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With Paralympic Classes Set, Triathletes Eager For Shot At Rio

By Doug Williams | Oct. 15, 2014, 10:30 a.m. (ET)

Patricia Walsh
Patricia Walsh, shown at the world championships, will have her classification, women's PT5 — for visually impaired athletes, contested when triathlon debuts at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.   

Mark Barr, Melissa Stockwell and Patricia Walsh all are ecstatic that the door has been opened for them to compete in paratriathlon at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

When they learned about the recent decision by the International Paralympic Committee to add their competition classifications to the lineup — completing the six medal categories in paratriathlon’s Games debut — it was an answer to years of hope.

After so much work and success at national and world events, they’re all eager to get the chance to pursue a medal in the debut of paratriathlon at the Paralympic Games in Brazil.

“Waiting for the announcement was stressful as nobody really knew which categories would be selected,” said Barr, a four-time national champion who lost much of his left leg to cancer at age 14 and competes in the PT2 class. “So my initial reaction was relief and excitement that I will be given the opportunity to represent my country in Rio.”

But just as he was happy, he was disappointed that athletes in other categories won’t have the chance.

Stockwell and Walsh feel the same way.

“My classification is in there,” said Stockwell, a PT2 athlete and former U.S. Army officer who lost her left leg in 2004 to a roadside bomb in Iraq. “It’s exciting. But I’m pretty bummed for those that I know have been training for years in hopes for Rio and won’t be able to continue because their classification was not added.”

Walsh, who competes in the PT5 classification for visually impaired athletes, said she is “so thankful” she can compete for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team, but added her “heart broke for those who were not included,” especially the man she calls her triathlon “mentor,” Aaron Scheidies, this year’s men’s world champion in the PT5 classification.

The decision by the IPC on which classifications to add was announced at a meeting in Berlin on Oct. 6. The three categories announced this month for the 2016 Games join the three announced in July: men’s and women’s PT4 and men’s PT1. That will give the Games three medal events for men and three for women.

Left out of the mix for 2016 are men and women in the PT3 classification, as well as PT1 women and PT5 men.

The IPC and International Triathlon Union had been working since July to determine the makeup of the competition classes and acknowledged it was a “difficult decision.” ITU president Marisol Casado said the organizations are hopeful “that all categories will be present” at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The Door is Open

For Stockwell, the chance to compete in paratriathlon in 2016 is an opportunity to return to the Games.

Stockwell went to the 2008 Games in Beijing as a swimmer. Shortly after, she took up paratriathlon and has won three national championships and three world championships.

She’s expected to deliver her first child in a few weeks, so 2014 has been a limited year for training and competition. But having a baby now was part of her plan going toward the 2016 Games.

“The original plan was to try to have a baby this year and then try to get back to things and hope for Rio,” she said. “Until the classifications were announced, I wasn’t sure that was going to be a possibility. Granted, I’ll have a lot of work to do after the baby to kind of get back, get my times to where they should be. But the fact there is a chance now (to make the team) is pretty exciting.”

Walsh, who recently won her fourth national championship, said she was on “pins and needles” as she waited for news of whether PT5 would be included in the Games, and said she thought it had a 50-50 chance.

Now that she’ll have the opportunity to make the team for Rio, she’s going to commit totally to the effort. She likens the feeling to “jumping off a cliff.”

“I have the opportunity to represent my country at the most elite level of competition in my sport,” she said. “I will rework everything in my life to ensure a successful representation in 2016.”

For Walsh, who lost her sight at age 5 because of complications from surgery to remove a brain tumor, going to the Games would be yet another success story in a life filled with them. She earned a degree in computer science and electrical engineering, went to work for Microsoft, became a marathon and an ultra-marathon runner, a motivational speaker and now a triathlete.

After hearing that paratriathlon would be added to the 2016 Games, she set her mind on not only going, but winning a medal.

“I determined I wanted to operate with the understanding that I will be there until told with authority otherwise,” she said.

Barr has had great success since the former college swimmer took up paratriathlon in 2010. Now Barr — who has a demanding schedule as a trauma/surgical ICU nurse in Houston — is eager for the Paralympic challenge.

“At this point I’ll use the thought of competing at the Games as motivation to put my head down and train hard so that I can make it a reality,” he said.

Barr recently finished fourth at the world championships after a solid year of racing that included wins at the ITU event in Chicago, the PATCO Triathlon Pan American Championships in Dallas and the national championships.

Now he — and Stockwell and Walsh — will get a chance to add a Paralympic medal.

“It’s a very exciting time right now for my category and I cannot wait to train hard this offseason and see how things rapidly progress over the next two years leading to Rio,” he said. “I have been given the opportunity, now I just need to do my part.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.