By 2nd Lt. Samantha Morrison
4th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The rope cinched tightly around my waist. Patricia Walsh, a paratriathlete, clung to my elbow entrusting me, not only with her life, but also the end result of the race.
I was terrified.
Knowing that I was about to race a mile in the murky, rough Hudson River to start a rigorous triathlon was hard enough in itself, but being entrusted with helping an individual in need made it that much more strenuous. It made me nervous. I didn’t want disappoint her.
The week before I’d received an email from Walsh asking for my help in the New York City Triathlon. While reading her email, I learned that she was completely blind and was in desperate need of a guide for her next big race. She received my name through other athletes who knew of my success in the Ironman World Championship the previous year, and asked if I would be interested in helping her out.
Although I was honored by her request, I was hesitant at first. As a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., I had not seen my family in seven months and was anxious to get home after graduating. Taking time to help would additionally delay my family reunion I’d been desperately looking forward to. However, her need for help was far greater and I couldn’t bring myself to say no.
I met Walsh at the front entrance of the hotel we stayed at for the duration of the trip. She wasn’t exactly what I had expected. I’d figured that I would be the one leading most of the time we were together, but I found myself quickly following her through the fast-paced and congested city.
As we spent time together, I learned how inspiring Walsh truly was. She is the first blind engineer for Microsoft, owns her own business and she competes at a world-class level in triathlon despite her physical impairment. She is part of an elite group of athletes overcoming physical and mental hurdles to train and compete in a sport they love.
The Challenged Athlete Foundation makes this possible. She told me that some of the members are wounded warriors who also need assistance for training and racing. As a service member, I hope I get that chance someday.
Over the course of the next few days, we trained so I could successfully lead her in the triathlon. I found myself getting more and more confident in my skills. I also found myself in awe of how hard Walsh was pushing herself. She was determined to win and that sense of resolution rubbed off on me. Despite her blindness, it was inspiring to see that she never used it as an excuse.
The race start came much sooner than I wished. Before I knew it, I was tied to Walsh and we were about to jump in the water. I was freaking out. Walsh is not just a blind triathlete; she is currently the fastest blind triathlete in the world. Her pride and title were on the line. It was not as if the pressure and my nerves weren’t high enough already.
Ready or not, the gun went off.
Luckily, I grew up swimming, so I was very comfortable leading Walsh in the water. She tended to veer off course, so I had to keep my head up to not lose sight of the finish. Several times, I accidently knocked her in the head and was worried she would lose focus. She was undeterred by my clumsiness and we finished the swim with one of her fastest times.
The worst part was next, the bike. We sprinted together toward her bike, the whole while I was saying to myself, “Just do it. Don’t crash. Don’t mess up. Don’t go slow. Don’t fall over. Don’t show that you’re scared. Act like you know what you are doing.”
It was like another person took control of my body that day. For some reason, unlike the day before, we hopped on the bike and took off immediately. No swerving, no running over kids and their basketballs and, most importantly, no nerves to cause the two of us to slam our brakes and hit the pavement. Even Patricia asked me where this “new Sam” came from. I had no idea, but I think it was more from the fact that I wanted to get that bike portion done as fast as humanly possible.
We hit it hard and felt our legs burn the entire 40 kilometers. Before I knew it, I was warning Walsh that I was hitting the brakes so that we could dismount.
Getting off of that bike without having wrecked was the best feeling. Despite the fact that we had a 6.2 mile run ahead of us, all I cared about was the bike portion was over. I wasn’t even worried when I roped myself to Walsh and we took off running through the streets of Central Park, New York.
I told Walsh stories the entire run. She doesn’t like to talk while running, but I am a chatterbox; it keeps my mind off of the pain. Turns out, she is a great listener. We made it through the run with only a few incidents of bumping into other racers and tripping over cones; this was probably due to my not paying attention while I blabbed on and on.
Everyone’s head turned as we flew by, cheering on the blind woman, and the girl tied to her; me. The immense support from the crowd made me feel like a celebrity. I was filled with a sense of pride knowing that I was her guide. I was the one protecting her. It was euphoric.
As the finish line approached, I noticed the race volunteers dragging out a huge ribbon to stretch across the line. This was for Walsh to break through; she was about to come in first place out of all of the challenged athletes. I have never gotten to break through one of these huge ribbons myself, but as a team I don’t know if the feeling can be beat.
The emotions I experienced after the race are indescribable.
My whole life I competed in hundreds of races for myself. I worked hard at the academy to gain my second lieutenant “butter bars” and trained hours on end to better myself. This race was about someone else – for her glory, instead of mine.
The fact that I was able to make it possible for Walsh to continue fulfilling her dreams of racing triathlons, even though she couldn’t see, was the most rewarding experience of my life. I have never been happier than the moment I got to see her up on the podium receiving a huge check for her first-place finish. I will never forget the tears of joy on the faces of the people in the crowd.
I now train harder so I can be faster the next time I compete alongside Walsh. When I work toward something that involves more than just me it makes it easier to give my all. I encourage other athletes and service members to try out this mindset as well.
Editor’s Note: The Challenged Athlete Foundation is a private organization and has no governmental status.
PHOTO: Second Lt. Samantha Morrison, 4th Fighter Wing public affairs officer, assists Patricia Walsh, a blind paratriathlete, during the 10-kiometer run portion of the New York City Triathlon July 14, 2013. (Courtesy photo)