Racing as a Paratriathlete

It was recently brought to my attention that there has been some concerns about my decision to race in the Paratriathlon circuit.

While I have undergone and continue to go though all proper channels, some felt the need to stir up some controversy in an attempt to discredit me. The following email was put out through a popular triathlon club mailing list regarding my decision to race in the PC (Physically Challenged) division. I have provided my response below the post. After I address the following, let me be clear that moving forward my legal team will be addressing any attempts to slander or discredit my reputation.

This was the email sent out:

“Winning a race at any cost…

So, like, I haven’t won a race in a while and the folks in my age group are pretty dang fast, and I haven’t gotten any faster (and don’t train very much anyway), so I said to myself, hmm, I need a podium and not just any podium, a first place podium so I can say I WON.  My ego needs it, my Facebook page needs it, I just plain need it.  But how?

And then it struck me.  Instead of racing in my age group wave, I’ll register as a Challenged Athlete!  Fricking Brilliant!  But wait…what’s my challenged condition…I’ve got 2 good arms, 2 good legs, 2 good hands and feet, 2 functioning eyeballs…ah, I’ve got ARTHRITIS!  That’s it!  I’m in!

So I sign up for the Seal Sprint as a PC (physically challenged) athlete and race a good race and holy moly I come in First Place and collect my trophy and my glory.  I don’t notice the person who came in second, an orphan from eastern Europe who is missing half a leg and raced her heart out because I’m doing my victory dance.  I won, fair and square, right?  I mean, I was FASTEST…I finished ahead of her.  And I would have finished a measly SIXTH in my normal age group.

If something doesn’t sound right to you about my “story”, I encourage you to examine the results of the PC wave at the Seal Sprint and try to fathom the algorithms used to determine “PC”.  It’s almost like Lance Armstrong is back.

If still you’re confused, know that this story isn’t about me, it about choices certain “athletes” have made about how to compete and attempt to win, at any cost.  It’s also about the process around signing up for races as a PC athlete, and the oversight (or lack) of those registrations.

View results at  http://www.geminitiming.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/ss_sprint_age_20146.htm

[NAME REMOVED TO PROTECT IDENTITY though I’d like to note that a 50-year-old man wrote this post]“

 OK, well, I have a couple different matters that I would like to address so lets get started:

To begin, let me nip this right in the bud. Rheumatoid Arthritis is a Paralympic recognized condition. In London 2012, Great Britain athlete Leigh Walmsley was the first professional athlete with RA to represent RA in the Paralympics. Leigh is an incredibly talented Archer. So, that right there dispels the notion that RA is not a PC recognized condition.

Many only hear the term “arthritis” and by going on their own perceived notions of the term “arthritis” they characterize RA as solely a joint condition and they do not realize that RA is actually a serious autoimmune disease.

What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA as it is commonly termed is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the body’s joints, tendons, and internal organs, while also eroding the bones, which can ultimately cause permanent deformity. The most common symptoms of RA include chronic pain, swelling, joint stiffness, muscle spasms, and chronic fatigue. The most common comorbidities related to rheumatoid arthritis include cardiovascular diseases, infections, mental health conditions, and malignancies.

There is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis. RA is managed with a cocktail of medications such as: immune-suppressant injections (one of them being a form of low-dose chemotherapy, yes, the same medication that treats cancer), muscle relaxers, pain killers, anti-inflammatories, steroids and sometimes blood transfusions when the situation peprevalence_autoimmunermits.

RA affects 1.3 million Americans. RA is one of the more common autoimmune diseases, with rates higher than a number of other conditions, including psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes, lupus, and multiple sclerosis.

Over the past 15 years, there have been incredible advancements in the RA medical research field and when on the proper medication, a patient can achieve “remission” and live a relatively normal life with very little, if any deformities and minimal-moderate medicine complications. Remission is where the RA blood levels and clinical presentation are within normal range.  Though patients still succumb to the chronic, sometimes debilitating pain even while they are in remission. Dr.s have yet to understand what causes this pain even when blood levels are normal and clinical presentations are normal.

I achieved remission years ago, though I relinquished my remission with my decision to return to racing in triathlon. You see, when I train, which I do 6 days a week, 3-4 hours a day, I stimulate an immune response in my body where it activates my RA and makes my RA “flare”. The flare is due to the stress that I am causing my body by engaging in prolonged endurance physical activity, which causes inflammation. At about the 45-minute mark into physical activity, the inflammation triggers my RA to become aggressive, consequently causing me even more pain and the onset of clinical presentation of the disease (swelling, muscle spasms, etc) during the time of activity. I am currently undergoing medical evaluations to document and further explore this with my medical team. At this point, the athletic flares have not caused any further damage to my bones or organs and keeping active appears to help the joints maintain some mobility.

Now, touching on my decision to switch into Paratriathlon.

The Paralympics are not for the disabled, competitors may have an impairment, but they are very much enabled.

I am going into my 5th year of racing triathlons and this year I have decided to do it from a different perspective. I, now, have experience in both, triathlon and RA and I feel that I can do much more for the chronic pain community by racing in the para division. Over the next couple years, I am going to attempt to qualify and hope to bring RA into the Paratriathlete Paralympics Games. My racing now is about thinking outside the box and getting others empowered enough to believe in themselves despite living with a medical condition, while also helping to raise the global awareness for para triathletes.

Invisible illness sufferers often succumb to the feeling of self-doubt because we are constantly bullied and ridiculed daily by the general population, because people cannot ‘see’ our disability. Some even go as far as to claim we exaggerate our pain or ‘it is all in our head’. But, I believe in our sport and I believe in its power to embrace all walks of life and to help us all rediscover confidence that we may have lost for various reasons. Ranging from the overweight mom to the cancer survivor, triathletes provide hope and it is time we start sharing this hope and opportunity with the invisible illness community.

Touching on the para qualification and division(s).

Paratriathlon is an emerging sport.

ITU and USAT have a qualification system set forth for para athletes. Every athlete that races in the para division must submit their medical package and go through multiple physical evaluations in conjunction with a board review in order to obtain their proper Paratriathlon credentials. In early 2014, the para divisions were modified and ITU adopted a new criteria classification scaling system, which classifies an athlete based on a challenged athletes impairment score rather than their base impairment. To my understanding, prior to 2014, they had 6 classifications but as of March 2014 they now only have 5, and as of Jan 2014 all athletes in para circuit have to go under evaluations for reclassification.  Due to this current reclassification process, the Paratriathlon national championships have been pushed to a later date. You can read more about this process here: http://www.usatriathlon.org/audience/athlete-resources/paratriathletes/classification.aspx

Local triathlon races adopt the ITU/USAT standards as their guideline when organizing divisions however with the local races, due to the lack of para athletes participating, they put all of the para athletes into the same division. I imagine that they will continue to enact this collective one-for-all classification system for para division until there is a demand when more diverse para athletes are racing. Though what can the race director do when only 2-5 paras are racing? The sport is not at the level where there are enough para athletes at each local race to substantiate having multiple para divisions. Hopefully as the sport grows and more paras get involved, all races will adopt multiple para divisions, though we need growth in order for that to be enacted.

One more brief topic to touch on:

My race results do not define me. They do not define my brand or my business.

I am sponsored because of my core values and what I have and continue to persevere through. I am a professional who is legally contracted to race 14 races this year. This is my full-time job. My contracts stipulate to maintain consistency of my racing and with the unpredictability of my disease, my commitment to 14 races is more than impressive. If anyone questions the merit of a para being a professional, then you have bigger problems than I can address in this brief posting. Podium finishes are neither here nor there at this point; my goal is to maintain consistency. Next year, when I start the Paralympic qualification process, then I will focus on going after the podiums [1st, 2nd, 3rd =’podium’].

Now, to wrap this up, I have said all I need to say regarding this matter and I will not be bullied. Support me and the invisible illness community, keep your negative opinions to yourself or deal with my legal team.

-Angela

7 thoughts on “Racing as a Paratriathlete

  1. First, I would like to say thank you to Angela for having the courage and desire to advocate on the behalf of all patients with 1 or more of the over 100 different types of arthritis. As a Stanford University epatient scholar myself, I know that advocacy work is both rewarding and draining. I can’t imagine trying to do it while being a professional triathlete. The amount of self-descipline and sacrafice it must take to do this is incredibly powerful and moving for me. Thanks Angela!

    As a patient, I would also like to say that Angela has inspired me to work towards becoming the athlete I once was before the pain took over. I find her hard work and dedication to be refreshing and incredibly motivating. We need more Angela’s in the world if we are going to find a cure for rheumatoid arthritis and create more of a patient centered, participatory health care system.

    One last thing. I understand that there is a huge difference between the needs of a 50 year old grumpy, bitter old man and 20/30 years old aflicted with RA. That being said, you have to right to judge or even comment on Angela’s life mr bitter. So, if you can’t say something nice…screw it just go away you old fart!

  2. As the mother of a 21 year old daughter (I am the proud mom of 3 grown girls) who has RA I’m appalled anybody would have the nerve to write such hateful words to anyone, let alone someone who LEGALLY qualified to compete in the Paratriathelete event! I’d ask this “person” to step into my daughter’s shoes for one hour during a flare up. I can guarantee you, he wouldn’t last five minutes before crying out in pain and begging for relief. My daughter walks around at a pain level that would have most asking their doctor for morphine, stat. She’s a little over 100 lbs, 5’1 and when she finally breaks down and goes to the ER and gets heavy-duty pain meds via IV, the doctors are amazed when they come in after she’s had the meds and they expect her to be knocked out and instead she’s sitting up, awake. They always ask her what her pain level is and she usually says, “7″. And you put your body into a flare up on purpose AND keep moving past that pain and this idiot wants to write hate? He needs to shut up, stick to his tri goals and deal with his obviously unhappy life and leave you and others alone.

  3. This is an amazing write Angela. I feel your pain. I never knew there was such a division and think its a wonderful topic that you touched on!

  4. I know you are gong to think I am just hating on you, but there are two things you are not taking into consideration in deciding to race competitively: (1) Most endurance athletes end up with some form of osteoarthritis. (Most of my friends are competitive athletes who do long-distance running, cycling, and swimming, they have all done Ironman (s), and they all have chronic, sports-related joint problems.) Combining RA with OA will be extremely debilitating. I speak from experience, although mine went in the reverse order: early-onset OA (from extreme sports) and then an AI joint disorder, the combination of which has has left me disabled at the age of 45. (2) You are quite young, and therefore your body bounces back quickly from injury. When you hit your thirties, you can still rehab injuries, but it takes longer. When you get to 40, some injuries never get better.

    Be careful not to trade your ability to exercise, do recreational activities, and even walk in your 40s and beyond for a few medals in your 20s.

    Take care-

    Haley

    • Hi Haley,

      I appreciate you taking the time to write. I do not at all see your comment at hate. I understand your concerns and agree with you. I am already dealing with some of the effects of being competitive and I have decided to stay in the sport for only a couple more years due to this. I’d like to stay in the sport 20+ years but I understand that it is not in my best interest to do that. I am going to try and qualify for Rio and pursue that if I do, and then after I will transition away from racing competitively.

      Thank you, I appreciate you looking out for me.

      Cheers!

  5. Angela, as someone living with both RA and OA and experiencing the competitive side (and all of its pettiness) of racing motorcycles, this letter doesn’t surprise me. People have no idea what it’s like. I hurt every damn day but keep pushing on to work full time and ride my motorcycles.

    You’re an inspiration, don’t let this letter, or any other negative comments upset you.

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