Kyle Coon competes with guide Andy Potts. Photo courtesy of USA Triathlon.
While the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center was being pummeled with snow earlier this month in Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident paratriathlete Kyle Coon was basking in the Florida sun on top of the podium. The Paralympic hopeful opened his season with a gold-medal performance in the men’s visually impaired category at the Sarasota-Bradenton Triathlon.
Coon was guided through the 750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike and 5-kilometer run in a time of 58:18 by his new guide Andy Potts, a 2004 U.S. Olympian in triathlon. It was the first time he had beaten seven-time world champion and the nation’s top-ranked men’s visually impaired paratriathlete Aaron Scheidies in a race.
“We executed our race plan as close to perfect as we could possibly get it,” Coon said. “It was super exciting to see the years that I’ve been living at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center come together and get to the finish line first knowing I couldn’t have pushed harder or faster. That was a really gratifying feeling.”
The race followed stringent COVID-19 safety measures and served as a discretionary selection event toward Games qualification points. There are two Paralympic slots for U.S. visually impaired men in Tokyo, and if Coon earns one of them, Potts will become the first Olympian to guide a U.S. paratriathlete at the Paralympic Games.
“I’ve had a long career being an athlete, and this is a different type of pressure and a different type of expectation,” Potts said. “My whole concern on race day is helping Kyle with his goals.”
Coon, who lost his sight to cancer when he was 6 years old and had to have both of his eyes removed, took up triathlon shortly after he graduated college when he was struggling to make ends meet.
“Sometime in 2014, I woke up and thought my life is a mess, I can’t get a job, and I need to do something to turn my life around,” he said. “I had gained a bunch of weight after being an athlete in college, and I didn’t have money to join a gym or buy gym equipment that I could put in my house. I had never really liked swimming or running, but running was one of the things I could do cheaply and easily. I just needed a pair of shoes and could head out the door if someone guided me.”
Coon found a local guide who happened to be an Ironman triathlete and who encouraged him to try the sport.
“I just fell in love with the complexity and simplicity of triathlon,” Coon said. “I now love that puzzle of figuring out not how to swim, bike and run, but how to swim-bike-run and be efficient at doing it faster than I’ve previously done and faster than everyone else in the world.”
It wasn’t until August 2020 that Coon first reached out to Potts, when he was looking for a guide in Colorado to race September’s Last Call Triathlon with him, which marked his first race back since the pandemic hit. Coon, not sure what to expect, was apprehensive at first, but after the two biked and swam together in the fall they built a solid rapport in no time.
“He’s one of the best American triathletes of all-time. He’s ridiculously strong, and it’s like having a coach with me every single step of the way,” Coon said. “He brings 20-plus years of athletic experience at the elite of the elite level. That’s invaluable, and it’s pretty incredible to have him next to me.”
Although they’ve had limited racing opportunities thus far, the pair have already become synchronous in the bike and the swim, only needing to catchup now on harmonizing their runs.
The swim, especially, has been a new experience for Potts. As a guide, tethered to Coon, he’s had to learn to help him navigate the course as quick as possible, swimming as straight of a line as possible while also ensuring no buoys or other athletes come between them and their 50-centimeter bungee cord. Tapping twice for a turn, and three times for a 180.
“These were small things I would have never considered before,” Potts said. “But what’s exciting for me at this stage in my life is helping me fulfill (my kids’) dreams, and that was the mentality I had with accepting the role to guide Kyle. I wanted to help him achieve his goals.”
Already, Coons has noticed that Potts’ presence and experience has positively affected not just him, but the entire U.S. paratriathlon team that was in Sarasota.
“We were all jazzed but when you’ve got Andy Potts getting in your face pumping you up you can’t help but get even more amped,” he wrote in his post-race blog. “You’d have thought Andy was about to race in Kona he was so jazzed and excited. And that excitement and ‘Game On’ attitude infected the entire paratriathlon resident team. We were all ready to throw down.”