By Alex Abrams
Red Line Editorial
Amy Dixon had 20/20 vision for much of her life, and she can still see clearly — except now it’s like she’s looking through a pinhole.
Dixon lost 98 percent of her vision at age 32 because of a rare autoimmune disease that attacks her eyes, stomach, lungs and spine. She also developed asthma and ankylosing spondylitis as a result of her disease.
With her condition, Dixon’s vision gets even worse when her heart rate reaches 165 beats per minute. Everything goes white, and she temporarily can’t see.
It makes training for and competing in paratriathlons even more difficult for the 44-year-old Dixon. She already must use a guide to help her navigate while swimming, biking and running during a race.
“I always say my guides have job security,” Dixon said.
Dixon was introduced to her racing guide, accomplished triathlete Kirsten Sass, through a mutual friend who’s also visually impaired. Since then, Dixon and Sass have become partners with a common goal of getting Dixon qualified for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021.
Dixon and Sass ride a tandem bicycle, and they’re tethered to each other during the swimming and running portions of a paratriathlon. Since Dixon has difficulty seeing during a race, Sass must stay behind or next to her and verbalize what’s in front of her on the course.
“I had no aspirations of being on any Paralympic team or anything like that,” said Dixon, who was named to the U.S. paratriathlon team in 2015. “I literally just got into the sport by happy accident and just for fun and to lose some weight and to stay active.”
With Sass by her side, Dixon won the 2019 U.S. championship. She’s a seven-time ITU gold medalist, and she earned silver at the Devonport ITU World Paratriathlon Series event in February.
Dixon is currently the sixth-ranked female paratriathlete in her class, and her ranking would have qualified her for the Tokyo Paralympics before the Games were postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. She’s still on track to qualify for the rescheduled Games next summer.
After moving to San Diego almost four years ago to improve her training, Dixon said she was disappointed to learn she’d have to wait another year to compete in her first Paralympics.
“Obviously, I’m 44 years old, and I have a rare autoimmune disease that’s extremely expensive and challenging to manage,” Dixon said. “So having to do that for an extra year was something that was not in the budget. So budget wise, it really was terrifying because I just didn’t have the sponsorship or the finances to do that for another year.”
At the same time, though, Dixon said it was perhaps “divine intervention” that the Paralympics got pushed back to 2021. She’s undergoing more chemotherapy because her autoimmune disease is out of remission. Dixon is also having surgery because her condition caused so much swelling it dislocated her right shoulder. Even with right arm in a sling, however, she insisted she would’ve competed at the Paralympics had it been held this past summer.
“I probably would have just had to swim with one arm right now,” Dixon said, laughing. “It wouldn’t have been ideal for sure. I would have figured out a way to get it done, but I certainly would not have had a great race.”
Dixon was raised on a horse farm and rode horses competitively for much of her life. She played soccer and tennis in high school, and she was a member of the equestrian team at Post University in Connecticut.
Dixon was diagnosed with her autoimmune disease when she was 22. When it came out of remission a few years later, she struggled to lose the 75 pounds she gained as part of her treatment, which included steroids and chemo.
Dixon joined a group of elderly women at her local YMCA and lost a few pounds taking aquafit classes in the pool. She then signed up for a fundraiser at the YMCA, in which she had to swim a mile — something she hadn’t done in 20 years.
Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona, who won a pair of gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was a member of the same YMCA as Dixon. De Varona kept track of Dixon’s laps during the fundraiser and then presented her with a medal afterward.
“From that moment, I sort of committed myself to finding my next challenge and I really wanted to tackle this weight loss,” Dixon said.
Dixon started riding a stationary bike, and as much as she hated running, she began logging miles on a treadmill.
“For social media, someone was saying, ‘You’re swimming, biking and running indoors. Have you though about doing a triathlon?’” Dixon said. “And I said, ‘Well, that sounds like fun, but how do you do it if you’re blind?’”
Dixon is now founder of Camp No Sight No Limits, which is the first camp for blind triathletes in the U.S. She serves as a coach and mentor to visually impaired athletes and teaches individuals with eye and autoimmune diseases to live beyond their disabilities.
“I work with visually impaired athletes specifically because I may not be an expert coach, but I’m definitely an expert blind person,” Dixon said.
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic and Paralympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.