By Kathleen McAuliffe
Swimming 750 meters, cycling 24.8 miles and then running 6.2 miles is demanding enough.
But at this year’s USA Triathlon national championships, Ashley Eisenmenger couldn’t see the pool before diving into the water. She didn’t know which way to turn on her bike. She couldn’t monitor her running pace on a watch. She couldn’t even reach for her water bottle.
But for Eisenmenger, a national champion triathlete who is legally blind, it’s her reason to wake up every morning.
“To give the most I have to give,” she said, “not in just in triathlon but in life. It’s about discipline and structure. That’s what triathlon gives me.”
With no vision in her left eye and limited, fading vision in her right, Eisenmenger, 20, has been legally blind since birth. Despite her physical limitations, the Tolono, Ill. native played softball and basketball during middle school. When she started high school, she turned to running to cope with social changes and her diminishing vision.
“I wanted something that I knew I could do no matter what changed and that was running,” she said. “If the remainder of my vision was gone, I could still tether to a guide and still run.”
During high school, Eisenmenger ran 5Ks and half marathons while tethered by her waist to a guide. Finding a partner for every single run was difficult in the beginning, she said, but between family, friends and others in Central Illinois’ vibrant running community, she could usually find someone.
In 2014, one of those guides, a former college triathlete, suggested she enter a triathlon. Eisenmenger initially was hesitant. But once she entered her first race, she was hooked.
Long-distance swimming and cycling are challenging for any athlete, and Eisenmenger acknowledges that her visual impairment complicates her training.
“The biggest obstacle is finding good guides, ones that can meet my needs while racing,” Eisenmenger said
Eisenmenger’s guides meet needs that other triathletes take for granted.
While swimming, she and her guide are connected by a tether at their ankles. They ride together on a tandem bike, with the guide steering in the front seat. While running, her guide alerts her to turns and elevation changes. Guides also helps her transition between stages.
USA Triathlon rules prohibit guides from leading or pulling their athletes, requiring Eisenmenger and her guide to compete side-by-side, step by step, for over an hour.
“Competing with another person be can logistically difficult because you do everything together,” she said. “Finding the right match fitness-wise and personality-wise is always important.”
She finds her guides at Dare2Tri Paratriathlon Club, a training program in Chicago for 300 triathletes with disabilities. The organization pairs disabled athletes with volunteer guides and subsidizes athletes’ equipment and racing costs. Aside from the practical benefits, it creates a community of like-minded athletes, said Ashley Schrader, Marketing and Public Relations Manager of Dare2Tri.
“It’s cool because you’re not ever alone because there are other athletes doing similar things,” Eisenmenger said. “I have a team of coaches and other staff that are willing to come to bat for me if I’m not sure how to handle things.”
In 2016, Eisenmenger began competing in a division against other visually impaired athletes, earning wins this summer at the Transamerica Chicago Triathlon and Leon’s Triathlon. But her proudest moment came in August at the USA Triathlon Championships, when she became a national champion.
“We were coming into the home stretch of the run and my guide was like, ‘You got it. I don’t see the girls behind us. You’ve got it,’” she said. “It was incredible.
“I didn’t know what to expect going into that race. It was my first nationals and it was all coming into place. It was a mixture of relief, pure joy and exhaustion all at once.”
The win surprised Eisenmenger, but her Dare2Tri coach saw it as a crowning moment.
“It was cool for me to see her start to get the recognition that she deserves from our sport’s governing body [USA Triathlon]….to see her realize that she did have a future in this,” Keri Serota said.
Coming off of a breakthrough year, Eisenmenger is working to repeat her early successes.
“The one thing that stands out [about Ashley] is the serious athlete and competitor she is,” Serota said. “She sees herself as an athlete first, not as someone with a disability who happens to be an athlete.”