Monday, January 14, 2013

The Pilot Program

I am her eyes and she is my stoker. Both reliant on one another, both committed to overcoming obstacles both on and off the bike. Both aligned toward one goal and one goal only: going as fast as humanly possible on a tandem bike.
On our own, we are accomplished both on and off the bike. She's the first legally blind person to complete the Iditarod, a 1,049+ mile race across Alaska. She's been on the para-cycling team for the past couple of years, showing massive potential that she has what it takes to earn to compete at the international level. She lives in Bend, Oregon completely off the grid and tends to over 100 dogs at her families dog mushing company. Her regular pilot couldn't make the camp, so I got to substitute in.

My story began as a pioneer in the first women's boxing world championship, having tragedy strike when I lost my husband to a rock climbing accident in 2008, and then reinventing myself in wonderful Colorado and loving once again. I moved to Colorado Springs in August 2011 and have embraced the high altitude, dry climate and athlete lifestyle. I love new challenges.

I think it's safe to say we're both driven and we both enjoy bucking the status quo. We both believe the only thing that can limit you is not dreaming big enough.
I first met Rachael in a small dorm room at the Chula Vista, California this past week at the Olympic Training Center. I had so many questions for her (how did she complete the Iditarod? What's the severity of her blindness? What was it like growing up?) and immediately liked her. She openly answered my barrage of questions and I answered hers. It's a good thing we got along as we were paired up on a tandem with over 20 hours of training for the week for the Para-Cycling National Team Camp. Right from the start we had to establish a baseline level of trust and synchronicity. Our combined weight of bodies and equipment easily topped 320 pounds and the surrounding hills of the training center are large. There's only one way we could conquer any defiance of gravity: team work.

As it turns out, it's not individual accomplishments or power to weight ratio that set a tandem team apart from the other. Sure it helps that both people have a level of fitness, excellent balance and strong core. But what really sets a tandem team apart is as simple as the combined effort. The synching of power, communication and sheer grit. In order to get the most out of each other, we both had to be 100% committed. And I had to learn how to communicate clearly, concisely and accurately.
"We're almost to the top." Such an ambiguous statement does nothing for how much more power she needs to contribute to get to the top of a hill. It says nothing about the length or duration of the effort.
The first full day on the bike I sounded like a head cheer leader. In retrospect, I'm not sure who I was saying it for. "Push harder. Champions are made a day at a time. Come one Rachael, dig! Rio is coming fast. Let's GO! Come on!" Eventually she commented back, "Coming!!!" I finally figured out I needed to shut up. It's nothing personal. And as it turns out, the quieter I was, the more synched up we became. I could hear her breathing, I could tune into my intuitive sense more. When I asked for "more" she gave me more.
At first I was trying to force things. I was trying to will us up hills and my inner cheerer bubbled out. By the end of the week after getting a cold and feeling the effects of fatigue, I stopped wasting any energy than was absolutely necessary. "Bump," to which she'd raise her rump off the saddle. "More," to which she'd supply more power. "Up," meant stand up and sprint. That's it. We started pulling away from the group. We won 2 out of 3 sprints. We found our combined climbing legs. Hot damn, we were synched!
We climbed the Honey Stinger time trial course the last day of camp, besting our previous time with fresh legs and a serious headwind. I pushed Rachael to her limit as she could barely walk when we got to the top. And she puked. Last one, best one.
That night we were pretty excited and sad to conclude the camp. We both gained a lot - not only fitness and the realization that less is more, but also a friendship. I look forward to seeing her again in the future. And even if we don't get to pair up on a tandem bike again this year, I look forward to racing next to her with another stoker.


Greta Neimanas said...

A lot of pilots have come to various camps and have struggled to get synched with their stokers. You two did really well!

Michelle Stiles said...

This is a truely amazing story Jen. Gave me goosebumps.

Aussie kev said...

I have learnt to shout "bump" to my wife when we ride !!!

Jennifer Triplett said...

Ah, thanks for the encouragement everyone! It was a great experience and I look forward to more in the future.