ST. PETERSBURG — When the starter's gun goes off this morning at the St. Anthony's Triathlon, Kathy Champion will wade carefully into Tampa Bay, a slim yellow rope linking her at the waist to her training partner.
They'll avoid the fiercely kicking scrum of top competitors. But they face challenges all their own.
Service in Iraq left Champion, 48, blind and half-deaf, without feeling on much of her left side. As a consequence of severe post-traumatic stress, she fears crowds.
In the best conditions, she can see only rudimentary shapes and bright colors, but even that is gone in the murky bay waters. Champion is utterly dependent on the woman at the other end of the rope, Katie Morrow.
Both novice triathletes, their race plan was cobbled together with ingenuity and dry humor. Friends through service dog training, at one point they considered tethering themselves with armbands fashioned from dog collars. When they run, communication is crisp, via commands they use with Champion's guide dog, Angel.
The grueling triathlon will test more than Champion's physical endurance. Not long ago, she refused to let family or friends into the Gulfport home that she once joyfully painted the bright colors of a Mexican blanket. She declared she hated people.
But with time and hard work, she has been setting aside the stubborn pride and deep fear that kept her isolated. She wants to claim back as much of her old life as she can, but is learning she can't do it alone.
"I don't need a lot of cars and 18 rooms,'' she says. "What I do need is exercise, socialization, opportunities to be out with people and do things.
"Just because I can't see like everyone else, doesn't mean I can't be alive and be in the moment."
• • •
Champion joined the U.S. Army in 1982 as a reservist. Then a young wife, mother and science teacher in Washington state, she thought of herself as a weekend warrior getting new adventures and a break from the kids.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she was called to active duty. She spent over a year in Iraq, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel as she helped to rebuild rural communities.
On her first mission in a war zone, she survived two IED explosions that took off the front end of her vehicle. On her last day in Iraq, snipers fired on her vehicle and a medical clinic she visited was bombed.
Five men under her command died. For Champion, their loss made her own physical injuries — including concussions, a broken back and torn ligaments in her shoulder and leg — pale by comparison.
She planned to honor her men by getting back to adrenaline-pumping activity they'd all loved. Before Iraq, she had jumped from airplanes for fun, scaled mountains and run marathons.
But back home, she discovered that so many things could land her mentally back in battle.
She became panicky in crowded rooms. In the grocery store, she was paralyzed by the smell of fresh meat, which reminded her of burning flesh.
Back in the classroom, the once even-tempered teacher wanted to smack the smart-mouthed middle schoolers.
Then she woke up one morning with her left eye throbbing. Within three months, she lost vision in that eye, followed by the right. It took doctors a year to figure out that she had contracted a virus in Iraq that attacked her optic nerve.
At one point told that she wouldn't walk again, Champion installed a ramp at her home to accommodate the wheelchair she needed on days when injuries and fatigue took their toll. She became deeply depressed over losing her independence. She was prescribed 18 medications. She refused to leave her home.
One day, family members persuaded her to go scout for shark teeth in Venice, an outing calculated to appeal to a woman who studied for a doctorate in marine biology. On the way, they passed a sign for an open house for Southeastern Guide Dogs. They stopped without telling her.
"I don't like people," she told a fellow veteran she met there. "I don't like anyone."
"Oh, you'll get over it," he replied.
She couldn't help but laugh.
That day marked the beginning of ongoing physical therapy that would prove her doctors wrong, emotional work and training to cope with blindness.
• • •
The St. Anthony's Triathlon first came up as an idea just a couple of months ago. Champion and Morrow, whom she'd recently met, were sharing beers and talk of dogs.
Champion had always wanted to do a triathlon, but such races are considered too risky for service dogs. So Morrow, 28, offered to be her eyes.
Never mind that Morrow had never done a triathlon either. Or that, like Champion, she also is deaf in one ear.
The friends consulted with other blind triathletes as they devised their tethering system — rope in the water, rubber wristbands connected by elastic for the run. Champion is the only blind athlete among the 3,500 competitors in today's triathlon.
Morrow gets a breather during the biking portion of the race, which Champion will do on the back of a tandem piloted by Morrow's husband, Jeff.
To communicate, the women use the precise language they know from training guide dogs.
"Left-left," Katie Morrow directs her partner on a recent run on the Pinellas Trail, warning Champion away from the uneven surface where asphalt turns to cement.
The response, however, is one familiar to any tired runner.
"Are we there yet?" Champion asks.
• • •
About once a month, Champion puts on a blue Army dress uniform, a striped badge above her left cuff recognizing nearly 28 years of military service.
Reliving memories of Iraq remains difficult for Champion. But she forces herself to present speeches lasting just 20 minutes or so. She likes it when people say that her story has helped them.
She is learning to open herself to others. Shortly after registering for the triathlon, she returned to a counselor she once had seen for anger management. The woman was startled; she thought Champion too proud to return for help.
Champion's military uniform hides the vivid tattoos exposed by her triathlon gear. On her right shoulder and forearm is a monster besieged by seven explosions, one for each of the blasts she survived in Iraq. A shield emblazoned with Queen Bee, her call signal in Iraq, repels the monsters.
On her hip bone is an ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life, encircled by a five-point star symbolizing the men she lost.
On her inner forearm, she has a tattoo of a sun within a Chinese yin-yang, a symbol of how forces in conflict are interconnected.
Why would a blind woman get colorful tattoos? Champion finds comfort in knowing that she could be identified if she ever is struck by another blast.
Champion doesn't spend much time on introspection, which she calls psycho-babble. She has been divorced three times. She rarely visits two grown children and three grandchildren who live far way. The daughter who was 16 when Champion was deployed to Iraq has no thirst for thrills, which baffles her mother.
The sixth of 10 siblings, she was the one who brought home awards for sports, academics, and then military heroics. After she lost her vision, it took her two years to work up the courage to share Thanksgiving with her family. She didn't want them to see how she struggled just to feed and dress herself.
Every year, her mother phones on the anniversary of her brother's death in a car crash. Champion, then a teenager, was driving after drinking. She blurts out this fact, then appears to regret her own candor.
"I am not perfect," Champion says, clenching her lips so tightly that her face seems to lock up. "I just want people to live in the moment and to enjoy life."
• • •
During a recent training session at the YMCA pool, a sharp tug at the rope around her waist tells Champion to break for the water's surface. She gropes for the bottle she left somewhere on the pool ledge.
Morrow, by now attuned to signs of her partner's fatigue, decides it is time to rest.
"I am burning everywhere," Champion tells Morrow, a dimpled grin breaking through her pain.
"I am awake,'' she continues. "Not one inch of me is not awake."
Recovering in the hot tub, Champion describes the rush she gets from pushing her limits. This summer, she plans to go mountain climbing with another blind athlete. In December, she'll run a marathon in San Diego.
Why this quest for extremes?
"I am trying to get that same endorphin feeling that I got when I was in combat," she confesses.
Suddenly, she stands up, nearly colliding with several swimmers noisily entering the hot tub. The crowd was too much for her.
In recent training, injuries have prevented her from completing the full distances of today's event. She is hoping to pace herself this morning by swimming with a slow backstroke.
She and Morrow will alternate walking and running in the final phase, though Champion wants to finish with a burst of speed.
But overall, she does not care how long the race takes. Even if she has to crawl — Army style — Champion vows she will make it across the finish line.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330.