Paralympic runner Kym Crosby will not have a guide dog in Tokyo
The dog is part of his warm-up routine, a ritual that Kym Crosby performs before stretching and running around the track. She sits on the floor and Tron, her big yellow lab, rests her paws on her legs.
They stay like that for a while, the sprinter and the wacky, energetic animal that knows how to stop.
“It keeps me calm,” she said. “In my good sense.”
Their bond is close because Crosby – a world-class Paralympic athlete – is legally blind and Tron is his guide dog. She can see well enough to run on her own, barely seeing the white lines of the tracks, but relies on him at airports and hotels. They navigate the stadiums together and he waits by the track, often close enough to watch, as she runs.
All of this makes things harder for Crosby as she competes in the Tokyo Paralympic Games, which started on Tuesday and continued until September 5, as coronavirus restrictions and Japanese regulations forced her to leave. Tron at home.
“I’m upset,” she said over the phone. “But if there are things that I can’t control, I try not to be too frustrated about it.”
“The bond you have is unlike any bond you will have with another animal or even a human. … You know they are supporting you.
Kym Crosby on guide dogs
This isn’t the first time the 28-year-old Californian has traveled without her dog. Like other countries, Japan has strict rules for bringing animals – even service animals – into the country. Crosby realized she couldn’t quarantine Tron while facing COVID-19 restrictions for herself.
As she prepares for the 100 and 400 meters, her predicament raises questions about 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 US Olympic and Paralympic Committee refused to let her mother come as a care assistant personal, or PCA.
The problems started when Japanese officials, worried about the spread of the coronavirus by foreigners, called on all national Paralympic teams to cut non-essential staff. Meyers felt it was unfair that only one PCA was awarded to 33 American swimmers.
“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 during the Olympics, the American equestrian team brought in a large contingent of groomers and specialists for horses.
“So, in 2021, why as a disabled person, am I still fighting for my rights? Meyers wrote. “I speak for future generations of Paralympic athletes in the hope that they will never have to feel the pain I have experienced.
The USOPC, which added “Paralympic” to its name two years ago, issued a statement pledging to “engage with disability rights advocates and experts in a constructive dialogue on athlete support.” and recognizing that “there is a lot of work to be done”.
Crosby does not equate his situation to the one Meyers faced. She will get help from her sighted teammates, coaches and her husband, wheelchair runner Erik Hightower, when he is not competing. But 38 of the 240 athletes on the US Paralympic team are visually impaired and she wonders if more can be done.
Equestrian horses, for example, were allowed to self-quarantine for a week before heading to Japan. Housing for guide dogs, she said, “would be something that would help athletes tremendously.”
It can be difficult for sighted people to appreciate the situation. The blind have immense confidence in guide dogs, so many hours spent side by side, navigating difficult situations. Crossing the street can be a life or death situation.
“The bond you have is unlike any bond you will have with another animal or even a human,” Crosby says. “You go through happy times and difficult times, the dog is licking your face and you know he is supporting you.”
Born with albinism, which can hamper optic nerve development, Crosby had her first guide dog, Keystone, for almost a decade. When it came time to find a new one last winter, she turned to Guide Dogs for the Blind.
The Northern California nonprofit breeds and trains dogs through a network of foster homes, then connects them with clients. Paolo Pompanin, master mobility instructor for guide dogs, says: “It depends a bit on the personality of the person and their pace.
Considering that Crosby spends much of her time hitting the trail, it’s no surprise that she walks fast. Tron did the trick, fiery and gangly with a natural gait bordering on gallop.
They were introduced to the organization’s headquarters where Pompanin was able to see that Crosby immediately fell in love, although the feeling was not entirely mutual. At least not at first.
“The person knows they are going to have a dog and they are excited,” he says. “The dog finds himself in a room with a person he has never met. They are like, why am I here?
The relationship deepened over two weeks of training that started with basic handling and moved on to more personalized drills at a nearby track where Tron sat in the stands while Crosby trained.
“This dog has never taken his eyes off him. He was complaining and I thought, oh, you really love him, ”Pompanin remembers. “Finally, he understood that she would come back to him.”
Now the reddish-coated dog and the sprinter who often dyes their pale hair in weird colors have a routine. When she trains, he finds a shady spot to watch. Some days Crosby’s husband ends his training early and comes to play.
“Tron loves Erik so much,” she said. “I almost feel like I’m left out of their relationship sometimes.”
For track and field competitions in other parts of the country, Tron accompanies Crosby on the plane, lying at his feet, taking up all the legroom.
And those few minutes they spend together before the races? The calming effect of its presence is based on science – numerous studies over the past 20 years have shown that exposure to dogs can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety in research subjects.
When it comes time for Crosby to warm up, she leaves Tron with a racing teammate or employee. Guide dogs are generally not afraid of being surrounded by strangers as, during this puppy training, they move from one volunteer family to another, acclimating to new faces.
Either way, says Crosby, “he’s spoiled rotten by everyone.”
Her condition is such that when she crosses the finish line breathing hard, less oxygen goes to the optic nerve and her vision temporarily deteriorates. Whoever takes care of Tron will sometimes bring him to the edge of the track so he can take him and offer him some comfort, especially after a difficult race.
“When I finally get back to him,” she said, “he’s so excited.”
Crosby insists she won’t let her absence affect her performance in Tokyo.
The track has always been a place where his visual impairment doesn’t seem to matter as much. A powerful stride and waving arms have earned him the nickname “The Flash”. The hard work resulted in a bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games and six medals at the world championships.
Now she has a chance to get on the podium again, especially in the 100 meters where she is ranked third in the world. The toughest competition figures come from Spain, Azerbaijan and Brazil.
“I try to organize things in advance as best I can,” she says of competing without a guide dog. “I am concentrating on what I have to do.”
But that doesn’t mean Tron is far from his thoughts.
The US team spent about a week before the Paralympics at a US Air Force base west of Tokyo. Although focused on training, she couldn’t help but check with the people who looked after her dog at home.
“They raised him like a puppy,” she says.
Turns out Tron had spent the day swimming and playing with other dogs. When Crosby called he was asleep, curled up and snoring.