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The dog is part of her warm-up routine, a ritual Kym Crosby performs before stretching and jogging on the track. She sits down on the floor and Tron, her big yellow lab, puts his paws over her legs.
They stay like that for a while, the sprinter and the silly, energetic animal that knows when to be quiet.
“That keeps me calm,” she says. “In your right mind.”
Their bond is tight because Crosby – a world-class Paralympic athlete – is legally blind and Tron is her guide dog. She sees well enough to walk alone, barely recognizes the white lane lines, but relies on him in airports and hotels. They navigate stadiums together and he waits near the track, often close enough to watch her while she races.
All of this makes it harder for Crosby to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, which began August 24 and lasted until September 5, as coronavirus restrictions and Japanese regulations forced her to leave Tron at home.
“I’m mad,” she says on the phone. “But when there are things that I can’t control, I try not to get too frustrated about them.”
It’s not the first time the 28-year-old Californian has traveled without her dog. As in other countries, Japan has strict rules for bringing animals – even service animals – into the country. Crosby realized she couldn’t quarantine Tron while she dealt with COVID-19 restrictions herself.
As she prepares for the 100 and 400 meters, her predicament begs the question of whether the Paralympians are getting the support they need.
In a story that made headlines earlier this summer, deafblind swimmer Becca Meyers withdrew from competition because the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee refused to allow her mother to be a personal care assistant (PCA).
The trouble started when Japanese officials, concerned about the spread of the coronavirus by foreigners, urged all national Paralympic teams to cut non-essential staff. Meyers found it unfair that 33 American swimmers were assigned only one PCA.
“I am angry, I am disappointed, but above all I am sad not to represent my country,” she said in a statement.
Critics point out that the US equestrian team brought along a large number of snow groomers and specialists for the horses during the Olympic Games.
“So why am I still fighting for my rights as a disabled person in 2021?” Meyer wrote. “I speak out on behalf of future generations of Paralympic athletes in the hope that they will never have to experience the pain I went through.”
The USOPC, which added “Paralympic” to its name two years ago, has issued a statement in which it undertakes to “hold a meaningful dialogue with advocates of the rights of people with disabilities and experts about the support of athletes” and recognizes that “there is still much to be done”.
Crosby does not equate her predicament with the one Meyers faced. She is supported by sighted teammates, coaches and her husband, wheelchair user Erik Hightower, when he is not at the start. But 38 of the 240 athletes on the U.S. Paralympic Team have visual impairments and she wonders if more can be done.
For example, the riding horses were allowed to quarantine for a week before traveling to Japan. Guide dog accommodation, she says, “would be something that would help athletes tremendously.”
It can be difficult for people with vision to assess the situation. The blind trust guide dogs a lot; they spent so many hours side by side trying to cope with difficult situations. Crossing the street can be a life saving situation.
“The bond you have is unlike any other bond you have with another animal or even a human,” says Crosby. “You go through happy moments and difficult moments, the dog licks your face and you know that he has your back free.”
Crosby was born with albinism, which can interfere with the development of the optic nerve, and had her first guide dog, Keystone, for almost a decade. When it was time to find a new one last winter, she turned to guide dogs.
The Northern California nonprofit breeds and trains dogs through a network of foster homes, then brings them together with customers. Paolo Pompanin, guide dog mobility trainer, says: “It depends a little on the person’s personality and their pace.”
Given that Crosby spends a lot of time walking the trail, it should come as no surprise that she goes fast. Tron was a fit, spirited and lanky with a natural gait bordering on a gallop.
They were featured at the organization’s headquarters, where Pompanin could see Crosby fell in love instantly, even if the feeling wasn’t entirely mutual. At least not at first.
“The person knows they are getting a dog and they are excited,” he says. “The dog finds himself in a room with someone he has never met.
The relationship deepened over two weeks of training that began with the basic handling and shifted to more personalized exercises on a nearby track where Tron sat in the stands while Crosby exercised.
“That dog never let her out of sight. He was moaning and I thought, oh, you really like her,” recalls Pompanin. “At some point he understood that she would come back to him.”
Now the red-haired dog and the sprinter, who often dyes their pale hair in fancy colors, have a routine. During training he finds a shady place to watch. Some days, Crosby’s husband stops training earlier and comes to play.
“Tron loves Erik so much,” she says. “Sometimes I almost feel like I’m being left out of their relationship.”
For track meetings in other parts of the country, Tron accompanies Crosby on the plane, who lies at her feet and takes up all of her legroom.
What about the few minutes they spend together before the races? The calming effect of its presence has science behind it – numerous studies over the past 20 years have shown that contact with dogs can lower heart rate, blood pressure and anxiety in test subjects.
When Crosby needs to warm up, she leaves Tron with a teammate or a racing driver. Guide dogs usually don’t mind being around strangers as they switch from one volunteer family to another and get used to new faces during puppy training.
Anyway, Crosby says, “He is spoiled by everyone.”
Her condition is such that when crossing the finish line with heavy breathing, less oxygen enters the optic nerve and her eyesight temporarily deteriorates. Whoever is watching Tron will sometimes take him to the edge of the track so he can lead her away and offer some comfort, especially after a tough race.
“When I finally get back to him,” she says, “he’ll be so excited.”
Crosby insists that his absence will not affect her performance in Tokyo.
The track has always been a place where your visual impairment doesn’t seem that important. A powerful step and swirling arms earned her the nickname “The Flash”. Hard work has resulted in a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympics and six World Championship medals.
Now she has another chance on the podium, especially over 100 meters, where she is third in the world rankings. The toughest competition numbers come from Spain, Azerbaijan and Brazil.
“I try to prepare things as well as possible in advance,” she says of the competition without a guide dog. “I focus on what I have to do.”
But that doesn’t mean Tron is far from her thoughts.
The US team spent about a week before the Paralympics at a US air force base in western Tokyo. Although she focused on training, she couldn’t help but check out the people who looked after her dog at home.
“They raised him as a puppy,” she says.
It turned out that Tron had spent the day swimming and playing with other dogs. When Crosby called, he was curled up asleep and snoring.
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