Thursday, September 24, 2015

A World Championships race recap.

Well, it's been a week since the big race and I am just now getting my voice back. That means that it was a jam packed week full of racing, cheering, talking way too much and being excited about, well, everything!

The week got real when Team USA started to arrive on Wednesday. As I've said many time, I love my teammates. We are a tight group that not only have a good time together but truly want everyone to do their best. We love to joke around, we love to eat and we love to talk triathlon. My teammates and coaches are the best teammates and coaches. Duh.

The days leading into a race can always be a little packed but when it's a World Championship race in your hometown, they are jam packed! Press conferences, sponsor and media obligations and the usual team briefings, course recons and Team USA meetings. As the race got closer I decided to stay in a hotel with the rest of the team the night before the race. My parents had come into town along with Brians dad and some friends and our house was a little tight. Plus, staying in my own bed the night before my biggest race of the year would have been a little weird.

The morning of the race, we woke up to rain, thunder and lightening and I was nervous the swim might be canceled. Luckily, the heavy rain gradually got lighter and as we went through athlete check in and found our spots in transition, it turned out to be a pretty decent day for a race.

Originally, my PT2 category had 9 competitors. But the day prior, 2 of the competitors had been re- classified into different classifications leaving us with 7 athletes. There were 2 athletes I had never raced that I knew could be competitive and then my own teammates Allysa and Hailey, who I had raced with multiple times that year. When I looked at all of our times the day before I knew it was going to be a good race. I was feeling great and ready to give it my all hoping my months of preparation would pay off. It was after all, World Championships and everyone out there was racing to win.

As we got down to the swim start I got to see my parents, Brian, Dallas and so many other friends that had come down to watch the race. The huge benefit to a hometown race, is having so many people cheering for you on the sidelines. I got to give Dallas and Brian multiple hugs and as we took our place in the water, I couldn't help but be overwhelmed at the thought of so many people there supporting this dream of mine. There was just so much energy and it was pretty dang amazing.

The horn went off at 7:15am and we were off. Soon after we started I had a brief moment of panic when I was grabbed from behind and swam over. This was the first time this had ever happened and not being able to surface and get that breath was a little scary. It was only a few short seconds and I was back up able to regain my breathing get back into my rhythm. The rest of my swim felt great and I came out of the water
with a 13 second lead in front of a girl from Finland in one of my best swims of the year.

I got on my bike and set off on the 4.5 lap course. As I've said before, the bike is my weakest of the 3 and whatever gap I get on the swim, is typically lost on the bike and I am often passed at mile 8 or 9. As I started off, the girl from Finland was close behind and she ended up passing me in the first few miles. Since the course was loops, I could easily see how much time she was gaining and how far behind my other competition was. As the bike course went on, I did my best to keep Finland in my sight and to keep the gap as wide as possible from those behind me. The cheers from everyone on the course was incredible and everytime I heard my name or heard USA, I gave 10 hard pedal strokes, trying my best to keep my speed up. As we got to the last lap, I knew the gap was narrowing from  behind but I was still in 2nd and only 35 seconds behind Finland. I came into T2 and was able to get my running leg on and headed out towards the run before Finland meaning that for the first time this year, I was out on that running course first! Hailey came into T2 not long after I did and I knew that Allysa wasn't far behind. I had the lead but I needed a good run to hold them off.

I left T2 and went to hook my running belt on my prosthetic leg that keeps my leg from rotating. I went to hook it, tried to run, and it came apart. I stopped 2 more times, tried to hook it and every time it came apart as I started to run. Now, I used to use a running leg with no belt but have become pretty dependent on it over the past year. Even more so in races, as my running socket is looser and without the running belt, my leg rotates in every 3rd step and I have to stop to turn it back out before I continue running. The strap doesn't keep my leg on, but is a crucial piece on my prosthetic. So when it wasn't hooking correctly I had 2 options. First, to run without it but to stop every few steps to rotate it back out. Or I could run while holding it tight in my right hand, pulling it around my backside so it didn't rotate. This seemed like the best option and even though it was going to be a 5k running while holding my belt, at least I could run without stopping. Not anything you ever want to happen in a World Championship race, but I had to work with what I had. 

I started out and was actually pretty impressed at the pace I was holding with this little setback. It was a 3 lap course and as I rounded the first turn, I could see Finland and Hailey not far behind, and Allysa not far behind them. I managed to hold the lead for the first lap and then on the second lap I got passed by Allysa. I think Allysa would agree that this was a big, unexpected turn of events. And she didn't just casually run by, but she ran by looking as strong as I have ever seen her and running at a pace I knew I couldn't keep. As much as I wanted to keep up, I was impressed by her strength and look of ease as I saw her get further and further away.

I held onto 2nd place for a little further and at the end of the 2nd lap, I could hear the cheers for both Hailey and I and I knew that she was getting close. She caught up and as we rounded Buckingham Fountain, we were neck and neck, literally running in exact unison. In a moment I won't soon forget the announcer announced that here we were, Danisewicz and Stockwell, friends, training partners and Dare2tri teammates shoulder to shoulder in our hometown of Chicago. It still gives me chills thinking about it. Hailey and I are both fierce competitors. I have had the joy of seeing Hailey get her first running leg, run her first 5K, see her through her first triathlon, and being next to her on that podium when she won in 2013. I am incredibly proud of her and how far she has come and sharing this moment with her was a special one. We continued like that for about 1/2 a mile, hearing the cheers of the crowd and then she gradually started to pull away. As we neared the finish, she was about 400 meters in front of me and I knew that I was going to come in with a bronze medal finish. I
finished a happy finish knowing that I had given it my all. I heard the crowd, I saw Brian and Dallas and my parents and couldn't help but have a smile on my face. My hometown. A bronze medal and for the 3rd time this year, a USA SWEEP!

Awards happened soon after and I can honestly say that there is no one I would rather stand on the
podium with than Allysa and Hailey. Great friends, incredible athletes and competitors and I feel so lucky to call them my teammates. With this being our 3rd USA Sweep this year, it is apparent that we are dominating the PT2 category and I am so proud to be a part of it. As we stood up on that podium, we all got our medals and Allysa invited us up to the top with her as we saw 3 American flags raised and our national anthem played. The magnitude of the moment was apparent and there was so much emotion there. And as much as I wanted that gold around my neck, I couldn't help but be so happy for Allysa and so proud of Hailey for racing such a close race. When it came down to it, we all finished within 1:03 of each other, the closest it has ever been.

We all go into each race wanting our race to be the perfect one. Wanting the months of training and preparation to pay off when it matters most. The belt on my running leg is not an excuse and there is no telling what would have happened had it not broke. Allysa was on fire and had the race of her life and Hailey can kick it into another gear when she needs to and the results could have been the exact same. Especially when you are dealing with prosthetics, it's anybody's race and anything can happen out there. That's really the beauty of the sport.

After the race, I proudly made my way into the BP tent that was filled with all sorts of Dare2tri youth athletes that had been invited to the tent to watch the race. BP has been such a great company supporting both Dare2tri and athletes like myself. I got to hug Dallas and my parents, I got to recount the race and I got to see so many friendly faces that gave me a quick hug and a congrats.

The weekend didn't end there as we had our inaugural Dare2tri Evening2Inspire that night at the Willis Tower. An event that both inspired anyone that attended and raised money for Dare2tri. And then the next day Keri, Dan and I raced in a co-founders relay and proudly crossed the finish line as a team in first place. We got to stand there and watch so many other Dare2tri teammates and other Dare2tri supporters cross that finish line. A moment where the three of us sat back and thought about how far we have come as an organization and proud of all the lives we have and will continue to impact.

So, now what? Well, I get a few weeks of rest and no scheduled workouts. For a little bit I am going to eat what I want, I might even have a glass of wine or two (gasp!) A short off off season before the off season training starts back up again.

In the all to confusing qualification process for Rio, I have not yet secured my spot for the games next year. Since the three of us U.S. athletes finished in the top 3, we will be ranked as the top 3 for the through next year based on the amount of points we earned at Worlds. Since Allysa won, she secured our very first team slot for Rio, but since Hailey won at the test event in Rio earlier this year, she has secured her individual spot on the team next year, becoming the first US athletes to do so. (woot, woot!) The second slot will be earned by Allysa or I at a race early next year that is yet to be determined. There is a slight possibility that the 3rd one of us could get an invite slot to the Paralympics which would be the best case scenario. I'm going to stay optimistic that it will happen because how freaking cool would it be to have a USA sweep on the Worlds biggest athletic stage. That would be a dream

A quick thank you to everyone that made this season a success and continues to believe in me as I continue down this #road2rio. Brian, Dallas, 
my parents, Coach Stacee, Dare2tri, Deloitte, BP, USG and any of you that cheer me on along the way. They say it takes a village to make dreams come true and I have the best village around.

Until next time,


Monday, September 14, 2015

A hometown, a World Championship and my boy.

Whelp, here we are, the week of World Championships! Here. In Chicago. Can you say EPIC?!

The past month has been a great one. Not a lot of travel, some solid training, a great family reunion with Brian's family up in Michigan, some Ironman Madison spectating and my first triathlon win of the year at ITU Detroit. Now, I need to follow up that 'win' statement with the fact that not all my competition was at this race. My PT2 classification has gotten pretty competitive and exciting over the past year, and only a few of my competitors were in Detroit. But it was a win, it gave me the maximum number of points for that type of race and it felt amazing to be on top of that podium, with that gold medal, regardless of who was and wasn't there. Not to mention that this was the first race that Dallas has been at. Brian, Dallas and Jake, all made the trip with me and I got to see all their smiling faces as I went by on both the bike and the run. Plus, that feeling of being on top has stuck with me, and as we head into World Championships in 4 short days it is thought of often.

So, yes, World Championships is here, in my town, in my backyard, in the sweet sweet city of Chicago. When they announced this two years ago it seemed forever away, but here it is only days away, and I couldn't be more pumped. This is the biggest race of the year for more reasons than one. First, it is World Championships. The winner can call themselves the PT2 World Champion and going into a Paralympic Year that is a pretty big deal. Second, at this race we earn significantly more points than any other race we will race in. At an ITU race like Detroit, the max # of points you can get is 300. This week, its 750! To qualify for Rio next year points are critical. In order to get 2 country qualification slots for Rio, you need 2 US athletes in the top 6 in the world which is determined by points. To avoid getting back into the all too confusing Paralympic qualification just know that the higher we place, the more points we get. And we all need points. I will say that this race will not qualify me for Rio next year. That race will come early next year in March. But I need the points regardless.  Third, this is the most competitive my classification has ever been and it is so exciting. We have 9 competitors in the PT2 class and most of us are pretty competitive with each other. There are athletes from all over the world and a few that I have never raced. I have, of course, stalked their times from other races and I know that this will be a good race. Some are faster swimmers, other faster bikers or runners and the added excitement that anything can happen on race day. It is going to be a good race, I can promise you that. Fourth, this is my city. I have my parents and some of Brian's family and friends making the trip in to watch the race. I have friends, and co- workers, and sponsors that will all be out on that race course cheering me and all the other Team USA athletes on. They believe in me, they have supported me through all my adventures and seeing (and hearing) them out on the course will be pretty dang amazing. To say I'm excited is an understatement.

Last year at this time, I was 7.5 months pregnant hoping that I would have a healthy boy and be able to get back on track on the #road2rio. My healthy (and extremely handsome) little boy is going to be 9.5 months in a few days but the road from then till now has not been an easy one.
If any other mothers out there are reading this, you can attest to the fact, that getting back into well, anything, after having a baby can be a little challenging. It changes your life, your body, your priorities and things are never the same. When I was in labor and was told I needed a c-section, my first thought was that it meant more recovery and more time away from training. I wanted a family, my boy, but I also wanted this life of an athlete on the Road2Rio. It was a challenging waiting period, but I finally ran my first mile 6 weeks after having Dallas. It had been months since I had run and it was a slow, 16 minute mile. 1 mile. 16 minutes. As happy as I was to have my running leg back on, I remember thinking that this wasn't what it was supposed to be like. I was supposed to bounce back, I was supposed to be back at things weeks after I gave birth and I started having doubts about this whole Rio thing. Maybe it wasn't meant to be.
However, something I didn't expect after having Dallas, was an added level of patience. I went home after that slow mile, saw my baby boy and suddenly a 16m mile didn't seem so bad. Maybe I could do this.  Days, weeks, months and some slow progress later, I could see my body changing, getting back into the shape it was in before I got pregnant. My times were dropping. Slowly, yes, but they were dropping. And the impatient Melissa I once was, of wanting to be back to where I was yesterday had turned into a patient, taking it day by day Melissa. The realization that Rome wasn't built in a day, and I wouldn't bounce back in a day. And every time I had a bad run, a bad bike or wondered if I could really do this, all I had to do was come home, see my boy and make the decision to keep on going the next day.
9.5 months later I can proudly say that my times are faster than they have ever been and I am back on the Road to Rio. My swim feels amazing, my bike (although always needing improvement) has never felt better and recently, I am surprised at my own run times and seeing my pace on my watch. As I go into Fridays race, I know it's going to be a good one. My training is on point, my mindset is where it should be. I'm confident, I'm honored to race for the USA and a huge bonus to be here in Chicago. When the going gets tough and when I hurt, all I need to do is think about why I race in the first place. For my country, for my family, for those that believe in me and for myself. And I truly feel that when you race in honor of others, you honor yourself. And that is exactly what I will do.

So. Friday at 715am, when that horn goes off, I am racing to show a certain 9.5 month old boy that dreams can come true. And for Brian who sacrifices things in his own life to help make my dream become a reality.  And like everyone else out on that course, I am racing to win.

If you live in Chicago, come on down to Buckingham Fountain to see all of us in action. This race? It's going to be epic. I can promise you that.