This article was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
For the first time ever, the sport of paratriathlon will be on the world’s stage at the 2016 Paralympic Games. And next September, a squad of U.S. paratriathletes, spread across four of the five classifications of the sport, will take to the beaches and roads of Rio de Janeiro for that dream opportunity to go for the gold. So who will be representing the Red, White and Blue? Here’s a look at seven of the country’s top paratriathletes as they pave the road to Rio.
THE SUPER MOM
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Classification: Women’s PT2 (severe impairment)
This has been a big year for Melissa Stockwell. Not only did she post top-three performances in every ITU race she entered, she also welcomed a son, Dallas, in November 2014. And aside from her new title at home, Stockwell also has stepped into a more matriarchal role in paratriathlon. Racing since 2009, she is, in a sense, the face of the sport and a role model for many younger athletes. “I’m proud of what I’ve done and hope to inspire people along the way,” she says.
Still, Stockwell — who lost her leg in a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq — admits that balancing a baby with life as an elite athlete is no easy feat. “There’s always a sacrifice, and it’s tough to leave him. I’ve been to Japan, Australia and Brazil since I had him. He’s only been to one race,” she says. With her husband Brian more than willing to fill in on baby duty while she’s away, Stockwell says that her family is a constant source of motivation. “When the alarm goes off, I look over and see Dallas on the baby monitor and there’s this whole new level of patience and dedication,” she says. “I want him to see his mom have these dreams and hopefully have dreams of his own. To go to Rio and win a medal and be able to look over at them and know it’s a family event … that is the ultimate goal.”
Hometown: Rome, Georgia
Classification: Men’s PT1 (wheelchair)
“Never give up.” These three words have buoyed Krige Schabort through an athletic career marked by tremendous highs and painful lows. Upon losing his legs in a bomb explosion while serving the South African military, Schabort went on to become a venerable wheelchair marathoner, winning a bronze medal for South Africa in the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic marathon.
After moving to the States to pursue a career in professional athletics, Schabort eventually shifted to the IRONMAN arena before switching over to ITU racing in 2013 in hopes of making the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Triathlon Team. To say he has had a few setbacks along the way is a vast understatement. Case in point: After setting a new world record in his division at the 2011 IRONMAN World Championship, he was struck by a car on a training ride. Down but not out, Schabort raced the New York City Marathon just three weeks later. “It was a mind game, and I won that part,” he recalls. “They say, if you fall off your horse, get right back onto it. These lessons helped shape me to be a more humble athlete and respect the fierce competition out there.”
At 52, Schabort is among the elder statesmen of the U.S. paratriathletes, but he’s nowhere close to slowing down. “I’m still the same athlete I was long ago,” says the father of three. “It just takes me longer to recover — and I have less hair and more wrinkles.”
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Classification: Men’s PT4 (mild impairment)
If Chris Hammer is within striking distance of his competitors on the run course, he will, more than likely, run them down. A five-time All-American in track and field and cross country at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, Hammer is one of the top runners in the sport. And his trajectory in paratriathlon has been just as swift. In his first race just over two years ago, Hammer raced on a borrowed mountain bike. A few weeks later, he won his class at the 2013 Challenged Athletes Foundation World Paratriathlon San Diego despite never having swum in the ocean.
Fast forward to 2016, and Hammer — who was born without a left hand — is among the major medal contenders in his classification. But the Ph.D. student and new dad admits he’s got some work to do. After placing fourth in the Rio ITU World Paratriathlon Event, Hammer is more motivated than ever to up his game. “The good thing is that I’m knocking on the door of the best paratriathletes in the world, and I still have a whole year to get better,” he says. “I am really driven to make the most out of this opportunity while I have it.”
Hometown: Chicago, Illinois
Classification: Women’s PT4
If you were to ask a teenaged Hailey Danisewicz to describe herself, she probably would have answered with two words: cancer survivor. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma at the age of 12, she subsequently chose to have her leg amputated two years later. And just like that, a childhood spent bouncing from one athletic activity to the next was indefinitely halted. “I felt pretty lost, like a critical piece of my identity was stolen,” she says. “I didn’t want to be defined by cancer, but at the same time, I didn’t know how else to identify myself.”
It took some growing pains, but Danisewicz has since adopted a new identity: paratriathlete. And an impressive one at that. After winning a world championship title in 2013, she fully committed to the sport, even quitting her job at a nonprofit to pursue training full time. “I realized that if Rio 2016 was the goal, I was going to need to make it my sole focus,” she says, going on to say she’s now able to train six days a week, with one day completely dedicated to recovery. “It’s a luxury to have time to take care of myself, and I know that I’m lucky to be able to do it.”
Danisewicz knows it’ll take more than luck to stand atop the podium in Rio, and she’s steadfast in her commitment to training for that result. But whatever happens, she’ll remain grateful for the sport that, in many ways, completes her. “Before triathlon, I was a self-conscious kid struggling to figure out who she was,” she says. “After years of feeling like something was missing, I finally felt whole again.”
HOMETOWN: Jamestown, Ohio
CLASSIFICATION: Women’s PT4
For the most part, Grace Norman is your typical teenager: She loves hanging out with her friends, running on her high school’s cross country team, playing piano and taking care of animals. There’s just one tiny difference — she’s a world-class athlete who has already provisionally qualified for Rio.
At just 17, Norman represents a new crop of paratriathletes rising in the ranks of the sport before they can even earn a driver’s license. Still, among her elite-caliber competitors, Norman is by far the youngest, a stat she says plays to her advantage. “The [older women] have a lot of experience, which makes them potentially stronger, but they are at their athletic peak or closer to hitting it,” she says. “I’m still improving and climbing that ladder, which is exciting.”
HOMETOWN: Houston, Texas
CLASSIFICATION: Men’s PT2
If Mark Barr medals in Rio, he’ll have to make room in his trophy case. The decorated swimmer already has a world championship medal — a silver in the 100m butterfly from the 2006 event in Durban, South Africa — plus countless pieces of hardware from his tenure as a collegiate athlete, and now a powerhouse paratriathlete. But the one award that eludes him? Paralympic gold.
And that’s just what Barr will be going for next year in Rio. Barr, who lost his leg to bone cancer at 14, is relatively new to the sport and still working out the kinks when it comes to his prosthetic. “That’s the hardest thing for an above-the-knee amputee,” he says. “At this point I don’t have a prosthesis on the bike and cycle with one leg, but I still run with one, and maintaining a good fit is challenging. I’ve lost weight with training and sweat a lot; both factors that can cause problems.”
They’re problems he’s glad to have, explaining that he feels fortunate to have another chance to compete on the world’s stage after retiring from swimming in 2008. “Spending years swimming for 22 hours a week, I welcomed the variety of biking and running,” Barr says. “Plus, there’s just an excitement and buzz around the sport and it’s great to be a part of.”
HOMETOWN: Austin, Texas
CLASSIFICATION: PT5 (visual impairment)
To know Patricia Walsh in the early 2000s was to know a party girl, a heavy smoker and a couch potato. “I was meek, out of shape and floundering,” she recalls. “I had no regard for my health.”
Today? Walsh is anything but. After hearing about blind competitors in marathons, Walsh — who lost her vision as child due to a brain tumor — decided to run one herself, with mediocre success. Years of marathons and road races followed, but it wasn’t until she completed her first IRONMAN in 2010 that she tapped into her true athletic potential. “I finished well ahead of the world record for blind and low-vision athletes,” she says. “I saw then that I could be more than a participant. I could be a competitor.”
Walsh has since taken on ITU racing, most recently picking up her fourth straight USA Paratriathlon National Championships title. She credits her marked improvement of late to her new guide, Jessica Meyers, who races every stroke, pedal and step by Walsh’s side. “The guiding relationship is a mix of athletic ability, time, trust, communication and dedication,” Walsh says. “Jessica is a remarkable athlete. In our first race together, we beat my previous best time by six minutes.”
Now, with Rio on her mind, Walsh has completely given up on her former ways, eschewing all unhealthy habits down to junk food. “I now see all decisions as something that will either hold me back as an athlete or propel me forward,” she says. “I am much more fit, more confident and more dedicated to representing my country to the very best of my ability.”