Israel Antonio is guided by Dan Tun on the tandem bike during the ITU World Paratriathlon Chicago Media Event demonstration on May 15, 2014.
CHICAGO — Next summer, the world’s top paratriathletes will arrive in Chicago for the 2015 ITU World Championships, a race that will be used as a qualifier for the sport’s Paralympic debut at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Local athletes Israel Antonio, Melissa Stockwell and Diana Helt hope to be among 60 elite paratriathletes who will get a test-run of the course on June 28 at the ITU World Paratriathlon Chicago. The paratriathlon is the first event of the ITU World Triathlon Chicago weekend that will also feature an ITU World Triathlon Series race with top Olympic-distance triathletes.
“The city of Chicago and the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities looks forward to this outstanding opportunity to not just only showcase our world-class city and all it has to offer,” commissioner Karen Tamley said at a news conference Thursday, “but the performances of all athletes competing in ITU World Triathlon who will make Chicago and its community of people with disabilities proud.”
That event, which will have Chicago-based Dare2Tri Paratriathlon Club as the presenting sponsor, will be just a part of Antonio’s journey from what he called an “also-ran” competitor to one of the best.
It’s a journey that’s brought him a lot of pride.
As a teenager, Antonio lost his sight practically overnight.
Despite not experiencing any head trauma, his retinas detached over a period of about six to eight weeks before he woke up one morning with an orange tint in his eye. Then 14, Antonio underwent a surgery that had a 96 percent chance of success in saving his vision. He was one of the four percent, and a speedy athlete had lost his sight.
“I guess it was just luck of the draw,” Antonio said.
Now 37, Antonio is an elite athlete and eager to compete on his home turf next month. Last year, he won a national title in the Tri6A class. He will be competing in the PT5 (total or partial visual impairment) class at the race in Chicago.
“I was talking to somebody about it this morning,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who have accomplished a lot in their lifetime, and yet those people — people who I admire, those people who are people I look up to — and yet they say watching my journey from also-ran to elite has inspired them.”
That isn’t exactly why Antonio wanted to do what he is now. He wanted to continue to be athletic and experience competition, but more has come out of it both for him and others around him.
“Honestly, I never set out to be an inspiration,” he said. “I just wanted to pursue things, but that’s the beauty of trying to live my life is, I don’t know how I’m going to touch people.
“So the fact that people that I admire can turn to me and say, ‘Wow, you’ve inspired me to go learn the violin,’ or ‘Going back and getting my master’s degree just because what you do in racing challenging yourself,’ that means a lot to me.”
For Antonio, competition is also a way for him to challenge himself. He credits coach Jenna Parker, a champion professional triathlete, with bringing him to where he is now.
Experiencing her reaction to his national title last year, Antonio said, was as satisfying to him as anything.
“It was having my coach Jenna in tears over what I had accomplished,” Antonio said. “That meant more to me than actually winning the medal — was gaining her respect in that sense.”
Antonio could have the chance to gain a berth in an even bigger race next year: the 2016 Paralympic Games. There will be three medal events for men and women in Rio, with 10 athletes in each field. The three champions from each gender at the world championships will earn their country one spot for the Games.
“We’re looking forward to it,” said Franzi Petermann, the managing director of ITU World Triathlon Chicago. “Looking forward to seeing some really, really good racing, and then hopefully some of these guys that are here in the room with us … you guys get your home advantage, can test out the course and then really go big next year and make the team.”
That would certainly be special for Antonio, but that would just be another step for him in competition. He spoke Thursday about running against full-sighted athletes when he was in high school and how he “felt normal again.”
Next month, he’ll take another step and compete at the same level as stars such as Stockwell, a three-time ITU paratriathlon world champion, and U.S. paratriathlon bronze medalist Helt, in their mutual hometown.
“To be able to say that I’m at their level — all thanks to my coach, Jenna — it just means a lot to me,” Antonio said. “The fact I go from losing my eyesight overnight thinking I’ll never play sports again, to now I’m on a national and world stage and doing so right in Chicago.”
Brian Sandalow is a writer from Chicago. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.