Erica Davis is the type of person who can't stand to be second.
Whether she's in a race or just training, if there's someone in front of her on the road or in the water, it drives her crazy.
So she had to chuckle recently when she was told by a coach that she needs to compete like “a predator,” because if anyone is like a stalking tiger or a hungry lion, it’s Erica Davis.
“I’m laughing, because that’s how I am,” she said recently from her home in Carlsbad, Calif. “If anyone’s in front of me, even in training, I want to catch them, even if they’re an able-bodied guy or whatnot. At least it will give me a good little sprint.”
The next test for Davis and her inner predator is Monday in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Paratriathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.
After winning the U.S. championship in May in her TRI-1 (wheelchair) category near Austin, Texas, Davis is eager to see how see fares against the world’s best paratriathletes. It will be her first event outside the United States.
“Coming to worlds, you can see who else is out there, where they’re at and where you compare against them,” said Davis, 31.
She’s studied the field and knows she will be going against a two-time world champion and another woman who just returned from the London 2012 Paralympic Games with a silver medal in hand cycling.
“It’s definitely going to be some competition out there,” Davis said. “Which just makes me go harder.”
Going hard, however, is Davis’ normal mode.
From the time she was a little girl, she remembers having an iron will and a drive to beat all comers. As a kid she was constantly outside and active, and was running 5ks in the fourth grade. In high school, she played varsity volleyball, basketball, softball and flag football, and she credits her competitive spirit to her family.
“I think partly having two parents who were athletic themselves and having two brothers who were and are athletic,” she said. “And just being the tomboy that I am, and always wanting to do adventurous stuff, is just my personality. I grew up playing with boys and sports rather than foursquare with the girls. It made me tough.”
That attitude has served her well as an athlete and in her life.
In 2005, Davis became paralyzed from the waist down when a blood vessel — that was part of an abnormal cluster of vessels (a condition called cavernous hemangioma) — ruptured and caused damage to her spinal cord.
Davis was determined to continue leading an active life, and within six months of losing her ability to walk, she competed in a wheelchair race. In 2007, she signed up for a triathlon, a sport she had competed in previously as an able-bodied athlete.
“I had done triathlon before, and I got the itch,” she said. “I liked it.”
Since then — except for a couple of years when she was sidelined with an injury — Davis has thrown herself into paratriathlon. Along with winning the national championship in May and earning a spot on the U.S. team in New Zealand, Davis also finished second in the physically challenged open division at the ITU World Triathlon event in San Diego.
She’s also challenged herself in other ways. In 2010, for instance, she became the first woman in a wheelchair to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak. Davis often works with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and one day she got a call from a woman she knows at CAF who asked if she’d be interested in going.
Davis talked to the group, decided to go for it and had the experience of a lifetime. She had assistance, as members of the group helped her over rough spots, but she pushed her way up the mountain in her chair.
“It was so awe inspiring,” she said. “An amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip.”
The trek was documented in the film, “Through the Roof,” a project to benefit the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Now Davis is eager to achieve short- and long-term goals as a paratriathlete.
Her short-term goal is to test herself in these world championships — and greatly improve her time of 1:45:57 from this year’s U.S. championships. Long term, she has her eyes on competing in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, when paratriathlon will make its debut. An even longer-term goal is to do the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon — a race she put on her “someday itinerary” when she took up the sport as an able-bodied athlete.
She said her time at the national championships in May was disappointing but understandable considering the tires on her racing chair were under-inflated when she took off on the final portion of the sprint-distance race (750-meter swim, 20k bike with a hand cycle and 5k run portion in a wheelchair).
Still, it was good enough on that day in May, and as she crossed the finish line with a national championship and a trip to New Zealand secured she raised her right arm in triumph — something she says she’d never done before.
Now Davis has four years to bear down, improve and try to make the U.S. Paralympic team for 2016.
She’s grateful her sport has been adopted for the Games, because it gives her a chance to fulfill a dream.
Sometimes she does motivational speaking, and often talks to children in elementary school.
“I ask, ‘How many of you want to be in the Olympics?’ ” she said. “The ones who are honest will raise their hands. I always wanted to be in the Olympics. Now, in a different way, I have the chance to do it.”