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Encinitas blind triathlete Amy Dixon heading to Tokyo for Paralympics

Amy Dixon, right, and her guide Kirsten Sass, win the 2019 Triathlon-USA Paratriathlon National Championships in Long Beach.
Amy Dixon, right, and her guide Kirsten Sass, left, react after finishing first place in the female vision-impaired division during the Legacy Triathlon-USA Paratriathlon National Championships on July 20, 2019, in Long Beach.
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The 45-year-old paralympian overcame a year of major health crises to qualify for games

This time last year, blind triathlete Amy Dixon was in the best shape of her life. The Encinitas resident ranked sixth in the world among her peers and had qualified to compete for Team USA in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

The 2020 games were derailed by the global pandemic, but that was one of the smaller setbacks the 45-year-old athlete has faced over the past 12 months. Although she qualified again last week for the 2021 Paralympics and will fly to Tokyo on Aug. 19, Dixon is not the same athlete she was.

She has spent most of the past year battling severe health issues including blood clots in her lungs that nearly killed her last December. Just being able to participate — after six years of training full time for her paralympic dreams — is the only “victory lap” she’s hoping for now.

“It’s not how I imagined my games going, but I don’t think anyone will be more grateful on that starting line than me,” Dixon said. “I almost died eight months ago. The fact that I’m still here and representing my country, it’s now going to be about the body of work I put together, not in race-winning competition.”

Amy Dixon of Encinitas with her guide dog, Woody, at a rally event in Del Mar in 2018.
(Amy Dixon)

Twenty-three years ago, Dixon was working as a certified sommelier, in college training for a career as a virus researcher and hoping to compete one day as an equestrian in the Olympics. But at age 22, she was diagnosed with multifocal choroiditis, a rare autoimmune eye disease linked to juvenile rheumatic arthritis, which she’d had since age 10.

The eye disease would eventually rob Dixon of 98 percent of her sight. Today she has extreme tunnel vision, meaning she can see only a tiny fraction of what’s in front of her and everything else is black. She gave up horse-back riding, lost her driver’s license many years ago and was also forced to give up her career and sports dreams. That led to a tailspin of depression until 2012, when a disabled friend challenged the Connecticut native to swim in a 1-mile charity race.

It took her 47 minutes, but she finished and felt exhilarated. After a year of training, she entered her first paratriathlon in 2013 and did well enough to earn an invitation to the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s paratriathlete development camp in San Diego. There, she was humbled and inspired by the other athletes, may of them war veterans and amputees. That experience changed her attitude to focus on what she could achieve rather than what she couldn’t.

She started focusing on training for the Paralympic games and in 2017 she moved to Encinitas where year-round running, swimming and biking was easier than in her native New England. Although she didn’t qualify for the 2016 Paralympics, in the years since she has earned gold medals at eight world championships and three national titles in cycling and triathlon.

Blind triathletes travel the race course with a guide, who swims 750 meters and runs 5 kilometers beside them on a flexible tether, and also takes the front seat of a tandem bicycle for a 20-kilometer ride. The guides are able to help the blind athletes during the challenging periods of transitioning from wetsuit to running gear. The guide’s job also involves warning the athlete of obstacles, turns and difficult terrain. Dixon’s guide for the past four years has been Kirsten Sass of Tennessee, who will be by her side in Tokyo.

Blind triathlete Amy Dixon, foreground, and her guide Christy Fritts swim in a 2016 aquathon world championship in Mexico.
Blind triathlete Amy Dixon, foreground, and her guide Christy Fritts swim in the 2016 Cozumel ITU Aquathon World Championship in Cozumel, Mexico.
(Tommy Zaferes/ITU Media)

Dixon has forged a new career as a professional spokeswoman, educator and advocate. She’s president of Glaucoma Eyes International, does patient education videos for glaucoma pharmaceutical firms and does vision patient education for the Shiley Eye Institute in San Diego. In 2017, she created No Sight No Limits, a weeklong camp for aspiring blind and deaf-blind paratriathletes, held each year in Encinitas. And this year she was one of more than 30 U.S. athletes recruited by former President Barack Obama to use their social media accounts to encourage the public to get COVID vaccines.

“I really love using my platform as a paralympic athlete and national champion to inspire people with vision loss that they can lead very full lives. My life is better after I lost my vision than it was before,” she said.

When the 2020 games were postponed last year, Dixon initially saw it as a “godsend,” because she wouldn’t need to compete anymore to earn qualifying points for 2021 so she could focus on improving her race times.

Then on Aug. 1, 2020, her right shoulder became massively swollen. Doctors thought it might be connected to her history of auto-immune disease. Within a few months, the swelling was so severe it was dislocating her shoulder every night as she slept. By October she needed surgery to repair the joint where the swollen tissue had chipped the surrounding bones.

Then on Dec. 3, she began experiencing shortness of breath and was rushed to the hospital the next morning. Doctors found multiple blood clots in both lungs. After 5 days in the hospital she suffered a pulmonary infarction, which is lung cell death caused by the clots.

Meanwhile, as a symptom of her arthritis, her body began retaining fluids and she gained 40 pounds in just six weeks. Dixon said the extra weight made training difficult, caused injuries and pressure on her joints and led to an eating disorder because she said she stopped eating for fear of gaining more weight. To treat the swelling and fluid retention, she started taking immunosuppressant and chemotherapy drugs. She’s beginning to feel better now, but she recently restarted chemo.

Despite all of her health struggles, Dixon, and her guide Sass, had no trouble re-qualifying on June 27 for the 13-member 2021 U.S. team at the Paralympic trials in Wisconsin, where they won the bronze medal. Although Dixon is nearly twice as old as most of the women she competes against, she said her experience, endurance and tolerance for pain give her a competitive edge. Since temperatures in Tokyo are expected to be 110 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, she’s doing all her training now in desert- and sauna-like conditions.

Because of her age, Dixon said it’s unlikely she’ll ever return to the Paralympics, so she may retire from the sport later this year. Dixon will be one of 10 international women competing in paratriathlon events Aug. 27 and 28. Because she’s not in her desired peak shape, she said she’s not expecting to win at the Paralympics, but she’s not ruling out surprising herself with a medal.

“I’m just excited to take it all in,” she said. “I hope to have a great day where I feel good and feel healthy and just enjoy the experience.”


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