Should athletes with disabilities pay more to participate?

July 19, 2014 • Posted in blindness, Harper, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized by

My friend Eliza Cooper is blind, and she’s been training to race in NYC Swim’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim across the East River tomorrow. Eliza is a strong swimmer – she’s

That's Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

That’s Eliza on the right with her guide Megan Leigh.

completed six, count them, six, triathlons already. The distance from Manhattan to Brooklyn is less than a mile, but now that NYC Swim director Morty Berger has decided that athletes with disabilities have to pay an extra fee, she probably won’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.

This guy look familiar? He’s Harper’s bro, Harris!

Eliza trains with Achilles International (they help athletes with disabilities prepare for races) and NY Info published an article this week after she and five other Achilles athletes were told they’d have to pay extra to participate tomorrow.

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, this year all athletes will need to jump off a water taxi docked on the Manhattan side to start the race. They’ll have 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 are covered under Achilles’ policy if they want to participate, And Achilles must pay $700 for boats to trail swimmers with disabilities in case they need 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 is 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, and 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.

Eliza is training for her first half Ironman now, and based on her previous times, she stood a pretty good chance of winning an award at tomorrow’s Brooklyn Bridge Swim. From the article:

“It’s especially unfair when they don’t know how hard they’ve trained or how much of their heart and soul go into it,” she said. “We always find a way to do things, that’s how our team works… for someone to say no, it’s really disheartening.”

So what do you think? I understand the organizer’s concerns, but I’ve learned a lot from Eliza. Maybe swimming in a tidal estuary is too dangerous, but if the other swimmers are given the option to make that judgment for themselves, then the Achilles athletes should be given that choice, too. Agree? Disagree? Eager to hear what you blog readers think — leave a comment and let me know.

Annelore Chapin On July 19, 2014 at 3:20 pm

It seems to me they don’t want any disabled athletes to participate at all. With Eliza’s record she’d be a winner! Making extra rules is a discrimination.

Judith Roth On July 19, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Does the guide swim with her? Even if she doesn’t, I don’t think they should pay extra.

Judy On July 19, 2014 at 7:31 pm

ADA??? That is against the rules

The Empty Pen On July 19, 2014 at 11:34 pm

You say you understand his reasoning but I don’t. Why are extra boats needed and how are boats going to help with jumping off and uneven ground?

I’m not sure that it’s that they don’t want athletes with disabilities so much as they don’t realize how capable the athletes are.

Charlie Simokaitis On July 20, 2014 at 9:23 am

I totally agreed with The Empty Pen. They obviously don’t realize how capable these athletes are – PLUS, they are participating with guides. If anything its a little insulting to Achilles to think that they can’t guide their athletes safely through the course, construction and all, without the forced (infantilizing) presence of boats.

bethfinke On July 20, 2014 at 10:02 am

Oooooo, after Empty Pen’s comment I realized I’d better check my writing! Did I say I understood his reasoning? That’s not what I meant. What I meant to express is that I understood his *concern* that all the swimmers are safe today. You all are right, though — his concern is misplaced on these Achilles athletes, I don’t know if all the athletes who sign up for this race have to prove their stuff somehow before jumping in the East River, but it goes without saying that the Achilles athletes have already proven their mettle. I agree wholeheartedly with the Achilles director , if the race is unsafe for the Achilles atheletes, it’s unsafe for everyone. If Berger is that concerned, maybe they should cancel the race today and reschedule it wehn all the construction there is finished. And Charlie, I really do appreciate your pointing out here, too, that the extra requirements NYC Swims proposed to Achilles are an insult to the athletes who guide for them. Thanks for your comments, everyone. I honestly am very interested to hear what people think of all this. Hope more people chime in.


Bev On July 20, 2014 at 11:59 am

The race organizer is responsible for providing a safe course for ALL. PERIOD!! To throw this in the laps of the disabled is disgusting. Sorry you need to face these hurdles, Eliza. I admire you and all your accomplishments! . Stay focused!!

Anne Hunt On July 21, 2014 at 11:39 am

My family all agree: Raise the price for everyone!

bethfinke On July 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm

So touched that you brought this up with your family to discuss, Anne. And how interesting that you all agreed on an answer!


eliza On July 21, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Thanks for this post, Beth, and for all of your supportive comments. It means a lot to know that even people we don’t know are behind our team 100%. And you know what? Even though we didn’t get to swim yesterday, getting the word out there has made me feel a lot better about what happened. There are always bigger and better races to be raced. 🙂

bethfinke On July 23, 2014 at 6:32 am

Eliza, you are the greatest. I know your training takes a lot of time and energy, and I admire (and applaud!) you for finding time in your very busy schedule to meet with reporters and get word out about what happened Sunday. You and Achilles NY certainly have generated a lot of good discussion — keep up the good work, and good luck to you, your fellow athletes and guides in all future races .


glivingston On July 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm

Still catching up post vacation . . . this one got my lawyer radar up. Hate to suggest it, but it sure sounds like a lawsuit should be under consideration if reason does not prevail. Best wishes to Eliza as she races where others understand.

bethfinke On July 29, 2014 at 8:01 am

For all I know, there’s one in the works. I’m with you, I hate to suggest it, but this sounds like a pretty glaring infraction.


ginnystar On August 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm

I don’t know the status of what going on, I just found this ‘blushing’, I’m a gal that has low vision, learning disability, and I sometime find it hard to communicate. But having the disabled pay more for doing this is not right! I’m going to have comeback later and give you more feedback.

bethfinke On August 23, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Eliza was not able to participate in that swim, but this just in: athlete Eliza cooper is with her guide Julie Bennett, and they’re “racked and ready” for the Rev3 Old Orchard Beach Half Ironman tomorrow (August 24, 2014). Go Eliza!.


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