Q&A: Tokyo Hopefuls In Triathlon and Paratriathlon Explain The Differences And Similarities In Their Sport

by Lisa Costantini

Taylor Spivey competes for Team USA in triathlon. Photo credit - USA Triathlon


As the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be seeing unprecedented television coverage this year — with a record 1,200 hours and a primetime slot — more eyes will be on Paralympians than ever before.
And while some para sports are almost identical to their Olympic counterparts — take triathlon, for example — an athletes experience with the same sport can be very different.
So we asked Tokyo triathlon hopefuls Taylor Spivey and two-time Paralympian Chris Hammer to answer the same questions about their sport, ultimately revealing how many similarities there are versus differences.
Hammer, who was born with only one hand, qualified for London in 2012 in the 1,500-meters and the marathon, and competed in triathlon in Rio when the sport made its Paralympic debut. Having just missed the podium in 2016, the 35-year-old hopes to make his third Paralympic team later this month when he competes for a spot on the team. 
Spivey, 30 — a fourth-place overall finisher in the 2019 ITU World Triathlon series — is looking to qualify for Tokyo in triathlon, which has been on the Olympic program since 2000.
Both national team members will compete in early May for a chance to qualify for a spot on Team USA. The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will take place this summer from July 24-Aug. 9, with the Paralympic Games happening two weeks later from Aug. 24-Sept. 5.

Spivey: I love the variability of being able to do three different sports. I grew up as a swimmer, and I think after a while it got pretty boring. So being able to go on a bike ride outside, explore new places, or go out on a run — it makes me happy and it feels a bit more adventurous. I just like mixing it up.
Hammer: I have been a lifelong athlete, but it was endurance sports that I excelled at. I was a runner before I was a triathlete, and triathlon presented a new challenge. Once I got into it, I fell in love with that challenge. I love pushing myself, challenging myself, just trying to see how good I can be — whatever it is I choose to do.

Spivey: I think the hardest thing is probably how much we train, and how little time we have for anything else. The amount of hours that it requires is pretty taxing and you have to just give up some of the things that you like to do. 
Hammer: For me, it’s just how time consuming it is. There is such a time demand to that, and as someone who has a job [as a NCAA triathlon coach at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia], a wife and kids, I am unable to put forth all the hours that I physically could do if I was able to. USA Triathlon is very supportive, even financially so. I’m hopefully going to be a three-time Paralympian, but I’ve never been able to just be a pro athlete — whereas on the Olympic side, it’s more common to see people who are able to pursue this sport as their career. 

Spivey: My favorite always changes. But I think most of the time, it’s running. It's the easiest to do in terms of just putting on a pair of shoes, going outside and going for a run or getting lost in the forest. Or, just pack a pair of running shoes and hop on a plane. It's not like packing a bike or having to seek out a pool.
Hammer: My favorite to train is the swim, which is ironically my worst event of the three. But when it comes down to a race, I have the most fun running because I know that’s when I’m strongest, and hopefully that’s when I can put myself in the best position possible. 

Spivey: Probably swimming because I’ve done it for so long, and you don’t get to explore new places.
Hammer: Swimming was the hardest for me — I think because I never had a background in it, outside of being able to be in the water without feeling like I was going to drown. I never knew any strokes. I didn’t get into the sport until a few years after college when I tried to seriously learn how to swim. I wish I had started at an earlier age.

Spivey: I think going from the swim to the bike is usually really hard. In the last few years I've been racing such strong bikers, and they really push the pace at the end of the swim and the beginning of the bike. That’s always one of the hardest moments in the race.
Hammer: As a para athlete, I was born with one hand so this is all I know. I have to adapt things from how able-bodied people do things, but I don’t really give it any thought. I do find it difficult going from horizontal (in the water) to vertical (to get on the bike). But I think it’s just because I’m a weaker swimmer, so I use more energy in the swim and I’m less efficient. So by the time I’m done with it, I’m a bit more tired.

Spivey: People don’t know how much we have to travel and what it requires to lug our equipment around the world. Packing up, not just once in a while, but we’re constantly packing and unpacking. Being on the road 11 months out of the year, we don’t have that stability. 
Hammer: People aren’t aware that para sports exist. I didn’t know until I was almost out of my undergraduate — and I grew up with an impairment my entire life. 

Spivey: I think we have a huge advantage [when it comes to traveling]. I mean, I might be complaining about packing a bike, but [some of them] have to pack so much more. I’ve seen some of the boxes that they bring to the check-in counters at airports, and everything that goes into it. I have a lot of respect for what they do. 
Hammer: No. We’re just different. Obviously with para athletes, one challenge that we have to overcome is a physical challenge. But I think every person — Olympian, Paralympian, or your everyday person — has a challenge that they have to overcome.  

Spivey: Very expensive. At the beginning I was working 40-50 hours a week, supporting myself, flying myself out to all the races, buying all the equipment. 
Balancing it was really difficult and I’m sure a lot of the para triathletes have to do that. I’m so grateful not to have to do that anymore because I’ve slowly moved up in the world ranking. That’s allowed me to get more support from USA Triathlon, get more sponsors and when I perform well I get prize money and bonuses.
Hammer: It’s very expensive. But USA Triathlon has been really generous with their resources, helping to provide equipment for their national team athletes. I wouldn’t be able to pay for that stuff out of my own pocket. You can buy speed in triathlon — more than you can buy speed in other sports. You can buy faster bikes, faster helmets, faster components, and now even faster running shoes. That adds up. It could be over $10,000 when you have everything.

Lisa Costantini is a freelance writer based in Orlando. She has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications, and has contributed to since 2011.