Why para triathlon?
The people- the athletes, the officials, the challenge.
Amy Dixon, a 45-year-old elite para triathlete representing the USA (PTVI Women), is visually impaired, has been racing on the international circuit since 2014 and competed in the recent Paralympic Games in 2020. Dixon was 22 years of age when she began losing her eyesight from a rare autoimmune disease called uveitis, the same disease that ended up taking away 98% of her vision has also turned most of the last year into an incredibly challenging one. Getting to the start line in Tokyo had immense physical and mental challenges. Dixon was in the hospital last year, in the intensive care unit to start her season. It could be considered a miracle that Dixon qualified and competed at the Paralympic Games since she had blood clots in her lungs, 45 pounds of fluid retention with no relief, injuries, 5 surgeries on her shoulder, eyes and abdomen and having to go through weekly chemotherapy, even two days before she competed in Tokyo. Her goal for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo was to cross the line healthy and happy.
Dixon runs an annual camp for blind athletes, to introduce them to para triathlon and she is also testing herself in track cycling to see if she might be able to qualify and compete in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.
World Triathlon recently caught up with Dixon to discuss her career in para triathlon, Paralympic experience and to go beyond what we may already know about the US para triathlete.
I’m originally from a town north of New York City called Pound Ridge. I grew up swimming and riding horses on our small farm and competing in both jumping and swimming. I lived in NY and Connecticut most of my life and started losing my sight in college while working at night in the wine business as a sommelier.
When and how did you find sport in your life?
Sports were always a part of my life as horses were my passion and swimming was an escape. We had a backyard pool at home and I was on the swim team in the summers and at school during the winter months. I also played soccer as a goalie because ironically I hated to run. Little did I know it was because I had asthma and breathing made running fast very difficult. I was also an accomplished tennis player in school and played both singles and doubles.
How did you find para triathlon?
My disease is degenerative and the only treatment at the time I was diagnosed was high-dose steroids, which caused me to gain 75 pounds. I began swimming, as it was the safest for me to do with my diminished sight, then eventually biking indoors and running on a treadmill. Someone through social media suggested I try a triathlon, and I was immediately hooked. My time was fast enough to earn recognition from USA Para Triathlon, who invited me to my first Talent ID Camp.
Can you tell us about what it’s like being in Team USA?
Honestly, I get MORE excited for my teammates racing than I do my own. There’s something about feeling invested in someone else’s outcome that makes you so excited for them. I know most of my teammates really well and we each have challenging backgrounds and circumstances that have had to do with our disabilities. Infections, injuries, raising children while training, loss of funding and so many other obstacles. Watching them cross the line, knowing all that we have gone through during the pandemic to get to the starting line was just a triumphant moment for each of us.
How was your preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games?
Honestly, awful and good at the same time. I was in the hospital last year in the intensive care unit to start my season with blood clots in both of my lungs. I developed an Infarct in my right lung and lost 25% of my lung capacity. I gained 11kg from fluid retention and it made training very hard and made me prone to injuries in my hips and calves. I spent tens of thousands of dollars in physio treatment to even be able to qualify for Tokyo. I knew I would not finish well. My entire goal was to be safe and happy when I crossed the line.
What does a general week look like?
Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday are swim and run. Monday is speed work for run and Friday tempo/swims are aerobic except Wednesday. Saturday I have a technical swim. Tuesday/ Thursday / Saturday is bike and gym session. In between, I have an average of 3 doctor appointments per week either in person or video and lots of physio treatment; massage, lymphatic drainage, active release technique and acupuncture. Followed that by sponsor meetings or speaking obligations, for the eye disease companies I’m partnered with, it makes for a busy week.
What was the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic experience like?
I was honored to be there and excited for my teammates. The Japanese volunteers felt like extended family. They made signs for us, cheered loudly, brought us gifts each day at swim practice. It was so sweet to have such a warm welcome each day and made it really special for us.
What goes into a para triathlete/guide relationship?
Communication. Lots of it. Also, lots of time together traveling and training allows you to get to know each other really well. Kirsten plays coach, psychologist, friend and teammate all at once. She’s an amazing athlete and person!
Who makes up your support team?
Guide- Kirsten Sass,
Coach- Ken Axford of Colorado Springs
Physio- Ciaran Lane
Massage- Erynn Hill and Jeff Lacson
Strength coach- Oliver Rix
Acupuncturist- Michelle Vlahakis
Dietitian- Emilie Burgess
Sports Psychologist- Riley Nickols
Reflecting on 2021, what have been the highs and lows?
The highs were the day I qualified for Tokyo in Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin. Considering I was undergoing chemotherapy this year for my disease and the fact that I couldn’t run at all on land due to injury even up to race day, it was a miracle that I qualified and a testament to my coach’s careful guidance to get me there as fit as possible. The lows were the blood clot in my lungs, 45 pounds of fluid retention with no relief, the injuries, 5 surgeries on my shoulder and eyes and abdomen and having to go through weekly chemo, even two days before I raced in Tokyo, in order to be healthy enough to race at all. There were mornings I needed help to get out of bed as recently as June, so I was grateful I could even dress myself and do any exercise at all due to the pain.
Pad Thai noodles the night before.
Writing a mantra in black sharpie marker on my left arm.
Giving my tandem bike, “Bomber” a pep talk on race morning and wishing her mechanical luck.
Hugging Kirsten at the start line and telling her how much I love and appreciate her.
Pad Thai noodles the night before and rice, boiled eggs and a soy latte race morning.
What lies ahead?
I am working with several eye disease companies now on the pharma and biotech side doing patient education. I want to be a patient advocate at a major eye hospital here in San Diego. I run a camp for blind athletes each year to introduce them to triathlon and I can’t wait to get the next one going. I am doing a little track cycling to see if I would be competitive in Paris (2024 Paralympic Games), and keeping my foot in the door in para triathlon if my health comes around this off-season and I can once again be healthy enough to be my former competitive self.
What or who do you draw strength from?
I surround myself with amazing women who I train with, who inspire me. Also, my teammates have been so supportive this year with all of my physical and mental health challenges leading up to the Games. I could not have done it without their support. I have a great sports psych, who I meet with weekly and he helps quite a bit. I always try to have a mindset of gratitude. I feel lucky to be able to do this sport at this level for so long.
Why para triathlon?
The people- the athletes, the officials, the challenge.