With the Paralympics coming to London this summer The Scene caught up with Southampton resident and Paratriathlete Zoltàn Balogh to talk about his performance at the European Championships, the changing face of Paratriathlon and the challenges which face disabled athletes.
Zoltàn is 24 years old and was born in Hungary, he started swimming at an early age for rehabilitation purposes, as his left arm is substantially shorter than his right arm, and now competes in Paratriathlon competitions internationally. His dream is to race in the first Paralympic Paratriathlon race in Rio in 2016, for this he needs to gain sponsorship to compete in more international competitions than he can currently afford to enter.
How long have you been competing in paratriathlon?
Zoltàn: I’ve been competing in paratriathlon for the past three years only.
Which is your favourite part of the Triathlon? Swimming, running or cycling?
Zoltàn: I love them all for different reasons. There’s no particular favourite, I love swimming because I used to be a swimmer, but then I stopped swimming when I was about 17 and started to do Triathlon. In cycling, I most enjoy the training sessions because then you are out on the roads and you’ve got more of a sense of freedom. Running I find the toughest, I loved it when I was younger but now I find it the hardest because I’m the slowest. Yesterday I could hardly walk from the session I did on Saturday! I’m the fastest on the bike at the moment.
What is your cycling training like? Do you like cycling uphill?
Zoltàn: Well it depends what the terrain is like, all my Paratriathlon races have been on a flat bike course.At least the ones I’ve entered so far have been. The British Nationals coming up, are going to take place on a flat course. Of course if there’s a race that looks a bit more hilly then I’ll train on the hills more.
Tell us a bit about the Europeans, your first international race?
My race was on 22nd April this year, it seems like ages ago. Paratriathlon was just one of the events within that week. I competed in the ETU Triathlon which basically means that you are not a professional athlete, you’re not getting paid for it as you don’t have a professional license. There was a series of events and the last one was the Paratriathlon.
What was the competition like?
As it was my first big competition, to be honest, I had the best time of my life. The reason being that it’s a celebration of sport and a celebration of Triathlon which means you meet like-minded people from all around the world and you meet world-class athletes. It is difficult to qualify for these kind of events, so there are some people competing who are very tough and really fast whether they are elite or not, they all love Triathlon.
There were occasions when we could all come together like the Pasta Party and there was an Olympic style Opening ceremony too. It was brilliant because when you went out to train chances are you’d meet some fantastic athletes, it wasn’t just me cycling around the New Forest on my own I was cycling with the best paratriathletes in Hungary.
What about the race itself?
Before the race it was pretty stressful, I mean it was my first international race. You’re always going to try your best, if you’re not nervous then you probably aren’t going to try hard enough in the race. In the race, it was actually really hot, it was 35°C, really hot and dry because the course was next to the Red Sea in Israel. The humidity was about 7 or 8%. In the swim I was really hoping to be among the top people in the water because I was looking at rankings prior to the race and knew that I should probably be among the top 3 in my category. I actually came 3rd in the water which is quite good, I was quite pleased with my performance but also surprised at how fast other people were swimming. I pushed myself quite hard but also tried to reserve some energy for the rest of the race because I didn’t know how much energy I was going to need to cycle and run in that heat.
The transition went well partly because we had helpers, this was the first time I’ve had a helper. For some reason though, on the bike I felt weaker than I thought I would, and it didn’t go as well as I hoped it would. I was still going at a decent pace though.
There was a Dutch guy called Rob and we kept overtaking one another. I had an accident on the bike unfortunately, because Rob undertook me, I don’t know how fair that was. In disabled races you can’t race in a pack on the bike, you’ve got to go on your own as it’s an individual race and it’s safer. Also because there are so many different types of disability, it’s an individual achievement.
Rob undertook me, I went to the middle of the road and I didn’t want to slow down. A marshal on a motorbike came up to me, and tried to get me to slow down and move over which I did, but while I was doing that a tandem crashed into me. Tandems are used by blind competitors.
The tandem tried to undertake me and because I was being told to move over, it crashed into the back of me, luckily for them they didn’t fall over, but I did. I didn’t lose a lot of time though so I’m not angry and luckily my bike managed to hold up until the end despite the fact that the gears got caught in the wheel.
I improved my time in the run. It was alright, but I’m not fast enough and I can’t keep up the pace as well as others. It was really tough, because it was so hot, if you poured water on the top of your head it dried instantly and you were always thirsty.
But I managed to overtake Rob, he was 4th and I was 5th and then in the last couple of hundred metres I overtook him.
I came 4th in the running and 4th overall in the race. At the moment, obviously it depends on what happens, I don’t really know, but if I manage to get to the World’s I’d expect to come in the top 6 there.
What about the Paralympics?
No, I’m talking about the World Paratriathlon Championships, they’re going to be held in Auckland in October. Paratriathlon is not actually going to be in the Paralympics this year because it’s a relatively new sport.
After the Paralympics in London, I think the competition will get a lot tougher because many people will then try to focus on becoming Paratriathletes to get into the next Paralympics. It’ll be a different game when the sport gets into the Paralympics and I expect it to get a lot tougher over the next 2 years.
The organisers are learning about the event and they have a lot of doctors working with them to determine what the classifications might be, what disabled athletes need, what a bike might look like for an athlete like me, what the difficulties are for blind competitors, things like that.
What does your bike look like?
You wouldn’t actually see the difference, basically there are only two modifications, because my left arm is shorter, we raised the left handlebar so the arm rest is higher and my back isn’t bent. And on my racing bike, I’ve got a device, so basically when I pull on my brake lever it operates both brakes at the same time. That’s all the modifications I have at the moment.
People are playing with all kinds of modifications and learning what works best for disabled athletes. We’re working on a locking mechanism, like that on the peddles for a prosthetic arm so that it would lock into the handlebar and release when you get/fall off.
Since this interview Zoltàn has competed in the British Paratriathlon Championships where he ‘was the quickest in my category, however I didn’t get a medal as I’m not a member of the British Triathlon Foundation.’ The Championships were held on the 26th May in Nottingham, a competition in which Zoltàn hoped to ‘network and source new ways of getting equipment and funding.’
In the next couple of months Zoltàn will be competing in a series of longer races including Forest Man- a version of Ironman which takes place in the New Forest on the 24th June, this will be Zoltàn’s third Ironman competition.
We wish him every success for the future especially as his sport is expecting big changes in the next few years. To track his progress check out his blog here.