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UC personal trainer guides legally blind athlete in races worldwide to bring dream of Paralympic gold into focus
Colin Riley begins every paratriathlon knowing he has no shot at standing alone atop the podium.
And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Riley, a certified nutritionist and personal trainer for UC’s Campus Recreation Center, is a sighted guide for Aaron Scheidies, a world champion and visually impaired athlete from Seattle. Together, the two have traveled the globe competing in paratriathlons and are literally tethered at the waist as they run a 5K and swim 750 meters.
During the 20K road race, Riley is up front steering their tandem bike, or the “pain train” as they affectionately refer to it.
“For me it’s very exciting and rewarding to be a part of this journey with Aaron,” says Riley, himself a national triathlon champion. “For a change it’s not all about me, instead it’s an opportunity to use my gifts and abilities to help someone else achieve their goals while representing the USA.”
Scheidies, impaired since childhood with juvenile onset macular degeneration, is a physical therapist and eight-time elite paratriathlon world champion. Paratriathlons include multiple classes of competition (depending on ability) and Scheidies competes with other visually impaired athletes who also use a sighted guide.
Today, he has just 15 percent of his normal vision and requires a guide. But when his vision wasn’t quite as poor, he followed the sounds of the splashes in the water, and his parents would even ride the bicycle course for him before an event, noting where the bumps, turns and landmarks were so he could memorize them.
Since 2013, however, he has relied on Riley, and the two have been finding first-place finishes together ever since, including at the Paratriathlon World Championships last year.
“The great thing about Colin is that I know that his heart is always in the right place and that he is committed to doing what is best for me, not for what it could do for him,” says Scheidies. “Many guides will try to take control and take the lead and make the race their own, but Colin was never like that, which allowed me to completely trust him.”
Without that trust, they would get nowhere.
“I am very high energy, emotional and animated, but Colin just lets me do my thing and knows me well and that I will focus when I need to. A good guide like Colin takes a very ‘me’ sport and makes it a ‘team’ sport, and that makes it so much fun.”
The key to competing well together, it seems, is nearly as much about communication as it is endurance and strength. Scheidies explains that a guide/athlete relationship is a whole lot like a marriage. Communication becomes the most important part of their success.
With the sounds of cheering spectators and that of water swishing against their ears as they bob up and down during swims, it is impossible to hear directions in the water. So they have a system.
“We are tethered around the hips,” says Riley. “And Aaron knows where to go based on the pull of the tether. I am constantly ‘sighting,’ ensuring we are going in the right direction.
“If Aaron swims off to the right, he will feel the tether pull and correct himself and swim back toward me. If he swims into me, then he knows he needs to make a small adjustment to the right to keep swimming straight. It’s pretty much the same thing when we run together. The tether is our communication.”
As for the bike, Riley gives a warning when turns are approaching so they can lean into it in tandem. And these days, it’s all about cycling. The duo currently has their sights set squarely on the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro next year. Since a visually impaired paratriathlon category does not yet exist in the Paralympics, however, they plan to compete in just the para-cycling individual events.As a result, for the past several months, they’ve been globe-trotting from North Carolina to Mexico to Italy to Switzerland and spinning their way to wins at each event.
“Hopefully I can help Aaron and the U.S. win a gold medal at the Paralympics in Rio in 2016,” says Riley.
When he isn’t guiding his friend and teammate in races worldwide, Riley can be found back at UC’s Rec Center sharing stories and motivating faculty, staff and students, most of whom have no idea how he spends his weekends.
While he enjoys his job, nothing can replace the satisfaction he gets from being around para-athletes like Aaron.
“I was always really moved and inspired by the paratriathlon talent I would see in international competitions,” said Riley. “They not only have to be every bit as fit and fast as the rest of us, but they have physical hurdles to overcome, and that is incredibly inspirational to me.”
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