In 1996, then twenty-two year old Amy Dixon knew something was wrong when the wine she was pouring for her customers ended up on the table instead of their glasses. “I was mortified,” she said. “I was a sommelier and I couldn’t properly pour wine.”
When her mother visited her, she gasped when she saw the bruises that covered Dixon’s legs. I told my mom I was just clumsy and she said, “Amy, no one has that many bruises. No one is that clumsy.”
Soon afterward, Dixon experienced flashes of light like the kind you get when you stare too long at the sun. After seeing a handful of specialists, she was diagnosed with uveitis, an autoimmune condition of the eye that causes inflammation and destroys eye tissue.
“My doctor asked how many fingers he was holding up and I had to tell him that I couldn’t even see his arm. It was like a curtain dropped.”
Soon after, Dixon lost 70% of her vision. The first line of defense was steroids, which caused her to gain more than 60 pounds but put her in remission.
In 2008, her sight got worse, and Dixon lost most of her remaining sight. For the next five years, she struggled with her uveitis and developed glaucoma. Dixon endured 19 surgeries as well as chemotherapy to suppress her immune system, but her vision continued to decline.
“I have about two percent of usable vision now,” Dixon explains. “It’s sort of like looking through a keyhole in a door. If you are right in front of me and I am making eye contact, I can only see your right eye and your nose. If you are ten feet away from me, I can see your whole face. If you are across a room, maybe I can see your whole body.”
In 2013, Dixon began swimming as a way to feel better. “I was sick of feeling sick. I figured I would be safe in a pool - 25 yards is 25 yards and there’s a black line I can follow.”
Later, Dixon began sneaking into her YMCA’s spinning room, where she tied her guide dog to a stationary bike and started pedaling.
“Someone caught me one day,” she said. They were like, ‘Oh hey, there’s a spin class here in an hour,’ and I told them I was too slow and too fat. But they pressured me into it. Soon after, I started running on a treadmill, which I tied myself to with a Theraband.”
A friend on social media pointed out that maybe she should enter a triathlon, since apparently, that was what she was training for. “Oh my god, it was crazy,” said Dixon. “I couldn’t afford a tandem bike for my guide and me. But I went to a triathlon expo where someone offered me one from his garage. It was this 35-year old, 60 pound steel bike that dropped chain several times, but I was so, so grateful to have it.”
She did so well in her first triathlon that she was invited to the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s paratriathlete development camp. It wasn’t long until she was competing on the world ITU Paratriathlon circuit on the USA team.
It looked as though Dixon would be an obvious choice to compete in the 2016 Paralympics Games in Rio. She was ranked 6th in the world and took first in many races, but the complicated process behind the selection committee meant that she was left behind while the team went to Brazil.
Dixon was devastated and turned to her sport psychologist and friend Simon Marshall and two-time XTERRA World Champion Lesley Paterson, who encouraged her to set a new goal. Through a Braveheart Coaching Camp she attended as a guest speaker, she met two-time XTERRA World Championship qualifier Christy Fritts.
“I said, ‘Hey Christy, I’m looking for a guide for the ITU Aquathlon World Championships in Mexico in September,’ and Christy said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!'”
Fritts was having her own issues at the time. “I had a degenerative disc that was just bone on bone,” Fritts explained. “I had a lot of pain but since the Aquathlon was a run-swim-run, I knew I could do it. Amy is just an amazing athlete and an amazing person. In a few days she taught me everything I needed to know from communicating obstacles to running and swimming with a tether between us, to how to navigate the transitions.”
The two won the ITU Aquathlon World Championships, but before they went on to bigger and better races, Fritts needed surgery. “I didn’t want to be responsible for Amy ‘s medal or rankings slide because of my injury,” she said. “After researching my options, it turned out I was a candidate for an Artificial Disc Replacement.”
She explained that this procedure is a great alternative to athletes looking for an alternative to fusion.The surgery was in January and Fritts is already back on her mountain bike.
Dixon took note of Fritts’ off-road prowess. “I said to Christy, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to do an XTERRA together?”
The talented duo will be competing in XTERRA Tahoe City on June 24th. Dixon will be the first blind female athlete to compete in an XTERRA race.
“We are really excited to have Amy and Christy on the course,” said race director, Todd Jackson. “This is not an easy course, but they are tough athletes, and we’ve got their backs.”
The XTERRA Tahoe City course features two 750 meter swim laps separated by a 50 meter beach run. The swim is followed by a 22 mile mountain bike ride and a five mile run.
“I’ll let you know when we figure out trail running,” said Dixon. “On the roads we run side by side, but on the trail I’m going to have to run five feet behind Christy. I’ll just listen to her verbal cues and stare at her feet and hope mine do what hers do.”
The duo is also learning to navigate the tandem mountain bike. “Christy is so great about calling out obstacles but after the first ride it was clear I needed a long sleeve shirt and long fingered gloves. Christy said, ‘Oh, crap I forgot all about the branches.”
“Amy is incredible,” said her friend and off-road mentor Lesley Paterson. “She is such a tough cookie and never gives up! Not only that, she will fit in perfectly with the XTERRA community because she gets at the heart of what everyone loves about this sport! She is going to be amazing.”