Claire Cashmore on training, Paralympics and making paratri more accessible

We talk to current ITU World Champion Claire Cashmore about what it's like to race with a disability and the future of paratriathlon.

World Triathlon Image Credit

British paratriathlete Claire Cashmore is the current ITU World Champion in the PTS5 paratriathlon classification (Lausanne 2019) and has won eight medals in para-swimming at four Paralympic Games.

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Born without a left forearm, Claire competes in the PTS5 racing classification. Here, the Loughborough-based athlete talks to us about her passionate for increasing the education and representation surrounding para-sports.

220: How did you get into triathlon?

I was a Paralympic swimmer and went to four Paralympic Games. My first was at the age of 16 in Athens in 2004, and then Beijing, London and Rio. I had a big break after Rio, as I needed time to get away from the sport and work out what I wanted to do with my life, and which direction I wanted to go in.

I’m now hoping to qualify for my fifth Paralympic Games, but in triathlon. It’s been a pretty whirlwind journey. A massive step outside of my comfort zone and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about myself, but it’s such a great sport and an amazing community to be a part of.

220: Will this be your first Paralympic Games as a paratriathlete?

Paratriathlon made its debut in 2016, so this is only the second ever time paratri will be in the Paralympics, which is really exciting. Paratri is growing each year, and each Paralympic cycle it’s developing more. It’s obviously still got a long way to go as a developing sport, but that’s all part of the excitement of it – trying to raise the bar and raise the standards, and hopefully inspire more people to actually get involved and realise the sport’s out there.

220: What was your reaction to the Paralympics being postponed?

It was an extra year for me, I’ve tried to look at it as a massive benefit because its more time to get used to a sport that I’ve only been in for such a short period of time. It gave me the opportunity to learn a lot more about the sport and gain more confidence on the bike, and understand how to run.

Coming from a swimming background you’re not necessarily made for the land and running is not always the easiest thing on your joints. It has given me the extra time to really build that up,  particularly when I wasn’t allowed to swim. I just had so much more time and energy for the bike side of things, which has helped push on my performance.

220: How has your training been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

We couldn’t swim during the first lockdown [in the UK] and we were very much swimming in a paddling pool in the back garden. We also didn’t have any gym equipment because everyone decided they wanted to become gym bunnies, so nothing was available.

So we were just thinking outside of the box about what we could do to still build that strength without having heavy weights. We did more repetitions, I used my boyfriend to do partner work, all that kind of stuff. Since then though, we’ve been really lucky that under the elite athlete exemption, we have been able to train, to get back in the pool and the gym.

Training is different in the sense that everything’s solo. I love training with people; I’m a people-person. I love having that competition against somebody, that rivalry, but also that social time. I did struggle in that sense and it’s been hard not racing. That’s probably been the hardest thing for me because I really love it.

220: How have your recent races gone?

We were really lucky to be involved in Super League, which was amazing as it was the first time para has ever been involved. It’s a huge step forward.

My first World Triathlon Para Series race is going to be this weekend in Leeds. It will be the first Para World Triathlon race in the UK, which is so exciting. I also recently raced at Llanelli, which was really cold but great – as soon as the race finished, I was on such a high the whole day. I didn’t even do that well, but the adrenaline rush you get and the endorphins released are just incredible.

220: How would you describe the experience of racing as a para-athlete?

In para-racing, we’re generally only allowed eight to 10 people on the start list. Each category has eight to 10, and there’s six categories, male and female. If you had more people than that, it would just be absolutely mental on the field, so we generally start staggered with the fastest guys first, which are the visually impaired with the tandems, and then every few minutes a new category sets off.

In Tokyo, it will be quite different because the categories will be racing on their own. The swim is never that messy as there’s only eight to 10 of us. I’ve done a few able-bodied races and it can get really messy when everyone is ploughing into each other.

Then on the bike it’s non-drafting so the 10m rule exists. The run is pretty standard. In terms of transitions, you’ve got the leg-amps [amputees] who have a pre-transition area and handler to get them out of the water. The wheelies [wheelchair users] have handlers too and the visually impaired athletes have their guides.

For me, it’s fairly standard as I don’t need any of that, I have normal transitions and do a flying mount onto the bike. Across the categories, that will massively vary. It can sometimes be confusing because you’ll see people crossing the line at different stages because you have all the categories racing at the same time.

We all have our numbers on. The first number for me will be a five as I’m in the PTS5 category, whereas the VI [visually impaired] athletes will have a six on them. From this, you can then associate which athlete is in which category.

220: What’s something you wish people knew about life as a paratriathlete, or any misconceptions you’d want to fix?

The biggest thing I find frustrating is the use of words sometimes – being called the ‘other Olympics’, or the Olympics being referred to as the main event and the ‘real thing’ in comparison to the Paralympics. Even when the Paralympics is called the Olympics and there is no difference drawn, as the Paralympics is actually under a different organisation altogether, the IPC [International Paralympic Committee]. We have the three Agitos instead of the Olympics rings, for instance.

The Paralympic movement as a whole needs more representation. It would be good for people to see a day in the life of a para-athlete and realise that they put in the same amount of work as our able-bodied counterparts. It’s completely different, and you’re never going to see the same amount of people on the start line as at an able-bodied race.

220: What can we do to further support para-sport and what advice would you give race organisers and supporters?

I think triathlon is very forward-thinking in terms of their inclusiveness; we’ve now got a World Series race in the UK, we were in the Super League this year. A lot of other para sports are still very separate, but in triathlon, we have a lot of races running alongside the elite guys.

The coverage needs to be improved and we need to make people more aware of it. We also need to improve our grass roots to encourage more athletes to come up through the rankings. We need to show how incredible the sport is, who can get involved, how, show adaptions for para-athletes, and all the things that people can have to make the sport accessible to them.

More brands need to have people with a disability showcasing what they’re doing. If you don’t see yourself in social media, if you don’t have role models like you, that creates a barrier to getting into the sport. [We need] more education, more coverage and more representation.

220: If you do get into the Paralympic team, what are your goals for Tokyo?

The para-triathletes will have a maximum of two athletes racing per nation in each category, to make eight to nine competitors in each race. I’m hoping to get officially selected. We find out the team at the end of June.

Since triathlon is so unpredictable and absolutely anything can happen, my biggest aim is being as best prepared as I possibly can for the crazy temperatures and the heat and humidity in Tokyo. I aim to put together the best possible race that I can do, so that all of the pieces come together on race day.

220: How important is nutrition to you as a paratriathlete? 

I work with a nutritionist and try to stick closely to a healthy, balanced diet as much as possible. My diet is balanced with lots of protein, fresh fruit and vegetables. I am a huge foodie so I like experimenting with new recipes. Hydration is also really important to me so I drink a lot of water/Precision Hydration hydro tabs while exercising throughout the day.

After a training session I will follow that up with a protein shake and I snack regularly to keep my energy levels up. I’ve also recently started taking TRR Nutrition PRO Advanced Collagen which helps me recover quicker from my training sessions and protects my bones and joints.

What are the different racing categories for para-athletes?

The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) states that paratriathlon has nine difference classes, which are listed as:

“PTWC 1-2: athletes with limitations in lower (PTWC2) and upper limbs (PTWC1), using a handcycle for the cycling segment and a racing chair for the running segment.

“PT 2-5: athletes with limitations in lower and/or upper limbs (lower class number means there is more limitations) who compete in (regular) cycling and running. Assistive devices such as prosthetic legs and/or bike modifications are regulated by the IF (International Sports Federations)

“PTVI 1-3: athletes with vision impairment, subdivided in three classes by severity of vision loss (visual acuity and/or visual field).

Athletes in the PTWC and PTVI classes compete in combined events, with an interval start system per sport class.

“Eligible impairment types include:

  • Impaired muscle power
  • Athetosis
  • Impaired passive range of movement
  • Hypertonia
  • Limb deficiency
  • Ataxia
  • Vision impairment”

Read more about the different classifications for para-athletes

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Image Credit: World Triathlon