“I’m not just the support act”
220 Triathlon columnist Tim Heming meets elite paratriathlon guide Nicole Walters as she prepares for Paralympic glory
As detailed in this month’s 220 column (issue 314, on sale today), my experience as a novice guide runner tethered to a trusting blind athlete was a steep learning curve, but at least took place on terra firma.
The same cannot be said for those mastering paratriathlon guiding, who also have to support through the swim and bike and negotiate transitions – and who, if part of the elite British triathlon programme, have to complete these tasks fast enough to cement expected Team GB berths for the event’s Paralympic debut in Rio next year.
But that is the challenge Nicole Walters has taken on. The 25-year-old from Bath fell into paraguiding in 2013 to help out her sister’s friend and in two short years has progressed to being one of three funded guides tasked with helping bring back a pair of medals from Brazil next year.
“The prospect of Rio has been there all along, but until recently it was never certain we’d be going,” Nicole explains, referring to the International Paralympic Committee’s decision to accept only six of 10 potential paratri categories. “I always remained pessimistic so not to get my hopes up and it was probably the best way of looking at it. Now the category has gone through, there is a lot to look forward to.”
Walters competes in the PT5 class, supporting visually impaired triathletes, and this season switched from the athlete she first assisted, Cornwall’s 2013 world champion Melissa Reid, to predominantly racing with Welsh newcomer Rhiannon Henry.
“The pairing is out of my control,” she explains. “British Triathlon want to make sure they don’t just have the best guides with the best athletes, but that their strengths are aligned. Over the next couple of months the guides and triathletes will swap around and hopefully by the end of this year it will be settled so we can make firmer plans going into Rio.”
Mirroring its able-bodied colleagues, British Triathlon’s elite paratriathlon team has enjoyed an impressive run of success in recent years and the women’s PT5 division is amongst the strongest, having won four of the past five world titles, including Scotland’s Alison Patrick in Edmonton, Canada, in September.
The set-up under head coach Jonny Riall has become increasingly professional with the introduction of UK Sport funding, dedicated overseas training camps and even the launch of a Guide-to-Gold scheme in November to make sure Britain had the best women possible for the support roles.
The advertised requirement was “not only to possess the right physical abilities, but also the right mental and organisational approach.” Plus, they would need to be able to run well inside 20mins for 5km.
“That was stressful but I got through it,” Nicole explains. “Fortunately I was good enough based on my ability not just my experience.”
It has allowed her to stop working part-time at a nutrition company and travel to train during the week with those vying for selection. It makes for contrasting experiences. “Melissa already knew what she was doing, so it was a case of slotting into that,” Nicole says. “Rhiannon was new, so there was a lot more pre-race preparation. Simple things such as where to store items in transition.”
Henry, 28, might be new but is proving a fast learner. Already a Paralympic veteran of three Games, winning two bronze medals in the pool in Athens 2004 before switching to paracycling, she won her first triathlon in Buffalo City, South Africa in March, where in tandem with Walters she defeated Reid by over four minutes.
“Rhiannon’s race is still very much a swim/bike and see what’s left on run style of racing,” Nicole says. “That’s how I tend to race myself anyway, but in South Africa she actually ran faster than [runner-up] Melissa. Twenty-one minutes over 5km for her first experience running off the bike was good. It’s not a weakness, it’s just the discipline where more gains will be made.”
While Britain may currently look set for Paralympic glory, the international competition will only become more intense. Henry has already shown what an instant impact an athlete can have and as other countries’ talent identification improves it’s likely more strong single discipline specialists will make the switch.
This year, the three main events include the European Championships in Geneva in July, the test event in Rio in August and the World Championships in Chicago in September.
IN IT TO WIN
It’s all far removed from where Walters, brought up playing squash and as a club swimmer, expected to be when she first moved to study at the University of Bath in 2007. “At the time the British high performance centre was still there and it was a good set-up,” she explains of her introduction to triathlon. “The student tri club was separate but elements combined with the elite squad that featured the likes of Julie Dibens, Matt Sharp and Aaron Harris.”
She progressed through sprint and Olympic distance racing to half-Ironman and even placed third in the 2.6km swim, 120km bike and 20km run event called the Boskman in the New Forest in 2010. A switch to bike racing followed for a couple of years before the lure of triathlon proved too strong.
She has no regrets about joining the guiding programme, stressing it’s not as selfless as it may first appear. “A lot of the time people see it as you helping somebody out,” Nicole explains. “But it’s your race as well. If you’re not on the start line wanting to win, you won’t perform your best and nor will the athlete. You have got to own the race and have the drive to win the medal.”
“It take a lot of concentration and can be stressful at times. There are more things out of your control, you cannot majorly impact how the other person’s race goes and you have to stay positive. If you’re unsure about something, you cannot let the other person know.
*Since this interview was filed, it is of great regret that we learn of the death of Katie Henderson, who was selected as a guide for visually impaired athletes training for the Paralympic Games in Rio. Katie, an accomplished triathlete known for her outstanding swimming, was a world age-group medallist in standard- and middle-distance competition and described by British Triathlon as “one of the best swimmers in the sport and an inspiration to many”. Katie died in a road traffic incident on her way to this month’s Ironman 70.3 race in Staffordshire. For the full tribute from British Triathlon, click here.
How to be a paratriathlon guide
There’s a lot more to the role than you might expect. Here Nicole Walters takes us through the individual disciplines, contrasting her experience with novice Rhiannon Henry to the more experienced Melissa Reid.
You have to be tethered at some point on your body and the tether cannot be more than one metre long. We try and keep as close as possible, ideally with me a little in front so the athlete can draft.
Melissa prefers an ankle tether, and we trialled different ways with Rhiannon before settling for just above the knee. I go along with whatever’s best for the individual athlete.
I’m faster than Melissa in the water, so by allowing her to draft we get round the course quicker. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy swim. I still have to sight and make sure our arms are synchronised, which may not be my natural cadence. I’ll tap her on the head to turn or tug the tether if she’s drifting away.
In the first year I competed the visually impaired men and women set off at same time, so there were a couple of male pairs to draft off, but now the category is split, it becomes a true time trial from start to finish.
I worked hard on my swimming over the winter to make sure Rhiannon wasn’t faster than me and pace-wise we are fairly similar. Rhianon hadn’t done a lot of open water so perhaps that’s where I have the edge.
As we emerge from the swim, we unclip the tether but stay within one metre. Rhiannon has a little sight so as long as I’m within that distance she can follow me. I’ll point out any obstacles and show her to the kit we have already laid out.
It’s probably my strongest discipline and this is the part of the race where the guide can really make a difference because no matter how fast you swim or run, you cannot drag the athlete!
It’s also different from racing solo because I can turn myself inside out on the bike, then just need to keep up on the run.
You can start with your shoes on the tandem. With Rhianon in South Africa it would have been beneficial because it was slightly downhill out of transition with time to slip our feet in. I haven’t done a flying mount though, for fear of kicking whoever was behind in the face.
I’ll shout if a tight turn is coming up so they can lean a little too, and let them know if we’re going to hit a speed bump or pothole. I’ll also tell them about long, straight sections so they can grab a drink.
Dismounting into T2 we always take our feet out of the shoes to save time but I’ve not done a flying dismount yet as I need to bring my feet round the front of the bike. It’s something to work on.
I then take care of racking the bike and leave the athlete to sort themselves out for the run.
You take a lead from the athlete. You cannot drag them round the run course, but you can help with pacing to make sure they have best race possible.
With South Africa being Rhiannon’s first race I had more of a dominant role, as she become more experienced there is no reason why she wouldn’t take more of an even share of what’s going on.
Melissa is completely blind in her right eye, so I guide to her left, where she has tunnel vision. The first few hundred metres are normally tough because I’ve gone harder on the bike than I would have had it been an individual race.
I’ll shout encouragement a lot of the time to run faster and let them know where other competitors are on the course. They’re normal things that run through your head, but I’m just vocalising it.
I’ll ask them beforehand how they want me to act. Should I shout or be quiet and just offer basic instructions? For her first race Rhiannon didn’t know so I said I’ll be as vocal as possible and tell me to shut up if you’ve had enough.
It helps if you get on, but looking at it a bit deeper there is a job to do. As long as you’re the fastest pair you should work together as that’s what will win the medal.
Helpful guiding links…