I’m no stranger to volunteering. From Syracuse 70.3 to countless stints at Ironman Lake Placid, I’ve embraced the spirit of giving back to triathlon. After all, it’s given me so much, brought some phenomenal people into my life, and ultimately shaped who I am; the least I can do is peel off wetsuits and manage transition bags for a few hours. A few weeks ago, though, I had an unparalleled experience when I volunteered with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) at the New York City Triathlon.
Although several friends are involved with CAF and other likeminded non-profit organizations like Achilles, I had yet to volunteer for this type of group. The week of the race, my duties were routine: I emailed my athlete, exchanged phone numbers, and answered a few questions he had about traveling from the airport to his hotel. Some of my responsibilities centered on these logistical uncertainties—how to get from the hotel to transition, how early to leave the hotel on race morning, etc.—and since I sort of did the race in 2013, I was able to answer course-specific questions.
This is where “standard” volunteer duties ended and paratriathlete handler responsibilities began.
On Saturday, the day before the race, we met at the mandatory briefing, which was held in Midtown Manhattan. There was a separate presentation for paratriathletes and their handlers, and I did my best to absorb as much information as possible: the classifications, the scoring system, etc. We also reviewed rules and identified appropriate instances and protocol for an athlete asking for help, and we continued this conversation as we brought our athlete’s bikes to transition to Riverside Park.
Racing chair on the left (for the run) and handcycle on the right (for the bike)
There are several areas on the NYC Triathlon course that are not ideal for paratriathletes. Luckily, since both my fellow handler and I had done this race, we were able to pinpoint a few problematic points, and in some cases, we were able to scope them out. When our athlete arrived at these spots during the race itself, he had to clearly ask for assistance (i.e. “May I please have some help here?”) so he would not get DQ’ed for receiving unsolicited help. Anyway, after getting his handcycle and chair situated in transition, we talked through our race-day plan once more and agreed to meet the following morning at 5:30 a.m.
A unique aspect of the NYC Triathlon includes its transition setup: there are two (yellow and red) that run along the Hudson River, and your transition color dictates your swim wave. The yellow transition contained pro males and females, plus elite age groupers, all females, and a handful of dudes. After the final wave of the yellow transition was released into the Hudson, there was a 20-minute break, and then the paratriathletes were released at 7 a.m., which meant these folks had clear water. My fellow handler and I helped our athlete down the ramp to the swim start, and he simply exited his chair, and then we hightailed it 0.9 miles south to the swim exit and waited.
Now, I’ve worked swim exits many times. And yes, I am a total endurance sap who cries during every Ironman Lake Placid video. But I was on the verge of tears at the swim exit.
Watching these strong, capable, absolutely relentless individuals swim 1K was incredibly humbling and inspiring. All too often, we get caught up in the data, paces, and accolades we chase while pursuing the perfect race. We worry about minutia: which goggles to wear, which ring to be in on a hill, when to take a gel. We analyze metrics. We obsess over those 15 seconds we lost in transition. And we take it for granted.
I’ve taken race experiences for granted. But seeing my athlete navigate this race in his chair—pushing him up the steel swim ramp exit, lifting him in his chair up four steps into transition, helping him back into his chair after he fell due to pockets of sand in transition—instilled a new sense of gratitude in me. It also made me quite anxious. He entrusted me with parts of his race, and I wanted him to have the best day possible. This responsibility stressed me out—volunteering in this capacity allowed me to have a direct impact—but it gave me a greater emotional connection to his experience. And ultimately, this higher investment led to a greater “reward.”
If you have the opportunity to volunteer for one of these organizations, do not pass it up.