My friend Eliza Cooper is blind, and she’s been training to race in NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim across the East River tomorrow. Eliza is a strong swimmer – she’s
completed six, count them, six, triathlons already. The distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn is less than a mile, but now that NYC Swim director Morty Berger has decided that athletes with disabilities have to pay an extra fee, she probably won’t participate.
Eliza is 28 years old, and I got to know her in Morristown, N.J. when I was training with my third Seeing Eye dog, Harper. We liked each other the minute we met, and when she got matched with Harper’s brother Harris, we knew it was fate, and that we’d stay in touch.
Eliza trains with Achilles International (they help athletes with disabilities prepare for races) and NY Info published an article this week after she and five other Achilles athletes were told they’d have to pay extra to participate tomorrow.
NYC Swim director Morty Berger said he added extra requirements for athletes with disabilities because of construction around the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Due to the construction, this year all athletes will need to jump off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side to start the race. They’ll have to climb onto what Berger calls an “uneven” exit at the Brooklyn Bridge Park to end the race, too. And so, Berger decided that Achilles would have to ensure that its swimmers are covered under Achilles’ policy if they want to participate, And Achilles must pay $700 for boats to trail swimmers with disabilities in case they need help. “I am the lifeguard and I have to make the calls as it relates to safety,” Berger said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I want to go swimming when there’s lightning out,’”
Achilles rejected the additional demands. “I told them if it was unsafe for my athletes, it was unsafe for everyone else,” Achilles coach Kathleen Bateman said in the article. Eliza is quoted in the article, too, questioning whether any other minority group would feel okay about paying extra to participate in an event like this: “We do not need extra boats or extra help,” she told the reporter, and I believe her. A few years ago Eliza was featured in a piece Eleanor Goldberg wrote after competing in the New York City triathlon with Eliza and 11 other Achilles athletes. They swam 1 mile, biked 26 miles up and down hill terrain, and ran 6.2 miles in Central Park. Eliza managed to fix three flat tires during the event and never once considered giving up.
Eliza is training for her first half Ironman now, and based on her previous times, she stood a pretty good chance of winning an award at tomorrow’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim. From the article:
“It’s especially unfair when they don’t know how hard they’ve trained or how much of their heart and soul go into it,” she said. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works… for someone to say no, it’s really disheartening.”
So what do you think? I understand the organizer’s concerns, but I’ve learned a lot from Eliza. Maybe swimming in a tidal estuary is too dangerous, but if the other swimmers are given the option to make that judgment for themselves, then the Achilles athletes should be given that choice, too. Agree? Disagree? Eager to hear what you blog readers think — leave a comment and let me know.