Legally Blind Man Finishes Local Triathlon with Help of Guide

Legally Blind Man Finishes Local Triathlon with Help of Guide

This summer James Gilliard and Terri Hayes learned a bit about themselves, the intensity of racing and the kindness of people. James, 35 and legally blind, was the first disabled person ever to register, train for and finish the Naperville Sprint Triathlon. He did it with the help of his guide Terri Hayes, triathlete, NRC friend, and owner of Artistic Creations Salon in downtown Naperville.

Terri said she was approached to train James by a mutual friend, a member of the Naperville Noon Lions Club who had met James when he needed a guide for the Naperville Turkey Trot. "I was a little nervous, never having done this before. I don't know if I had any specific expectations at first, other then I knew I had to figure out a way to get James to the finish line on race day, no matter what," Terri said.

Early on, they sought help and inspiration by reaching out to professional paratriathlete, Patricia Walsh. "I was awestruck," Terri said. "Here was a pro triathlete I had never met, who was willing to give advice and ask nothing in return. That was the start of many kind gestures that were made for James along the way." Between the advice and inspiration they received from Patricia and the generous sponsorships and donations from area businesses, James and Terri were able to get the equipment they needed to complete the triathlon.

For the 400 meter swim James and Terri were tied together at the waist with a bungee cord tether that they fashioned themselves. For the 20k bike, they rode a modified tandem, customize to fit James's tall frame, while accommodating Terri's shorter legs. They finished the race by running the 5k side-by-side, Terri verbally navigating through directions and obstacles.

James and Terri began their training in February 2015, running and swimming three days per week. James was a breaststroker and Terri taught him freestyle, so he could be faster in the swim. Over the next few months they and gradually increased their time together and moved outside for longer workouts. They incorporated open water swimming, tandem cycling and "brick" workouts, a common triathlete workout consisting of a bike ride immediately followed by a run. Though James and Terri were thrilled to finish the race and achieve their goal of 80 minutes, James said sees some room for improvement. "Our transitions were slow, so we need to work on figuring out how to transition faster," he said. "I have to work with Terri on how to transition faster." Terri said through their months of training together they were inspired by each other and learned from their mistakes. "James was so motivated to complete the event he would give 110% and didn't let his disability stop him!" she said. "My reward was seeing him succeed and get better, stronger and happier through the training. He seemed to become a new person. We were able to accept each other's mistakes, because it was a learning process for both of us."

While he does not have a favorite leg of the triathlon except "the beer leg," James said the run was the most challenging part of the race. He said at the beginning of the run, he experienced some cramping and IT band pain. "The body is just dead at that point," he said, but after some walking and stretching, they finished together in stride.

Both Terri and James agreed that what they did not expect during the race, and will prepare for going forward, was the intensity of some other racers during the swim leg. James said other racers tried to swim over them and in between them. "It was beyond just being competitive. People are sometimes in such a hurry to cross the finish line that they can become unsportsmanlike," James said. "It was just something I couldn't replicate in training for James," Terri said. "So, I verbally told people as much as I could that we were tied together and they should go around us. After awhile I had to go into safety mode, as it was my job to keep James safe. I had to use my body to keep people away, using my elbow or knee."

But with this triathlon under their belts, James will be prepared for that and whatever else is thrown at him at his next race, the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in September. James said he would love to see other disabled athletes become involved in triathlon and encourages them find a coach, a guide and to give it a try, despite their fears. "Just get out and start doing it. It's not going to be perfect in the beginning. It's going to be a challenge, but it is well worth it, James said. "You get to meet a lot of great people on the way. The amount of support that we got at the races we have done in the last months has been incredible at every single place."

Terri said being James' guide was a great experience for her and wants to tell people not to be afraid to sign up to be a guide. "Every athlete has different needs, and you will discover that through training. Know that it won't always be perfect training day and it's okay. You can be any level of athlete to be a guide for an athlete with disabilities," Terri said. "Be prepared to have a new friend for life and an experience that can be life changing!"

Visually impaired runners can find guides at, a website that helps match guide to people who need them throughout the US. Sighted athletes can also visit that web site if they are interested in becoming a guide.

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