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Couch to Kona: How one mile at a time led to a dream of Kona

Posted September 27, 2018  Athlete Highlight | Triathlon

By: Ashley Eisenmenger, Elite triathlete and USABA member

An Ironman triathlon is no small feat. Athletes must endure a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and finish the race with a 26.2-mile run. The best of the best flood the town of Kona, Hawaii, each October to participate in the Ironman World Championships. One man never thought he would be there.  At one point in his life, he did not even think sports were possible for him. Stuck in a rut of preconceived notions and doubts, Erich Manser needed to find freedom. Little did he know, that need for freedom would take him all over the country.

Erich Manser is one of only five para-triathletes set to take on the Ironman World Championships in October this year after being selected via the Physically Challenged Athlete lottery. Currently, this is the only way for athletes with physical disabilities, with the exception of hand cyclists who have a qualifying circuit of races, to qualify for the World Championships in Kona.

Manser has quite an extensive race resume including multiple marathons and Ironman triathlons. He is one of the fastest visually impaired triathletes in the country and world at the Ironman distance. That was not always the case though.

“I grew up playing competitive baseball and basketball.”  Manser said.  “I was sort of a short stop all-star.”

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age five, Manser began to slowly lose his vision.

Eventually, Manser’s vision deteriorated enough that baseball was no longer an option. “I went from a short stop all-star to playing in the outfield, to not being able to see the ball hit the bat.” With baseball no longer being an option, Manser decided to go back to swimming. He’d swam growing up but dropped the sport in school because baseball was ‘cooler.’

A competitive swimmer throughout high school and college, Manser continued to lead an extremely active life. After college, his activity level dropped significantly, and he began to gain weight. “I had a moment of realization, where I was struggling to bend over and tie my shoes.” He said.  “At that moment, I knew something had to change.”

Through the support of an office running group, he began to run a mile at a time. “Having a group to follow and hold me accountable really helped.”

Manser ran his first marathon in 2006. He then was asked to participate in the New York City Triathlon which would be his first triathlon.

”Triathlon is what really introduced me to the need for a guide.”  Manser said. To compete in a triathlon, visually impaired athletes must swim tethered to a guide, ride a tandem bike, and then run tethered to that same guide. A tether is a piece of rope or bungee cord that is used to connect a visually impaired athlete to their guide. Swim tethers are traditionally attached waist to waist or thigh to thigh. Running tethers can be attached at the waist or held in the hand.

Manser rode his first tandem the day before his first race in New York City. “All I can remember is riding through Central Park on a tandem that didn’t really fit me, but not caring at all because it was so exhilarating. I had never felt freer.”

And just like that, Manser was hooked on the sport and feelings of freedom it brought him. “I didn’t have to worry about what was happening around me. I could just take it all in and enjoy the moment.”

That feeling of freedom is what kept Manser going in the sport and has gotten him to Kona. “I’m very excited for what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

That same need for a community is the reason Manser has emmeshed himself in the USABA community. “It’s so great to have a network of like-minded blind athletes to bounce ideas off of and collaborate with.” Manser has run in the USABA Marathon National Championships five times (2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016) which is coordinated in conjunction with the California International Marathon in Sacramento each December.

Community is important for all athletes regardless of disability or not.  The feat of completing an Ironman, a race with a 17-hour time limit, is no exception. The training and lifestyle require an army of support. Manser’s journey in particular, requires an army of guides. Not only does he have that, but he has an army of people – some blind, some not, some triathletes, some not – all of whom will be cheering for him as he crosses the finish line in Kona next month.

Manser will compete in the 2018 Ironman World Championships on October 13, 2018.