Christine Robbins laughs nervously when she explains what it’s like to sit on a tandem bicycle with nearly no vision while a teammate steers and yells out instructions that involve her shifting her weight as they turn while tearing along at upwards of 40 km/h. “You’re giving up all that control,” says Robbins. “Trust is absolutely massive.” And in her case, not just on land.
The 38-year-old Robbins, who is visually impaired, will be competing along with her guide, Sasha Boulton, in one of two new sports at the Paralympic Games, the paratriathlon. The Ontario-based duo, together since 2014, is ranked eighth in the world and will compete against teams from nine other countries.
Robbins, whose two aunts competed internationally for Canada in show jumping and alpine skiing respectively, was born with very limited vision—if it’s sunny out, she can hardly see a thing. What a person with 20/20 vision could spot from 60 metres away, she’ll see only at about six metres. Says Robbins: “I don’t have any reaction time at all.”
That’s where Boulton comes in. The pair are tethered at the hip for both the swim and the run. There are a lot of rules: Boulton can’t use the tether to pull Robbins at any point, she can’t cross the finish line first, she can’t be the first to touch the bike, and there’s a maximum distance she’s allowed to run in front of Robbins. “The first race we did together, I thought I’d get disqualified for anything I did,” Boulton says. And she was terrified the first time the two got on a tandem bike—though she only revealed this to Robbins recently. “It was so wobbly—I thought we were definitely going to crash.” Luckily, they didn’t.
That Robbins found Boulton, she says, has been a difference-maker. It isn’t easy to find a guide. “You’re looking for somebody who’s willing to kind of sacrifice her own goals,” Robbins says. For Boulton, though, it’s more a second lease on her career. A competitive triathlete who suffered a nearly career-ending back injury, the 22-year-old can no longer train for triathlon distances. Since the paratriathlon is shorter—a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre bike and five-kilometre run—Boulton can train pain-free.
There are 16 years between her and Robbins, and that’s a benefit, too. She has to be a step ahead at all times—except at the very finish. “Christine can be having her best race ever, and you have to be able to keep up and be able to talk so you can tell her where to go,” Boulton says.
Communication varies for every team, though they all study the course extensively beforehand. Robbins gets a tap on the head in the water, which means a buoy is approaching, and she’ll know which direction to turn.
Rio, though, will mark the last time Boulton taps Robbins on the head—Robbins is retiring, and she’s hoping she does so after her best race ever. Though it took some time, the bike—the most terrifying event, if you ask Robbins—is now their strength. “I don’t even have brakes,” Robbins says with a laugh.
“But we really get going.”
The women’s paratriathlon takes place on Sunday, Sept. 11.