In November, 2020, I did one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. In this social media post, I came out as gay.
I think I’ve known I was gay since college, but I fought it for a long time. I already fell into one minority group having lost my leg to cancer, and I guess I didn’t want there to be one more thing to make me different. Even as I began to accept this piece of my identity, I was ambivalent toward the idea of coming out publicly. On the one hand, it felt like something I shouldn’t be obligated to do. While my sexuality is a part of me, it’s certainly not the most significant part. I didn’t want to make a big deal about being gay because in the grand scheme of who I am, it’s not a big deal.
(It’s my hope that one day people won’t feel like they have to “come out” as we know it, because acceptance of differences in sexuality is the norm. And for the record, I think we’re close to this being the case.)
But the reality is, we’re not there yet. And in our current world, if you’re a gay professional athlete who’s not publicly out, you’re hiding something.
And let me tell you, hiding a part of yourself is exhausting. The weight of that burden is not unlike the weight of a chronically high training load. When you carry it around long enough, fatigue becomes your baseline, and you stop noticing how much effort you’re using just to stay afloat. You get really good at convincing yourself that everything is fine, ignoring that extra edge of irritability or the racing mind that keeps you up at night. And so you power through, believing you’re doing what’s best, until one day you wake up and realize you can’t possibly spend one more second pedaling your bike … or pretending to be someone you’re not.
This is where I found myself in November. It had been months in the making, but I was finally able to admit to myself that the weight of hiding was too heavy to continue carrying. I decided I had too much to offer this world, and the energy I was using to filter myself needed to be devoted to greater things.
That was when I decided to share the most difficult — and most liberating — thing I had ever written.
“1:33, keep it there,” Derick yelled on deck as I hit the wall on my 12th or 13th 100 meter repeat. I had just a couple more measured efforts before it was time to dig deep for the 16th 100 which we were to perform at the “edge of our ability.” I executed that 16th 100 meter sprint right around 1 min 30 sec, maybe just a touch faster. In short it was one of the greatest swim sets I’d had since moving to the training center at the beginning of January. But there was something not quite right either. While I was pleased I was also frustrated. I’d had my best performance at a sprint triathlon only a few days before setting personal bests in my 750 meter open water swim, 20 km bike time and a new overall 5 km run personal best. Despite these metrics I’d only taken second and had finished 37 seconds short of finishing within 2 percent of the winners time. This 2 percent metric is key because that is one of the metrics USA Triathlon uses to determine which athletes receive actual monetary support. I’d finished within 2 percent of the winner’s time at my previous race back in October and would need to do so in two more races to receive the lowest level of funding that USA Triathlon allocates to Paratriathletes. I’d missed out on that margin by a mere 37 seconds and it soured my outlook. I also tend to put a high demand of pressure on myself to perform and I felt I’d lost an opportunity to win while the guy who won, Aaron Scheidies, was nursing a long time hip injury and was preparing to go under the knife to repair it. If I couldn’t beat Aaron while he was at best 75 percent then how on earth was I going to be competitive against the dominant Europeans? The following two weeks post CAMTRI didn’t inspire much hope in me either.
After my race in Sarasota, Fla I went back to the training center ready to slay every workout Derick could conceivably think to throw my way. I was going to push so hard that my numbers in Sarasota would seem like a beginners. And in the first couple of swim practices it looked like that was going to be the case. Then Derick assigned us a 2 mile all out time trial on the treadmill which I demolished in 11 min 50 sec including my second mile being at 5 min 17 sec. Much of the second half of that last mile I somehow ran at a sub 5 min per mile pace. So I was feeling good about my fitness. But for some reason I was feeling more drained than usual.
I took several naps a day lasting at least an hour or two in addition to sleeping a solid six to eight hours at night. My appetite was also slowing vanishing. It was a struggle to eat breakfast, lunch and by dinner I couldn’t stand the thought of food. It culminated on the evening of March 18.
That morning our entire paratriathlon team had struggled to hit our slowest times in the pool during a 4400 meter day. I was able to choke down some breakfast and then head to the bike trainer to spin my legs easy. I struggled through my strength and conditioning session and then took a very hot bath to try and loosen up. My stomach felt funny and when I walked into the cafeteria determined to at least eat something I felt extremely nauseous. I took a few sips of orange juice hoping that would give me some hydration, a couple calories and maybe calm my stomach down. I then walked back to my room and promptly started praying to the porcelain goddess. I did that off and on through the night praying that it would all be out of my system in time to swim. It wasn’t.
I had to miss an entire day of training, most of which I slept. I was able to drag myself to the pool Wednesday morning and get through a modified swim set. That only served to piss me off more because I was already one of the weakest swimmers on the team and I felt I was sliding even further backwards.
I struggled physically and mentally trying to hit my sets in the pool, on the bike trainer and treadmill. The Friday after my being sick I cracked for the first time on a bike workout. I managed to push through until the fifth set, but half way through my legs gave out and no amount of coaxing or cursing brought them back to life. I was stressed and frustrated. If I couldn’t get through a bike workout how could I get through the following week’s workouts when my guide, Zack would be flying in to do some intense training with me? I could only hope that whatever sickness was in my system made it’s way out.
The Zack Attack
As it’s been told before, by myself and other blind/visually impaired athletes, one of the most difficult aspects of trying to be an elite blind endurance athlete is that you have to find guides to both train and race with. The guide needs to be borderline elite athlete themself, or at least a much better athlete than you yourself. My general rule of thumb is that my guide must be 10-15 percent faster than me when I am having my best day and they are having their worst. So if I run a 5k at a 6:30/mi pace on my best day, my guide must be able to easily run a 5k at a 5:51/mi pace on their worst day. If I run 2 miles in 11:50 (5:55/mi) my guide must be able to run that same distance in 10:39 (5:20ish/mi). Through in the complications of work, school, different training schedules and it makes it very difficult to find consistent training and racing guides. That doesn’t even include the fact that we have to jell as people and be on the same page in terms of communication. Most of the time, those people fast enough to meet these rule of thumb requirements are professional or elite athletes themselves, have their own training and racing to do and don’t have the time or desire to guide. Fortunately for me I was able to at least find a guide to race with who meets just about all of the requirements of speed, time availability (mostly) and temperament.
I met Zack in January of 2018 when I attended Camp No Sight No Limits hosted by Elite Visually Impaired Triathlete Amy Dixon. Zack was guiding another blind athlete but we hit it off as friends. Later that year I was in a bit of a pickle as I was in need of a guide for my second ITU race of 2018. My first ITU race guide didn’t have the running speed to guide me at the pace I wanted to hold, plus he was tied up with work obligations. My buddy Alan who would be guiding me for Ironman Arizona didn’t have the top end speed for a sprint triathlon, although he could seemingly run forever at a slower pace. And all of the other guides I could think of were busy with work or racing. So I shot Amy a text asking if she knew of anyone and she immediately recommended Zack. I jumped on the phone with Zack. I admit I’d thought of asking him before but I’d known that he was attempting to qualify for Kona at Ironman Maryland which was only a week or two before my race in Sarasota and I wondered if he’d be ready. Amy assured me he would be so I gave him a shot. Zack scored major points with me when he said “I’m happy to do it if I’m feeling good, but if you can find someone faster kick me to the side.”
Zack went on to take sixth overall at Ironman Maryland including having one of the top swim and bike splits of the day and earning his slot to Kona for 2019. Two weeks later he guided me to a 2nd place finish at the Sarasota World Cup which had been modified to a duathlon. We threw down the fastest bike split of the day and one of the faster runs and Zack didn’t appear to be tired at all whereas I was wiped out.
When I moved to the Olympic Training Center in January, Derick immediately mentioned the possibility of having Zack come out to do some training with me from time to time. Since Zack lives in San Diego we don’t get many opportunities to train together. So we arranged it so that Zack would come out during his spring break. I didn’t like it that I was coming off of a week of sickness and struggling but maybe Zack being here would give me a motivational boost. Fortunately it did.
Our week kicked off with a nearly 4000 meter swim followed by a two hour spin on the tandem during which we did a bit of climbing. Then we cranked out a lifting session. After Tuesday’s 4400 meter swim set we headed to Memorial Park to do 1.5 mi repeats at 5k race effort. It was during runs like this where having Zack was invaluable. Instead of cranking out the session on the treadmill I was able to join the rest of the team outside. The running path we followed was winding and being a beautiful spring day in Colorado it was crowded with people. So Zack and I got some good practice weaving in and around people while moving at a sub 6:40/mi pace.
Wednesday was another tough swim followed by a gnarly strength session. Then that evening the entire paratriathlon team headed up to Denver to take part in the Karen Hornbostel Memorial Time Trial Series. This 9 mile bike time trial was a good time for Zack and I to really go all out on the tandem. We, along with the rest of the Paratriathlon team, crushed the race riding strong despite some windy conditions. Zack and I rode the 9 miles in 20 min 34 sec averaging just over 26 mph and taking top 20 in the overall standings. I slowly felt like my legs were starting to come back, but my lungs were still hurting and I felt like I was still operating at an overall calorie deficit. I just couldn’t seem to get ahead.
The following day was great as Zack and I joined the rest of the team for an easy coffee ride and then Zack and I enjoyed an easy hour run. So many of my workouts have been so carefully constructed that it was nice to just get out and run on some dirt roads.
Friday, Zack, Allysa and I headed to Gold Camp road for some grueling race effort hill repeats. The day was cold and windy and by the time we got back to the training center our extremities were rather chilled.
Saturday was Zack’s last day in the Springs so Derick assigned us a 3 mile run at 5k effort. So being who we are, Zack and I just tacked on an extra 0.1 mi onto the effort to make it a 5k. The day was chilly but thankfully there were fewer people out so Zack and I only had the winding sidewalk to contend with. Zack pushed me hard as we attempted to hold the pace we’d held at sea level a couple of weeks before. Ultimately we fell just short of that pace, but it was still a very solid and consistent 5k effort. And even though my lungs were burning and I was spitting up flem, I was relatively pleased.
I still didn’t feel full strength, but I was beginning to calm down and trust that my body wanted to heal and it would come around back to full strength. I’d had a maddening couple of weeks, but despite the frustrations of failing to meet my lofty expectations I still saw some marginal improvements in my swimming, biking and running. And the first couple days of April have been showing even more promise.
The Three Month Look Back
I’ve essentially been living and training full time at the Olympic Training Center for three months now. Early on I was fueled by adrenaline and excitement. Then I struggled through physical fatigue and broke through to make some massive fitness gains. The third month has been a mental battle for sure. Learning to manage my expectations and trust the process of training rather than obsessing on outcome goals has been a learning process.
Early on in my professional career—immediately upon graduating from college—I wanted a job so desperately and I wanted to be making and earning money. When I eventually did find a job I worked my tail off attempting to get promoted or catch the eye of another company that would pay me more. That eventually did happen but it turned out not to be the right fit for me.
My triathlon career has eerily mirrored my professional career. Early on I thought busting out sub 12 hour Ironmans would be a walk in the park. World records would fall before the outstanding athlete that was Kyle Coon. Fortunately for me though that didn’t happen. It turned out I wasn’t so good at triathlon early on and had to learn to struggle and scrap and fight my way to near the top. I somehow managed to learn to be patient with my Ironman racing and I’m learning the same lesson in my transition to sprint triathlon.
My last two coaches Lesley Paterson and now Derick Williamson, aren’t all that dissimilar. They both have stressed the importance of trusting the process to me. And while I generally have considered myself to be a patient person, I have not been patient when it comes to my athletic career. Little by little though, if there’s anything that this past month of madness has emphasized to me it’s the value of patience and trusting my fitness and my mental game. Sometimes it’s ok to let go of the big picture and to let go of the tiny details and find the middle where we just enjoy being triathletes.
So my personal goal for the month of April is focus less on the result that I’m going to post in my next race—April 27 at the Milan World Paratriathlon Series—and more on steady improvement day by day and workout by workout. Yes, I must keep an “eye on my vision” but I can’t obsess on outcomes.
Greetings 303 friends, fans and family! My name is Kyle Coon and I’m a totally blind Professional Triathlete. (Wow, no matter how many times I say or write that I still have a hard time believing that I somehow managed to make my hobby and passion into something resembling a career.)
While not a Colorado native, Colorado has been my permanent home since 2016 and it’s been where my heart calls home since I first visited to learn to ski in the early to mid 2000s. From 2016-2018 I lived in Carbondale, just down valley from Aspen, but at the beginning of 2019 I made the move to Colorado Springs for the opportunity to better pursue my Pro Triathlete lifestyle/career. But before we get into that let’s back up a moment, because some of you are probably wondering “Who is this guy?”
When I was ten months old I was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood eye cancer called Bilateral Sporadic Retinoblastoma. Essentially I had cancer in both eyes with no family history. I underwent an intense treatment plan—consisting of chemo and radiation therapies, and other various clinical and experimental trials—which would go on to last several years as the cancer would regress and then come roaring back with a vengeance. Eventually the cancer, and the effects of the treatment, damaged my eyes beyond repair. So my family made the decision to remove my eyes which was really the only sure-fire way to beat the cancer once and for all. My left eye was removed when I was five and my right when I was six leaving me totally blind.
I went through a rough time as a newly blind kid. I didn’t understand “why” this had happened to me. Fortunately though my parents did their best to treat me no differently than they would have if I could see. Yes, I still had chores and was expected to bring home good grades from school. I was also very fortunate to meet a world-class blind athlete just a few months after I lost my sight. His name? Erik Weihenmayer—most well known for becoming the first blind man to climb Mt Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits. (At the time I met Erik he hadn’t yet climbed Everest and had only climbed three of the Seven Summits.)
Erik and I met and Erik encouraged me that just because I was blind didn’t mean I had to stop doing things I loved. It didn’t mean I had to give up being a kid. I just needed to become a bit more creative in how I went about my life. He suggested something to help me focus and be active at the same time—rock climbing. I’d go on to become a competitive rock climber, along with two of my sisters, and along the way get into numerous other activities.
In 2004, I learned to downhill ski. In 2006, I hiked the Ancascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, I climbed and summited Mt Kilimanjaro. I also went on to climb a few Colorado 14ers and some Cascade volcanoes. I graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2013 with a degree in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication and was ready to take on the world.
I went into the post college workforce with the excellent millennial mentality of “I’m going to apply for every job CEO and above.” When that didn’t work I lowered my expectation to “Upper level Management and above.” When that still didn’t work I made my way down the corporate ladder until I applied for a batboy job at a grocery store and didn’t get the job.
I was frustrated, unemployed, several thousand dollars in debt and felt awful since I’d packed on 25ish lbs post college. I was a year removed from graduating and I’d just about lost hope. I knew I needed to do something to distract myself so I decided I’d start running, an activity I normally associated with punishment and agony. But running was exactly what I needed. It was a problem to solve and a way to reach out to the community to make new friends.
My first running guide was an ER doctor whom I connected with through a website that partnered sighted guides with blind runners. Funnily enough though he’d never actually guided a blind guy before so we both went into it as an experiment. Mike and I started running together once or twice a week experimenting with various guiding methods. We entered some short 5ks, 10ks and half marathons and then took on the Disney World Goofy Challenge—Disney Half Marathon on Saturday and Marathon on Sunday. After that Mike mentioned that he thought I could do a triathlon, maybe even an Ironman some day. Mike had just completed Kona a couple of months after we’d started running together so I saw how cool the sport was.
This was the beginning of 2015 when I decided that I’d become a triathlete. Mike taught me to swim, we did thousands of miles on my tandem bike and we continued running together. In 2016, Mike and I took on my first Ironman in Boulder because I love Colorado and my family had recently moved to the Roaring Fork Valley so Boulder was an easy race for them to travel to to spectate. Mike and I somehow stumble bumbled our way to a 15:47:11 finish on Pearl Street and despite being more tired and sore than I’d ever been in my life I was hooked.
My personal life was a mess at the time and I wasn’t particularly happy with my desk job (yes I did eventually find my way into the world of the employed) so I picked up my life and moved to Carbondale and rented a room in my parents house. I got plugged into the local running community and worked on my run. I even found some people willing/crazy enough to pilot my tandem. And so I set my sights on doing another Ironman, this time Ironman Arizona 2017.
I completed Ironman Arizona 2017 in 11:46:43 becoming only the ninth person who is blind or visually impaired to break the 12 hour mark at the 140.6 distance. But that wasn’t good enough I set my sights higher and began pushing myself to do better. Along the way I hired a coach and started attending training and skills camps. I was recruited to be a member of the first all blind/visually impaired stoker tandem relay team to take part in the infamous “Race Across America” racing from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, MD in less than nine days. I even dipped my toe into the waters of the International Triathlon Union circuit competing in a couple races including taking a Silver Medal at a World Cup.
Then in November 2018, my guide—Alan Greening—and I set out to do something that hadn’t been done before. We raced to a finish of 10:59:17 at Ironman Arizona becoming only the third person with a visual impairment to break the 11 hour mark in an Ironman, but becoming the first person who is totally blind to do so.
I’ve certainly come a long way from that scared seven year old newly blind kid and some might say that I’ve reached almost as high as you can as a totally blind triathlete. But in August 2018 the International Paralympic Committee announced that male Visually Impaired Triathlon would become part of the slate of events at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. And in October I was accepted to become an official member of the USA Paratriathlon Resident Team. So on January 7, 2019 I made the move to Colorado Springs and took up residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in the sport of Paratriathlon and I can think of no better audience to want to share my journey with than you, the 303 Triathlon/endurance community.
So will you join me in following my progress on the #roadtotokyo as I #trifortokyo?
SARASOTA, Fla. — Three U.S. paratriathletes collected gold medals Sunday morning at the Sarasota-Bradenton ITU Paratriathlon World Cup, an elite race held as part of the two-day Sarasota-Bradenton Triathlon Festival at Nathan Benderson Park. U.S. athletes earned nine total medals on the day, standing out among a field of competitors from 17 countries.
The race was shifted from a triathlon (swim-bike-run) to a duathlon (run-bike-run) after heightened algae levels in the lake due to recent weather conditions forced a cancellation of the swim leg. The adjusted course featured a 2.5-kilometer run, 18.3-kilometer bike and another 5-kilometer run.
Elizabeth Baker (Signal Mountain, Tenn.) claimed the win in the women’s PTVI class, crossing the line with a time of 1 hour, 7 minutes, 12 seconds. It was a close finish with U.S. teammate Amy Dixon (Encinitas, Calif.), who took silver in 1:07:40. Completing the all-American podium was Eliza Cooper (New York, N.Y.) in 1:10:23.
“I’m proud of the race. I had nothing left,” Baker said. “Amy gave me a run for my money on that one. And it was fun having Eliza, a great newbie, in the race. It’s just really nice to see the sport growing and people getting faster, and newbies coming in in the United States.”
Kyle Coon (Carbondale, Colo.) collected his first international paratriathlon medal with a silver in the men’s PTVI division. Coon’s time of 58:47 was less than a minute behind the division winner, Yuichi Takahashi of Japan. Brad Snyder (Baltimore, Md.) was just 33 seconds off the podium for the PTVI men, finishing fourth in 1:00:28.
Adam Popp (Arlington, Va.) stormed to the win in the men’s PTS2 division with a time of 1:15:05. While Popp earned two ITU World Cup medals last season, including a bronze here in Sarasota, Sunday’s race marked his first gold. Cahin Perez (Christiana, Tenn.) also reached the podium for the PTS2 men, taking bronze with a time of 1:22:57.
“This was a good capper to the season,” Popp said. “It went well, and it was an improvement from last year. I’m happy with my first win on the ITU circuit.”