Paratriathlon's popularity is skyrocketing. Last year there were more than 350 triathlon race starts by paratriathletes in the UK, an increase of an astonishing 500 per cent on the 2006 race season. And these numbers probably underestimate total participation as they record only those athletes who registered their disability, says Julian Wills, Paratriathlon Manager with the British Triathlon Federation.
And that's not all: Britain's top paratriathletes are chalking up impressive performance gains. Compare some of the times at the Corus Disabled Triathlon Championships for 2008 and 2009, held over the usual sprint distance of 750m swim, 20K bike and 5K run: Tom Perkins (Tri 5 - see overleaf for the full British Triathlon classification system for people with disabilities) shaved two minutes off his time to finish in 1:17; James Smith (Tri 4) improved by nine minutes, with a time of 1:24, and Paul Thomas (Tri 6) slashed more than 15 minutes from his 2008 time to cross the line in 1:47. Something is definitely happening.
An increasing number of disabled athletes are relishing the diverse challenges that triathlon provides. "I love it," says Jimmy Goddard, 2009 British Champion in the Tri 3 category. "I think I'd get bogged down and bored if I stuck to just one discipline. Triathlon's great because it's a new sport and I'm growing with it."
Goddard, who also races hand cycles in Europe, and in 2006 climbed Mt Kilimanjaro in his wheelchair, has big ambitions in triathlon. "Short term, I'm aiming at podium finishes at the World and European Championships," he says. "Long term, I'd like a Paralympic gold medal."
Goddard will have to stay on top of his game for at least another seven years to achieve that goal. Triathlon became an Olympic sport in 2000, but paratriathlon has not yet achieved the same status and will not be part of the 2012 London Paralympics. If all goes to plan, however, triathlon could be included in the 2016 Paralympics and may be a demonstration sport in 2012. "These are hugely exciting times for paratriathlon," says Wills. "We've come from virtually nowhere a few years ago to serious contenders for inclusion in 2016."
The procedure for the sport becoming a Paralympic event involves demonstrating sufficient interest and participation. "It's a lengthy process," says Wills, "but we're delighted with the progress we've made."
If and when triathlon becomes a Paralympic event, British athletes should expect a good haul of medals. At the 2008 World Championships in Vancouver, both Melanie Easter and Graham Kiff won gold, and at the 2009 European Championships British paratriathletes dominated, bringing home three gold, two silver and three bronze medals.These impressive results are a reflection of both hard training by the athletes and the efforts of the British Triathlon Federation, race organisers and triathlon clubs around the country.
Britain's top paratriathletes certainly work for their success. Sara Butler, 2009 British Champion in the Tri 7 category, trains for 11 hours each week, squeezed between work and a long commute. Goddard does seven or eight training sessions each week. "This might not be as much as top age-group athletes but, as
all the training I do involves my upper body, I have to make sure I allow adequate time for recovery," he says.
Successful training requires strict planning and preparation. Wheelchair and other disabled athletes may also have a heightened susceptibility to infection and must be doubly careful with rest and nutrition in order to stay healthy. "I believe a weekly rest day is vital," says Goddard.
Join the club
Butler attempted her first triathlon in 2008, thanks to Project VIper. This initiative, launched by Mark Stride,
a triathlete and Managing Director with Standard Chartered Bank, which sponsors it, is designed to encourage visually impaired athletes to take up the sport). "I'm completely hooked," says Butler, adding that she especially enjoys hurtling downhill on the back of a tandem. "I hadn't been on a bike for years until I started doing triathlons. I absolutely adore it."
One highlight of Butler's triathlon experience to date has been the support of Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club. "I've been really welcomed into the club," she says. "I love training with everyone else and feeling part of the crowd."
Clubs play a vital role in promoting triathlon to potential paratriathletes. "Most triathlon clubs would be accessible to and supportive of paratriathletes," says Wills. "Unfortunately, they often fail to advertise this." The British Triathlon Federation runs an accreditation scheme for triathlon clubs and can advise on improving accessibility to venues and, if needed, provide special training for coaches. Working with disabled athletes has, in any case, become part of the syllabus on courses for gaining a Level 2 Certificate in Coaching Triathlon. Geoff Moyes, who coaches Butler, says the key skill is to be aware of people's needs. "It's mainly a case of making reasonable and usually simple adjustments. For example, working with Sara, I know some of our run routes would be more challenging for her in certain lighting situations, so
I avoid them on those days."
Moyes also believes in asking athletes what they need to make a particular training session successful. "I ask people what their strengths and weaknesses are," he says, "and keep an open mind on possible solutions to issues."
However, it's not enough for clubs to assume they can make the necessary changes if and when a disabled person joins their club. "Approaching a triathlon club can be a daunting experience for anyone and it can be a huge barrier to disabled athletes," says Wills. "It's far better for clubs to break down this barrier and welcome newcomers by assuring them that they'll be catered for. Triathlon clubs should be shouting about their accessibility."
Race organisers can do their bit, too. "The biggest thing is to remove the fear factor," says Wills. "In practice, this often simply requires some thinking and forward planning, rather than large financial commitments." For example, some swims require an exit and re-entry halfway through. This has its attraction from a spectator's point of view but is a disaster for wheelchair users.
Goddard is annoyed by grass in the run section. "Crossing a field in a racing chair can really mess you up," he says. He'd also like to see wheelchair users separated from runners at crowded races. "A racing chair is typically faster than your average age-grouper," he says, "and it's hard to race another wheelchair user if you're constantly slowing to avoid runners."
For Butler the key requirements are additional space in transition (because of the tandem she uses) and awareness from other athletes. "I swim with a guide, my friend Kylee Goode," she says. "We use a dog lead with a collar at each end attached to our knees. If anyone comes between us, they're likely to get kicked in the neck." Simple measures such as wearing different-coloured swim caps and a brief announcement by the organiser at the swim start can make all the difference.
There is plenty that we as individual triathletes can do to improve the accessibility of the sport, from volunteering at events to guiding visually impaired athletes. The latter is a tough but rewarding job. Ben Shaw guided Chris Goodwin to his win at the British Championships earlier this year. "You've got to be able to talk and race at the same time - and that's not easy when you're guiding someone as fast as Chris," says Shaw.
Shaw has been competing in triathlon since 1997 and has a 10-hour Ironman finish to his name, but he felt he'd lost focus and couldn't improve further. "Guiding Chris has given me a huge incentive to train again and a totally different take on the sport," he says. "I've got a lot out of triathlon over the past 10 years and it's good to put something back."
So what qualities does a guide need? "Ideally, the guide needs to be 10 to 20 per cent faster than the athlete," says Shaw, who found this out the hard way in his first race with Goodwin, a 10K run. "I'd been working hard and neglecting my training, so I had to ask Chris to slow down."
Secondly, the guide needs to be able to maintain a constant commentary on the race: "Not only does Chris like to know how fast he's going, I also have to warn him of every bump and turn in the road and look out for his competitors."
Finally, the guide needs to remember whose race it is. "It's hard as I get very emotionally involved in the race, and on the bike I'm part of the engine," says Shaw, "but I have to put on a totally unselfish head – it's not my race. I also have to remember I'm not a coach. I give Chris the information but he determines the tactics."
Triathlon is a demanding sport but it is also wonderfully accessible. Goddard, who entered his first event in an ordinary wheelchair, urges potential paratriathletes not to be put off: "Just beg, borrow and cobble together whatever you can find and do it. You can always invest in expensive kit later on if you like it."
The Class System
The British Triathlon Federation's classification system for people with disabilities
The nine-level classification system is based on athletes’ differing abilities.
Tri 1-6 Physical impairment, where Tri 1 is the most severe.
Tri 7 Visually impaired
Tri 8 Learning difficulties
Tri 9 Hearing impaired
Different rules apply to each class, depending on the athletes’ needs. For example, wheelchair users are allowed two helpers in transition. They complete the bike section on a hand cycle, which has gears like a pedal cycle, and switch to an ungeared racing chair for the ‘run’. Visually impaired athletes compete with a guide throughout, complete the bike section on a tandem and can have one additional helper in transition.
The British Triathlon Federation works with a team of national classifiers who assign athletes to the different categories. However, Wills points out that classification should not be seen as a barrier to entry or a prerequisite to competition. “At the local level we simply encourage people to take part,” he says, “but we would advise them to complete a statement of declaration so that race organisers can be prepared.”
Finally, the British Triathlon Federation is available to point any potential paratriathlete towards the appropriate clubs and events to ensure they get the best possible introduction to triathlon (see below).
Who to contact
- Individuals, clubs and race organisers requiring more information on improving accessibility should contact Julian Wills, the British Triathlon Federation's Paratriathlon Manager at firstname.lastname@example.org.