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Paralympic Athletes Celebrate Their Best Friends On International Guide Dog Day

By Sarah Higgins | April 29, 2015, 10:02 a.m. (ET)

Billy Lister (L) and Letticia Martinez (R) celebrate International Guide Dog Day at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. 

For 2012 Paralympic swimmer Letticia Martinez and 2016 Paralympic cycling hopeful Billy Lister, International Guide Dog Day (April 29, 2015) is more than just a holiday that comes around once a year. These service animals are an integral part of their daily lives.

Martinez, who is visually impaired, has been living with guide dog Philly for just over a year after deciding a guide dog would help her be more independent than the cane she had been using since age 3 when she was diagnosed with Leber’s congenital amaurosis, a rare inherited eye disease.

“She’s a great companion; she’s my best friend,” Martinez, 19, said. “We go everywhere together and she always makes my life fun and exciting.”

Meanwhile, Lister is accompanied by his service dog, Potter.

“He can carry things for me and take the load off my only functioning arm and hand,” said Lister, who suffered a stroke in 1999 at age 17, which left him with reduced muscular strength on the left side of his body.

Billy Lister hangs out with his best friend, Potter, as they celebrate International Guide Dog Day at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Potter is also able to open doors, call for an elevator and open the refrigerator, taking the stress off Lister to perform daily tasks.

Potter and Philly underwent intensive training to be placed with Lister and Martinez. They are trained to adapt in different environments, learn essential commands and help their companions as needed. After assessing the needs of the recipient and testing their interactions with the dogs, both Lister and Martinez were placed with their service dogs.

But Lister and Martinez aren’t the only ones who have found friends in their dogs. The hundreds of athletes and staff at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, have embraced and adopted Philly and Potter.

“Everybody loves Philly,” Martinez said. “I’m pretty sure the only reason I have half the friends I do is because of Philly. She’s the mom and the mascot of our team.”

“On the Road to Rio, we do some pretty special things and, as Olympians and Paralympians, we get to experience some amazing things through our travels and through our journey,” Lister said. “Having a best friend like Potter, a companion, to experience all those moments with you, right by your side every step of the way is a special thing.”

And Potter and Philly are the best kind of friends athletes can have. They are not concerned with how Lister and Martinez place in competitions.

“He doesn’t know if I come in first; he doesn’t know if I come in last,” Lister said of Potter. “It makes no difference to him. He is my best friend no matter what. No matter what, he’s going to be there.”

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Letticia Martinez