Every journey starts with that initial small step

Read Leo Hynes story on how he discovered his passion for cycling and triathlons #ImInToo

Well here is my little story, in 2009 I was diagnosed with an eye condition called Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), if you never heard of it, me either at the time. Basically, blood vessels leak in the back of your eye causing loss of Central Vision. Treatment was to get a needle injection into the eyeball, people’s reactions is always the same when I tell them. Shrug their shoulders and shake their head, bet you’re doing it right now. This treatment worked for several years but in August 2015 the injections stopped working with no other treatments possible my vision deteriorated rapidly. I’m now left with approximately only 10% vision in my right eye and I’m now classified as legally blind or Visually Impaired.

“Face in the right direction and take the first small step. Every journey starts with that initial small step.

Do it for your friends, do it for your family but most of all do it for yourself!”

As you can imagine this led to huge changes in my life and my family’s lives, both physically and mentally. It was a dark period in my life. I went through all the stages that most people go through with some dramatic event in their lives; denial, anger, frustration and finally acceptance.

I had become withdrawn and did not venture out of the house, almost afraid any one would see me, say “Hello” and for me to not recognise them and for them to think I was ignoring them. It was not just affecting me as an individual but also the, at times forgotten, family.

The turning point was, attending a “Try a Sports Day” organised by Galway Sports Partnership in 2017 where, I met with up with Galway Visually Impaired Activity group and was introduced to riding a tandem for the first time. I immediately fell in love with the freedom of riding a bicycle again, albeit from the back seat. As a group we would go for leisurely Sunday spins every two weeks on tandem bikes. My wife Aisling and I finally made the decision to get our own tandem and it arrived from UK by courier a week before Christmas. I couldn’t wait to try it out but ice, snow and frost delayed any notion of going for a spin. Our maiden voyage was in our estate, cycling around all the loops getting used to the tandem. Our tandem learning experience didn’t go unnoticed as we met Tommy outside the Leaf and Bean café, he said he saw us on our new bike around the estate and he casually volunteered to take me out for a spin. Neither he nor I realised what we had let ourselves in for. Our first trip was to Ballindine and back home (approximately 20km), we both nearly had small heart attacks along the way. After a few more outings, Tommy suggested going for a Sunday cycle with the Tri Lakes Triathlon club, “no problem” I said. At the start we found it tough but over time, getting fitter it became easier. On these rides I met new people and made new friends. Talking and slagging, led to rumblings of Leo, “why don’t you do a triathlon”. My answer was “are you mad?”. A shout from the back of the group said “I’ll do one with you”, it was Stephen the club chairman. “Ok, sound” I said jokingly. Another shout was “You’ll be well able for it”, unofficially now adopted as the club motto. I’d now made a commitment but how do we do it? After a bit of research on You Tube and Google, I discovered that a Visually Impaired athlete will be tethered (tied) to a guide with a 1 m bungee cord for the swim, use a tandem for the bike section and be tethered together for the run. Training started with Stephen on the tandem, going to Lough Hackett to swim and short runs around the park. Stephen and myself competed in the clubs cycling time trial series and did quite well.

 

My first Sprint triathlon as a VI (visually impaired) athlete was on the 16th of June 2018 in Westport with Stephen, this was it. It was now real, as we set off in our van into the unknown. As usual at the start of every triathlon, after a bit of pushing and shoving we got into our rhythm. About 20 minutes and 750m swim later we were helped out of the water that’s the swim done. Next onto the bike, we knew we would be ok on the 20km bike leg. We were amazed by all the support we got from the side lines but most of all from other competitors on the route who we passed with shouts of “fair play lads, ye are flying it” and “well done”. There’s something special about fellow competitors taking the time to acknowledge your efforts and supporting you. After 35 minutes, bike done. Now as my club mates know, my least favourite the run. 5km of undulating trail run around Westport house, again the support we were greeted with was amazing. Other runners would run beside us chatting and offering words of encouragement. After 29 minutes we cross the finish line, that’s it done and no one got killed! First triathlon completed in 1 hour 24 minutes. When I eventually got my breath back and surrounded by my wife, kids and fellow club mates I could finally take it all in. Even though tired, wet and cold the feeling was amazing not just completing my first try as a VI athlete but the fact, that I did it surrounded by family and friends and we had all did it together. Thank you everyone.

The triathlon community and every triathlon club accepted us with open arms and did everything they could to accommodate us even though they had never had a VI athlete compete in their events before. To you all, I applaud you, you are a credit to the triathlon community.

As you can see, my own triathlon club Tri Lakes have been absolutely wonderful in their support for me starting out as Visually Impaired athlete. They are not just a fantastic club but like one big happy family and always there to help and advise you in any way they can. At the moment, from the club I have a number pilots/guides Tommy, Stephen, Nick, Therese, Mary, Celia and Seamie. I owe a sincere thank you to each and every one of you for your time, commitment, encouragement and mostly your friendship. Without you stepping forward and taking a chance, I would not be in the place I am or on the journey that I am.

From 2 years of inactivity staying at home feeling sorry for myself, to date having completed in ten sprint triathlons nationwide from Galway to Dublin and Athlone to Belfast, finishing 3rd in the National Para Championship in 2018.

I have also become part of Triathlons Ireland High Performance Development Squad and made my international debut in October 2018 in Madeira, Portugal at an International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon World Cup. I recently represented Ireland again in April this year at the ITU 2019 Multisport World Championships in Pontevedra, Spain. At these games I competed in 2 events, the  Duathlon (5km run, 20km bike, 2.5km run) and the Aquathlon (1km swim, 5km run). In the Duathlon, I finished 3rd and received the Bronze medal and 4 days later in the Aquathlon, I finished 1st and became the 2019 Aquathlon World Champion and received the Gold medal. This was a very proud day for me, my guide David Tilly and my family.

 

What’s next? A dream would be to represent Ireland as a Para Athlete at international triathlons worldwide with the ultimate goal being a Para athlete in the Paralympics in Tokyo 2020. It will be a hard road but not impossible, last year I thought doing a triathlon would be impossible.

 

In summary if you are struggling or are faced with what seems to be an impossible challenge, get the support and help you need, don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. People are generally good at heart and only too glad to help. It works both ways, as it makes them feel better too. Face in the right direction and take the first small step. Every journey starts with that initial small step. It takes time but be patient with yourself and others, you will get through it. On my journey I have met some incredible people, Visually Impaired athletes, Physically Impaired athletes and the one common attitude they all have is their positivity. They only see what they can do not what they can’t do. They have all found a new lease of life through sport. My advice: find a triathlon club, an athletics club, a bowling club, get out and meet people make friends and have a laugh. Do it for your friends, do it for your family but most of all do it for yourself!