I had never heard of a handler when I first got into triathlon. It wasn't until I became paralyzed and attended a paratriathlon camp that I was first introduced to these unsung amazing volunteers.
You may have noticed them amongst the paratriathletes taking care of unique challenges that may present. For example, you may walk by a woman carrying a bag of legs for an amputee athlete. Or you may see someone knee-deep in the water at the swim exit, waiting to assist an athlete who doesn't have the use of their legs.
These volunteers are handlers. I have the unique experience of needing a handler when I compete in triathlon because I'm paralyzed on one side, and I'd like to give you a window into what my handler does.
What is a handler?
A handler is a volunteer position and is an assistant to a paratriathlete/person with a disability on race day. A handler can help with duties during the race, but not in a way that assists in any forward progress on the race course.
What is the difference between a guide and a handler?
A guide is someone who participates alongside a visually impaired individual - they are tethered together on the swim and the run and ride a tandem bike. A handler does NOT participate alongside.
Fun Fact: The sighted guide on a tandem bike is called the pilot, and the para-athlete is called the stoker.
My personal experience having a handler:
Most of the time, when I was racing a triathlon, my husband Sam was my handler. I knew that with my particular disability - right-side hemiplegia - there were a few things that I needed assistance to do effectively.
Swim Entry: I usually need to wear an ankle-foot orthotic to allow me to walk, but I don't wear it when I swim - it would create too much drag because it holds the foot in an ineffective position for swimming. Because of this, my handler's first "duty" was to assist me into the water.
Once the race started, they carried my brace to the water's edge at the swim exit. Before the race, I set up a small towel to sit on and put on my right bike shoe with my brace in it.
Swim Exit: Most athletes swim until they can efficiently run out of the water. Because of my particular disability, I found that it was more effective to swim until the water was knee-deep. At that point, I would stand up, and Sam would be there. He would be "my crutch" that I used to get out of the water and to my little towel.
Sam would then help me get my wetsuit off, assist me in drying off my foot, make sure it was free of sand (if there was, it could cause injury to my paralyzed foot), and put on my bike shoe without getting my paralyzed toes caught, and stay by my side (because let's face it…I am a fall risk when walking in bike shoes) as I made my way through the swim exit and to the transition area.
The swim is where I needed my handler's assistance the most, but I still did need Sam's assistance on the bike and the run - but I'll leave that for my next blog!
Next up: My experience having a handler on the bike and the run.
Coach Becky Piper is a USAT Certified LII Paratriathlon and Triathlon Coach living in Michigan with her husband Sam and her dog named Moose. She is a paratriathlete, and paracyclist, and has plans to try her hand at para- dog sled racing. Her true passion is coaching athletes to reach their best selves - both in endurance sports and beyond! Coach Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.