Paratriathlon: Athletes guiding the way to Rio glory

By Helen MurrayBBC Sport
The athletes helping others win gold

When Paratriathlon makes its debut at the 2016 Paralympicsexternal-link in Rio de Janeiro, there will be a small group of athletes who won't be out to race for themselves.

These triathletes often don't even have their surname printed on their triathlon suit.

Yet, they will work tirelessly to ensure their visually impaired team-mate crosses the line safely.

"It's very satisfying knowing you are helping someone else achieve their dream and something they couldn't achieve without you," guide Jenny Manners told BBC Sport.

In the PT5 category for blind and visually impaired competitors, athletes and guides swim 750m together, side by side, tethered by the ankle.

They go through transition together before completing the 20km bike leg on a tandem, then tether again with an elastic cord for the 5km run to the finish.

Manners, who guided Alison Patrick to victory at the 2014 ITU World Championship, says preparation and communication are key to a successful race.

"You have to know the course really well because Alison can't see a lot during the race, so I have to tell her as much as I can what is going on," she said.

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"On the swim, I tap Alison on the head when we are turning a corner and she will know from beforehand which way we are turning, then as soon as we are out of the swim I can talk to her."

Manners, who also competes in able-bodied races, says the biggest challenge when she started guiding was learning to ride and handle a tandem, which can reach speeds of around 30mph.

"It's quite different to a solo bike," the 24-year-old said. "You can't lean much and you can't get out of the saddle because it's a heavier bike, so doing corners and going uphill takes the most practice."

But, before they even get on the tandem, the pair have to negotiate the transition from swim to bike.

"It needs to be coordinated and there is no point in one of us being really ready before the other one is, we need to be doing it together," said Patrick, who was recruited from an athletics background in 2013.

"We would practice it loads in the car park in Canada, just to make sure it was going to be slick.

"We even talked it through again in our heads before the race about which side we would run up and which leg we would step over with."

The former track runner, who struggles to see well in bright lights, says having someone alongside her on the start line takes away some of the pre-race nerves and provides extra motivation in the run.

"Having that person there, you know they will help get you through it, no matter what," she said. "Equally, you don't want to let them down because they have helped you out so much. You'd hope it was their goal and their dream, as well as yours."

Rio 2016 Paralympic triathlon classes:
PT1 - Wheelchair users. Athletes use a recumbent handcycle on the bike course and a racing wheelchair on the run segment.
PT2 - Athletes with comparable activity limitation and an impairment of, but not limited to, limb deficiency, hypertonia, ataxia and or athethosis, impaired muscle power or range of movement. In both bike and run segments, amputee athletes may use approved prosthesis or other supportive devices.
PT4 - As above with less severe impairment.
PT5 - Total or partial visual impairment. Competes with a guide.

However, the 27-year-old from Livingston says it has been difficult to find good guides to race with her.

"I got a few guys to do it in local races, but at the elite level, you need a female.

"And to try to find a female who can swim faster than you, bike faster than you and run faster than you is really difficult because they do have to be able to talk with you all of the time, so it can't be a hard race for them."

Manners admits the standard has got better during the three years she has been involved and more elite guides are now needed to push the sport forward.

"They didn't have a selection process at the time when I started, it was a case of 'if you can run as fast and cycle quite well then you can be a guide'," she said.

"But the standard has improved a lot and it's continuing to improve and they will need to have quick enough guides."

The tether used to link a paratriathlete and their guide together

After confirmation that the women's PT5 category will be included in the Paratriathlon programme at the Rio Paralympics, British Triathlon has started a recruitment campaign to find more female guides.external-link

"We want to put the very best athlete with the very best guide. If we do that well, we would hope that the outcome in Rio is a positive one," said Jonathon Riall, the performance manager for British Triathlon's Paralympic programme.

"We have the best two females in the world and we've just taken on a third female who has a history within Paralympic swimming and cycling, so we feel that we could go out in 2015 and hopefully in 2016 and potentially have the best three females in the world, which is a very exciting prospect."

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