More than 3,000 competitors are expected to pack downtown this morning to compete in the 30th-annual St. Anthony’s Triathlon, and thousands more will be cheering them on.
In another life, one of the competitors, Kathy Champion, was a lieutenant corporal in the U.S. Army, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of four tours. The 48-year-old’s 27-year military career ended in 2008, after seven improvised explosive devices hit her convoy in Iraq, severely injuring her. Shortly after returning to the States, Champion lost her vision.
Competing today marks an important milestone for the Gulfport woman, and for those who have been aiding her recovery. Getting here wasn’t easy, though.
In 2008, Champion was a doctoral student at University of South Florida, studying the medicinal benefits of phytoplankton. Then one day, she went blind.
“You never forget the day you wake up and can’t see,” she said.
Doctors attributed her loss of sight to a mysterious degenerative virus she caught while serving in Iraq. It came on the heels of a recovery from the IED attack, which nearly paralyzed her.
“I basically broke my back and tore ligaments in my shoulders,” she said. “[The doctors] didn’t think I would walk again, but I said I was going to walk again.”
Staying alive was part of the reason she chose to become more physically active, despite feeling incapacitated by her injury.
“I knew that after going through physical therapy at Bay Pines that if I didn’t get physical, my depression was going to take over,” she said.
After six months of learning how to walk again, it took several years for her to gain back her athletic abilities, nurtured in childhood.
Now, with the help of a husband and wife team, she’ll be running. And swimming. And bicycling.
Katie Morrow, 28 will swim and run in tandem with Champion. They’ll be connected to each other by a rope. Morrow’s husband Jeff, 36, will lead Champion on a two-seat bicycle for the race’s middle portion. Champion met the couple through the Morrows’ volunteer work training guide dogs. Champion and Katie Morrow are both avid runners, but neither had done a triathlon.
The three have been training religiously for the past six weeks.
Some aspects of training are easier than others, Katie Morrow said.
“The swimming was definitely our biggest gamble,” she said.
Learning to transition from one mode to another, a tough feat even among seasoned triathlon participants, was also tough, especially since they couldn’t practice that during their training regiment.
“Unfortunately you can’t really practice that until race day,” Morrow said.
St. Anthony’s Triathlon is something of a warm-up for many athletes heading into the competitive racing season. For Champion, getting to the finish line is all that matters.
“Finishing is winning,” she said.
If today goes well, Champion and the Morrows said they’ll train for other triathlons.
In addition to inspiring other veterans to pursue their goals – be they completing a triathlon or knitting a scarf – Champion also wants to help those in dire straits. In the next year, she hopes to set up a hotel for veterans and their families near the beach as well as Bay Pines Veterans Administration hospital.