As we head into the warmest months of the year, summer athletes’ competitive seasons are also heating up, and our summer Travel & Training recipients are no exception. We caught up with two of our 2019 summer sport recipients – 17-year-old Team USA triathlete Sade’ Smith and tandem cyclist Stephanie Zundel, who is currently working to qualify for the Para Pan-American Games – to learn more about how they began competing in their sports, their greatest challenges and how they are utilizing their Travel & Training Fund grant.
WSF: How did you get into your current sport? Did you start in that sport or did you find it more recently after playing other sports?
SS: I started swimming competitively at age 7, and I competed in my first triathlon at 8 years old. From age 8-12, I was also playing travel soccer, but decided to choose triathlon as my primary sport. After deciding to focus on triathlon, I joined a high-performance triathlon team, Endorphin Fitness. I am currently a USA Triathlon (USAT) Junior Elite triathlete and a member of Team USA, competing in races around the country and internationally.
SZ: I just started tandem cycling a little over a year ago, though I have been into sports since I was a little girl. I started karate at the age of 9 and boxing at the age of 10. I have my junior and senior black belts in White Tiger Kempo. I also trained with the track & field team at my high school. When I started undergrad at Vanderbilt University, I started to run long distance. I signed up for my first half marathon when I was a sophomore. While training for the half, I found an organization called Achilles which is a running organization for people with disabilities. It pairs up athletes with all different types of disabilities with volunteer guides. I ran four marathons and multiple 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons.
While training one evening, I started talking about how I would love to try tandem cycling and how I thought I would love it. I always loved spin classes, and I thought trying out tandem cycling would be awesome. One of the other visually impaired athletes from Achilles who runs TN Association of Blind Athletes (TNABA) gave me the contact information of the Harpeth River Bike Club in Nashville that put on an adaptive cycling practice every Tuesday night. Before I knew it, I was practicing regularly with them, signed up for my first century ride, and had the opportunity to apply for the tandem cycling training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I have now been to the OTC twice and have learned so many skills. Nationally, I am second in the kilometer on the track for female tandem cyclists.
When people doubt me because of my disability, I use those moments as opportunities to educate. – Stephanie Zundel
WSF: What’s something unique about yourself that sets you apart from everyone else who plays your sport?
SS: As an athlete, I am constantly aiming to improve myself and set myself apart from other athletes in my sport. Once I started to focus on triathlon as my primary sport at age 12, I learned that it is a constant learning experience and a journey. To keep track of everything, I have kept a triathlon journal since the age of 13. I write important notes from my training, races, nutrition tips, and sessions with my sports psychologist. I take the time to review what I write in my journal frequently to remind me of do’s and don’ts. Everything that I put in the journal is to help prepare me for my races and to lay out my race strategy.
I also prepare for my race season by writing down my goals on a goals worksheet. This worksheet includes what I want my short-term and long-term goals to consist of and the process to reach the goals. This process is very beneficial because it allows me to look back at what standards I set for myself each year and to see how I can continue improving.
SZ: Something that sets me apart from other athletes in my sport is my constant self-determination. As a blind athlete, I run into many challenges, but instead of getting upset and frustrated, I use these opportunities to make me stronger. When people doubt me because of my disability, I use those moments as opportunities to educate. I explain and show them that blindness does not stop me; instead blindness has taught me to persevere and never give up.
In addition, cycling typically is more of an individual sport. However, my blindness allows cycling to be an amazing team sport. The blind athlete on the back of the bike is called the stoker and the sighted person on the front is called a pilot or captain. Tandem cycling teaches so many lessons such as teamwork, communication, and trust.
WSF: What is the biggest challenge you have overcome?
SS: As a high performance athlete, I have suffered through injuries that I have had to work through. Last year, I was training for my first international race, the ITU Duathlon World Championship in Denmark. A few weeks prior to the race, I dealt with an injury to my tibia that affected my running. Instead of losing hope, I did everything I could to become well enough to race. With the help of my physical therapist and coaches, I was able to race to the best of my ability under the circumstances and I finished with a top-10 performance.
SZ: When I was 3 years old, I had a severe allergic reaction to Children’s Motrin. I ended up getting a sickness called Stevens Johnson Syndrome (SJS). SJS is a condition where the immune system turns on itself and burns the body from the inside out to fight off the medication. I lost 97% of my skin, all my hair, fingernails, voice and eyesight due to third degree burns. The doctors and nurses all thought there was no way that I was going to survive this horrifying condition. However, a miracle happened and I survived.
Everything healed except for my eyesight. Now I am blind. At first, blindness presented many challenges. However, over time, I learned that my blindness does not define me. Disabilities do not disable people; rather, they enable people to do things in other ways. My blindness has given me the opportunity to try and do more things that I most likely would never have thought about doing if I still had my sight.
Being selected as a Travel and Training Fund recipient and participating in the Athlete Ambassador Program have opened a door full of opportunities to network with other elite female athletes as well as provide a platform for me to introduce triathlon to young girls across the country. – Sade’ Smith
WSF: What are some tips you would give to other aspiring young athletes who would like to compete at your level one day?
SS: If someone is interested in becoming a competitive triathlete, I would tell them about the amount of hard work and dedication that it requires. Triathlon is not a typical sport, due to the fact that it involves racing three sports in one competition. Training consistently is very important to make progress in this sport. However, it is very rewarding and you feel a great sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line after completing the race.
SZ: Don’t ever give up and don’t let other people tell you that you can’t do something. I always tell people, ‘Success is not perfection. Success is persevering, staying motivated and never giving up.’
WSF: Do you have any fun facts or hidden talents that people don’t know about you?
SS: I enjoy writing articles very much, and I have had articles published both locally and nationally. I also like to present and deliver presentations. For example, I presented a Water Safety Presentation to young kids to expose them on the importance of learning how to swim. Resulting from the swim presentations, I also give swim lessons to children during the summer. It is a great experience to see the joy and the fun that they have once they learn how to swim and increase their swimming abilities.
For the past eight years, I have been a member of the Jack and Jill of America, Inc, an organization that promotes community service. In the past two years, I have served on the Teen Executive Board as an officer—Editor of the Teen Newsletter and currently, I am the Treasurer.
SZ: I love skydiving, and I am absolutely obsessed with everything Disney!
WSF: How has the Travel & Training Fund helped you in your sport?
SS: The Travel & Training Fund has tremendously assisted me with my travel expenses to the 2019 ITU Duathlon World Championship in Spain this past April. When I travel for races nationally and internationally, I have to travel with my bike and other bike equipment. The costs of traveling with my bike is expensive. Receiving the financial support from the Women’s Sports Foundation also assisted me with coaching expenses for triathlon, open water swim and strength training. Being selected as a Travel and Training Fund recipient and participating in the Athlete Ambassador Program have opened a door full of opportunities to network with other elite female athletes as well as provide a platform for me to introduce triathlon to young girls across the country.
SZ: I started my training with my coach, traveled to the OTC to improve my skills, won multiple bronze, silver and gold medals at competitions, but there was just one huge problem: I did not own my own tandem bike. I was having to borrow other people’s tandem bikes to train and compete. This was very difficult since people need their own bikes to race and train themselves. All thanks to the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Travel & Training Fund, I was finally able to purchase my very own tandem bike. It is an amazing bike that handles extremely well and rides so smooth. If it wasn’t for the Women’s Sports Foundation and the Travel & Training Fund, I would not be able to pursue my dream of making it to the Paralympics.
To learn more about the Travel & Training Fund, click here.