Weekends were resaved for longer outdoor cycle and brick sessions.
The experience of the world coming together in Budapest pushing for Paralympic inclusion was extraordinary.
When I crossed the finish line I was congratulated by not an Australian, but the British head coach of my rival, who promptly found my regular wheelchair and helped me transfer.
Throughout the race from fellow competitors there was constant shouts from me of go USA or others GO AUSSIE as we all fought to win the common goal of Paralympic inclusion.
Burned into my memory forever is the moment when I found my training partner Darron, who was a triathlete before becoming a paraplegic and watched me compete. This was his first full triathlon using a handcycle and racing wheelchair. Embracing to celebrate his achievement in the cold and mud was as good as any Paralympic medal I've ever won.
The other highlight is the truly inclusive nature of the sport.
We competed at the same world championships on the same course as the able bodied athletes.
Wandering around and lining up to register with superstars like the Brownlee Brothers was surreal.
As was the moment I came up behind an age grouper with 70 on his arm- no way is I getting beaten by an older man I thought, I'm a Paralympian.
Later after the race he tracked me down - a girl in a wheelchair couldn't beat him!
This was a sport recognising effort from beginner to elite where success doesn't always mean a medal and people around the globe form a family embracing one another as they push through torrential rain, blasting sunlight and equipment failures to find the true limits of human potential…everyone saw ability not my disability - my bike just happened to have three wheels instead of two.
In my 20 years of involvement in para sport this medal and experience is one of my fondest memories.
Even if it did cost $1500 in excess baggage just for my racing chair and handcycle alone, and I had to fund the trip myself through fundraising.
That Paralympic announcement came late one night as athletes around the world conversed via Facebook and refreshed our screens for the International Paralympic Committees news page awaiting which of the four potential new sports were in. Finally it was announced paratriathlon and Para canoe.
Since that announcement Australian paratriathlon has become a truly elite sport with a high performance manager, coaches and support.
There is information available from state bodies and even dedicated national championships.
Australia has a high performance programs and a pathway for beginner athletes. To qualify to represent Australia in elite races such as the world championships you must earn enough ranking points from world championship series events around the world.
I was fortunate enough to commentate at a world championship series event held on the Sunshine Coast last year.
Our athletes train with the state and national academies of sport and will never experience the comedy of errors us first paratriathletes did just to race- but it's that crazy experience that has me so excited to watch them race on Sunday. The sport has come of age.
Team Australian in Rio:
PT1 Men - Nic Beveridge (9th), Bill Chaffey (4th)
PT2 Men - Brant Garvey
PT4 Women - Claire Mclean, Kate Doughty
PT5 Women: Katie Kelly
Our men raced valiantly last night AEST, with 5 time PT1 world champion Bill Chaffey just pipped at the post placing 4th with the historic gold in the pt1 event (for athletes who use a wheelchair & handcycle). Fellow Pt1 Australian competitor Nick Beverage who was inspired to take up the sport gave his all in the race of his life to place 9th. Jetze Plat of the Netherlands took the PT1 title at Copacabana beach with countryman Geert Schipper taking silver, Italy's Giovanni Achenza third and Chaffey fourth.
Despite being disappointed with the result, Bill said it will make him more hungry."I don't think I can have my only Paralympic race as a fourth position, so I've got to come back," Chaffey said.
But it was PT2 athlete Brant Garvey who exemplified the spirit of this sport saying " it's not whether you win but how you race," and so despite damaging a muscle in his good luck after leaving the swim in 2nd place the single leg amputee battled on through the run showing true grit to make the finish line grimacing in pain but having made history completing the first ever Paralympic Paratriathlon.
Sometimes winning doesn't always mean crossing the finish line first, neither does making history.
How the classifications work:
PT1: Wheelchair users. Athletes must use a recumbent handcycle on the bike course and a racing wheelchair on the run segment.
PT2: Athletes with limb loss, cerebral palsy or brain injury, nerve damage, joint restrictions or other. Athletes ride bicycles and may use prosthesis or other support.
PT3: Athletes with limb loss, cerebral palsy or brain injury, nerve damage, joint restrictions or other. Athletes ride bicycles and may use prosthesis or other support.
PT4: Athletes with limb loss, cerebral palsy or brain injury, nerve damage, joint restrictions. Athletes ride bicycles and may use prosthesis or other support.
PT5: Athletes with a vision Impairment with less than 6/60 visual acuity or 40 degrees visual field (diameter) in best eye with best corrected vision. Athletes are tethered during the swim and run and use a tandem bicycle. A guide or handler of the same sex is mandatory throughout the race.
Read more from Marayke on her website.