Legally blind man takes on Naperville triathlon

A man and woman will line up side by side Sunday at Centennial Beach in Naperville, strapped together by a homemade tether of bungee cord and slipknots, bonded together by months of training and competing together in a typically individual sport.

The duo is first-time triathlete James Gilliard of Naperville and his guide, Terri Hayes.

When he reaches the starting line, Gilliard will be ready to compete as the first known athlete with disabilities in the Naperville Sprint Triathlon. And with Hayes' help, he's prepared to become the first paratriathlete to finish the race, too.

Gilliard, 35, is legally blind; he has retinitis pigmentosa, which causes gradual vision loss. But he's through with letting the condition steal his ambition.

Fueled by regret he still feels over giving up on football as a kid, Gilliard is ready to tackle a challenge that at first seemed too difficult: the swimming, biking and running of a sprint-distance triathlon.

“It's not going to be perfect, but if I don't go and try to do things and try to push for goals or things that might be challenging, I'm still going to say at some future point, ‘Well why didn't I try it?'” he said. “I'd much rather say I tried and it didn't work instead of having an even bigger regret of I didn't try.”

So try — or tri — he will.

The swim

Gilliard swam the breaststroke until he met Hayes last year.

The two connected when he needed a guide for the Naperville Noon Lions Club's Turkey Trot 5K. One of Hayes' triathlon buddies, a Lions Club member, suggested Hayes had the right racing experience and temperament to help him out.

Hayes had been a pacer in the Naperville Marathon, but she hadn't guided a racer through a triathlon or taught anyone to swim. Still, when Gilliard asked for help with his try at a tri, she said she “couldn't say no.”

Hayes worked with Gilliard to switch his swimming to a speedier stroke.

Now he swims freestyle wearing the “magic tether” he and Hayes developed with the help of coaches at Dare2tri, a paratriathlon training camp in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. The tether keeps Gilliard close to Hayes so he won't veer from the zigzagging 400-meter course through Centennial Beach, a quarry-turned-pool.

“When you're blind or vision-impaired you are definitely part of a team,” said Keri Serota, co-founder and executive director of Dare2tri. “You are working in tandem with your guide. You have to trust them that they won't swim you into a wall.”

Gilliard and Hayes, a downtown Naperville hair salon owner when she isn't outside exercising, have built that trust during training sessions that began in March, first with running for the Shamrock Shuffle 8K in Chicago and then adding biking and swimming for the triathlon.

“The beauty of it is he's not afraid of the water. He's not afraid of the bike,” Hayes said. “And everyone can put one foot in front of the other as far as the run goes.”

The bike

Gilliard and Hayes are an unusual pair not only because they're not the same gender, as is usually required for paratriathletes and their guides, but also because the 6-foot-1 Gilliard dwarfs Hayes at 5 feet 2 inches.

So the borrowed tandem bicycle from Oswego Cyclery that the pair will ride during the 20K second section of the race — with Hayes in front as the driver — has been tricked out with “child blocks” so she can reach the pedals.

The run

Gilliard and Hayes have raced together a few times and developed a system for the 5K.

They run for three minutes then walk for one to get a breather, all the while Hayes calling out obstacles full-sighted people would notice: Potholes. Strollers. Cones. Groups of people. Individual runners. Anything that might get in his way.

“I'm his verbal map,” Hayes said.

Gilliard says he still sees between 60 and 70 percent of what normal-sighted people can in sunny or bright conditions, but his sight worsens in dark or shade.

“If you took a printed photo and put it under water, it's that sort of distortion,” Gilliard said.

That's much better than what doctors predicted when Gilliard was a junior in high school: They told him he would be blind by 30.

He can see well enough to work full-time for a payment processing company and run an IT consulting business on the side. His sight diminishes every five years or so, enough that Gilliard knows now — or never — will always be the time to try new things.

The goal

Finishing is Gilliard's top priority — preferably with a time between 75 and 80 minutes.

“It's going to be chaos, but I think it'll be an experience,” he said of competing with 1,700 others in the race.

He also hopes his example of trying a race that's both physically and logistically challenging for someone who's legally blind will bring more paratriathletes to next year's race.

“Unfortunately, people with disabilities aren't out there because maybe their mindset is like me at one point of ‘It's hard. It's going to be hard. I've got whatever challenge it is — poor sight, no sight, I don't have all my limbs — and so I'm not going to try to do it,'” Gilliard said. “For everyone, it takes a different set of motivations.”

Regret is one of Gilliard's motivations, and it's inspired him to get back into football, too. For the past nine years he's played flag football and he's also attended adult football camps at three universities where other participants have had full vision. He has no plans to quit.

Gilliard already is inspiring others who train near him, including a fellow member of the Naperville Noon Lions Club, which gave him a sponsorship to attend the Dare2tri camp this spring.

“It's wonderful to see what he's been able to do this year,” Lions Club member Donna Kearney said. “It's amazing.”

Gilliard says his guide has pushed him through heat and humidity, bumpy sidewalks and shady bike paths and now he's ready for the thrill of the race.

“It's about experiencing the day,” Hayes said. “And I want him to get to the finish line — whatever it may take.”

  James Gilliard is tethered to Terri Hayes as they train for his first triathlon Sunday in the Naperville Sprint Triathlon. Gilliard is legally blind, so he'll be racing with Hayes as his guide. Bev Horne/
  Terri Hayes helps James Gilliard as they prepare to train for the swimming portion of the Naperville Sprint Triathlon at Centennial Beach. Gilliard is legally blind because of a condition called retinitis pigmentosa, so he'll race with Hayes as his guide. Bev Horne/
  James Gilliard is losing his sight because of a degenerative condition called retinitis pigmentosa, but at 35, he's about to compete in his first triathlon, Sunday's Naperville Sprint Triathlon on Sunday. Terri Hayes, a downtown Naperville hair salon owner, will be his guide. Bev Horne/
  James Gilliard will swim, bike and run with the help of guide Terri Hayes in the Naperville Sprint Triathlon as the race's first known paratriathlete. Bev Horne/
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