Blind triathlete on the road to Rio, Paralympics

The San Diego Union-Tribune

By Pam Kragen | February 22, 2016

Carlsbad trainer is donating her time to guide friend to the Paralympics

Amy Dixon, a blind triathlete, left, and Susanne Davis prepare for the Tritonman triathlon in Mission Bay. Dixon is training for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and Davis, a world Ironman Champion, is her guide and training partner. This was their first competition training together. — K.C. Alfred

Amy Dixon, a blind triathlete, left, and Susanne Davis prepare for the Tritonman triathlon in Mission Bay. Dixon is training for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and Davis, a world Ironman Champion, is her guide and training partner. This was their first competition training together. — K.C. Alfred

CARLSBAD — For blind triathlete Amy Dixon, the road to Rio has taken a detour to Carlsbad this winter.

Since mid-January, the 40-year-old Connecticut woman has been training and living with elite Ironman triathlete Susanne Davis of Carlsbad. Davis is volunteering as Dixon’s guide for an upcoming qualifying race in Florida that could land Dixon on Team USA as a paratriathlete at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

It’s a road neither of the women expected to be on this year, but the fast friends are enjoying every minute of their journey.

“Amy has such an amazing attitude. She doesn’t give up and she doesn’t get discouraged. It’s really fun being around her,” said Davis, 44, a married mother of two, who in January was named a 2015 All World Athlete Champion, an honor bestowed on just 29 Ironman competitors worldwide.

Dixon, who has lost 98 percent of her vision to eye disease, sought out Davis last fall because she needed a guide who could help her improve her times before the final qualifying race. It doesn’t hurt that Davis also lives in the perfect climate for winter training. But the true bonus has been the sister-like bond the women have formed.

“Susanne as a guide has been a huge advantage,” Dixon said. “In the past two weeks, I’ve consistently run paces I’ve never run before. She pushes me to push myself and she pulls me back from micromanaging my performance. It’s worked out better than I could possibly have imagined.”

As a blind competitor, Dixon needs a guide who can swim 750 meters and run 5 kilometers beside her on a flexible tether, and also take the front seat of a tandem bicycle for a 20-kilometer ride. Besides guiding and pushing Dixon, Davis helps during the challenging periods of transitioning from wetsuit to shoes and street gear for biking and running.

Amy and Susanne - triathlon

Photo K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune

She also has to constantly shout out warnings of obstacles, turns and changing terrain.

On Sunday morning, their weeks of training paid off flawlessly with an error-free finish at UC San Diego’s Tritonman Triathlon on Mission Bay. Despite having to swim through jellyfish and some challenging terrains on the run, Dixon recorded a personal best on the bike and finished first in the paratriathlete division. She also finished eighth among women in 1 hour, 8 minutes, 47 seconds.

“It was perfect,” said Davis. “It built both of our confidence, we worked great together as a team, and she now understands I know how to pace her body.”

Next up is the 2016 CAMTRI Paratriathlon American Championships in Sarasota, Fla., on March 13. If Dixon is the fastest American to finish the race, she’ll earn her ticket to Rio, and Davis will go along for the ride, run and swim.

Dixon’s story of overcoming disability is such an inspiration, she’s frequently asked to speak at conferences hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation and organizations for the blind. Her message is simple: “Vision impairment is an inconvenience. It doesn’t have to be an obstacle.”

Dixon has been an athlete since childhood: riding horses, swimming, playing tennis and soccer. At 22, she was working as a certified sommelier and finishing a degree at the University of Connecticut when she started experiencing vision problems.

At first she attributed the flashing and strobing symptoms to migraines, but when she started bumping into things and losing her depth perception, an opthalmologist diagnosed her with multifocal choroiditis, a rare autoimmune disorder that would eventually render her blind.

In just four months, she lost 70 percent of her peripheral vision but steroids put the disease in temporary remission. She pushed ahead with her dream of becoming a pharmacist, but as her sight declined, she was forced to give up her doctoral program to work as a horse trainer. She also traveled the East Coast as a wine dealer until a near-accident led her to surrender her keys.

Fortunately, she found a lucrative desk job buying and selling futures for fine wines, but her eyesight continued to degrade. Her field of vision shrunk from 180 degrees to 5 degrees, she endured 19 eye surgeries, struggled with glaucoma and had a brief bout with cancer. Five years ago, she was forced to quit her job. She gained a lot of weight and sunk into a depression.

Then in 2012, a disabled friend challenged her to swim in a 1-mile charity race. It took her 47 minutes, but she finished the race and felt exhilarated. Next, she tied her guide dog to a spin cycle at the gym and started spinning so feverishly, she quickly dropped 20 pounds. At a friend’s urging, she signed up for her first triathlon in June 2013.

“I had so much fun,” she said. “I laughed the whole time and I was amazed I wasn’t the slowest person.”

In fact, her time of 1 hour, 34 minutes, was good enough to earn her an invitation to the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s paratriathlete development camp in San Diego, where she was humbled and inspired by the other athletes, many of them war veterans and amputees.

“Here I was all in my head and here are these guys who got blown up in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t have PTSD and limb loss like these guys, it’s just that my eyes are broken,” she said.

Amy & Susanne - triathlon

Photo K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune

Since then she has racked up paratriathlon wins that include a gold medal at the 2015 International Triathlete Union World Triathlon last September in Edmonton, Canada. She ranks sixth in the world among female ITU (disabled) athletes.

In October, she made the U.S. National Paratriathlon team from which Team USA will be chosen for the 2016 Paralympics. Being on the national team, Dixon gets some race fees and training and transportation costs covered by grants. She has also received some free gear from sponsors. But for most of her living expenses, she relies on public speaking fees and private fundraising through her nonprofit (

She raises money not just for competition but also for her fledgling educational foundation, Glaucoma Eyes International. Its goal is to expand awareness of glaucoma testing by installing a glaucoma patient advocate in every eye hospital in the world.

As Dixon’s skills grew in 2015, she needed to find a guide who could take her to the next level for the Paralympics. She found it in Davis, a triathlete trainer with decades of experience in the sport who offered to donate her time.

“What goes around comes around,” Davis said. “Back when I was starting out in my 20s, I got a lot of help from more experienced athletes. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.”

Amy and Susanne - triathlon

Photo K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune

If Dixon makes the team next month, the duo plans to train this summer at two paratriathlons in Europe. Even if she doesn’t make the team, her accumulated points could earn her a spot by default. If she’s lucky enough to win a medal at the Paralympics next fall, Davis will also go home with some gold, silver or bronze. But both say the more enduring prize is the close bond they’ve formed. Even Davis’ husband, Scott, and their two children have been infected by Dixon’s positivity. Dixon said it’s easy to be upbeat because, in her eyes, life is very good.


“I wake up grateful,” she said. “I’m privileged to train with disabled athletes.

… And I’m lucky to have found Susanne as my guide. It’s very easy to wake up happy each morning.”

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