Posted on July 23rd, 2014 by Beth Finke
My friend Eliza Cooper is blind, and she was planning to race in last Sunday’s NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim across the East River. Eliza is a strong swimmer – she’s completed six, count them, six, triathlons already. (That’s Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.) The distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn is less than a mile, but last week NYC Swim director Morty Berger decided that athletes with disabilities would have to pay an extra fee to swim in the race, so Eliza didn’t participate.
Eliza is 28 years old, and I got to know her in Morristown, N.J., when I was training with my third Seeing Eye dog, Harper. We liked each other the minute we met, and when she got matched with Harper’s brother Harris, we knew it was fate, and that we’d stay in touch. She trains with Achilles International (they help athletes with disabilities prepare for races) and NY Info published an article last week after she and five other Achilles athletes were told they’d have to pay extra to participate in Sunday’s swim.
NYC Swim director Morty Berger said he added extra requirements for athletes with disabilities because of construction around the South Street Seaport and Brooklyn Bridge Park. Due to the construction, all athletes had to jump off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side to start the race. They had to climb onto what Berger calls an “uneven” exit at the Brooklyn Bridge Park to end the race, too. And so, Berger decided that Achilles would have to ensure that its swimmers were covered under Achilles’ policy if they wanted to participate, and Achilles would have had to pay $700 for boats to trail swimmers with disabilities in case they needed help. “I am the lifeguard and I have to make the calls as it relates to safety,” Berger said. “It’s like someone saying, ‘I want to go swimming when there’s lightning out,’”
Achilles rejected the additional demands. “I told them if it was unsafe for my athletes, it was unsafe for everyone else,” Achilles coach Kathleen Bateman said in the article. Eliza was quoted in the article, too, questioning whether any other minority group would feel okay about paying extra to participate in an event like this: “We do not need extra boats or extra help,” she told the reporter.
I believe her: a few years ago Eliza was featured in a piece Eleanor Goldberg wrote after competing in the New York City triathlon with Eliza and 11 other Achilles athletes. They swam 1 mile, biked 26 miles up and down hill terrain, and ran 6.2 miles in Central Park. Eliza managed to fix three flat tires during the event and never once considered giving up. She told the reporter last week that being asked to pay extra fees to participate in Sunday’s swim was especially unfair when the race organizers don’t realize how hard she and her fellow Achilles athletes trained or how much of their heart and soul goes into the training they do. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works,” she said. “For someone to say ‘no,’ it’s really disheartening.”
Eliza is busy training for her first half Ironman now. Based on her previous times, she stood a pretty good chance of winning an award if she’d been able to swim in Sunday’s race, but when I contacted her Monday, she seemed pretty resigned to it all. “Even though we didn’t get to swim yesterday, getting the word out there made me feel a lot better about what happened,” she said. She was glad the stories in the media drew attention to the injustice of it all, and pleased they generated conversation and support. “And you know what? There are always bigger and better races to be raced!”
So what do you think? I understand the organizer’s concern, but I’ve learned a lot from Eliza. If the NYC Swims director thought swimming across the East River was too dangerous this year, maybe they should have cancelled the race entirely. The other swimmers were given the option to decide for themselves whether or not to swim under those conditions, so it seems to me that the Achilles athletes should have been given that choice, too, without any extra — and expensive — requirements.