Paralympic ambition: Susana Rodriguez on a mission to succeed in Tokyo
Susana Rodriguez was born with albinism. In 2013, the Spanish Para Triathletes was acknowledged as Athlete of the Year by the city of Vigo in Spain and in 2016 she represented Spain at the Paralympic Games, the year the sport of para triathlon made its Paralympic debut.
Susana started her para triathlon career in 2010, earning the World Para Triathlon Championship gold medal in London and then again the following year in Madrid. After representing at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games, where she placed 5th, Susana Rodriguez went on to earn back-to-back world titles at the 2018 World Championship Series on the Gold Coast and 2019 in Lausanne.
“Trust is a must for visual impaired training and racing, it is the only thing that will allow you to push the hardest.”
“I would like to race my second Paralympic Games this year in Tokyo and try to win a medal although it will be very difficult. What I have no doubt is that I will do my best.”
“When you love something you don’t care about the effort you put on it or the hard it is, you just go for it.”
Susana Rodriguez shares career highlights, discusses how para triathlon has developed and shaped her life, her ambition to medal at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this year and being the first blind woman to become a medical doctor in Spain.
WT: Your career is impressive, you won gold in London 2010 and again in Madrid in 2011. You represented Spain at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games and earnt back-to-back world para triathlon titles at the on the Gold Coast (2018) and Lausanne (2019).
What is it about the sport of para triathlon that keeps you motivated to train and compete?
SR: I have done different sports all my life even though my family is not at all from a sporting background. I started to compete when I was 10 in athletics attending a Spanish Championship for visually impaired children in Madrid and I really enjoyed and had some nice results without training. Then I did swimming and some more sprint track racing where I had my first international racing experience as a teenager. In 2008 I had the MQS for participating in Beijing Paralympics at 100m but Spain had 6 female slots and we were 7 woman with qualifying times, so I had to stay at home. I was very disappointed so I stopped doing sports for a couple of years but in 2010 I found para triathlon.
For me it was a challenge to do my first duathlon race. I had never completed that distance before, had never done tandem racing and I wanted to try just to finish one. I liked it so much that I decided to have a go in a super sprint triathlon at Casa de Campo in Madrid. I bought a tandem bike and as soon as we crossed the finish line a woman from World Triathlon called Sarah Spingmann told my guide and I that she would like us to race in London as triathlon was after the bid of making its Paralympic debut in Rio 2016. We put the tandem inside a cardboard box and left to London. I really enjoyed the triathlon atmosphere and never left the sport since then.
Going faster and being stronger is what keeps me motivated and also working hard for a long time in the sport while it keeps growing and the level gets higher in para triathlon.
WT: Where/how do you currently train and how important is the relationship and trust with your guide?
SR: I train in Vigo, where I was born in. Several times a year we leave the city looking for training camps in better weather conditions, as the winter here is very wet and rainy and we also relocate for altitude training in southern Spain. I do 5 swimming sessions, 5/6 bike sessions (some on the tandem some on the turbo), 5 running plus some gym, physiotherapy and stretching. Except for the turbo sessions I do the whole training with a guide (triathlon guide Sara or track guide Celso) or some other great friends that help me all the year.
Trust is a must for visual impaired training and racing, it is the only thing that will allow you to push the hardest.
WT: Race highlights?
SR: I think there are three races that stand out as highlights over others. The first one was 2012 Auckland because it was my first time competing at the Para Triathlon World Championships and my guide in those times (Mayalen) and I travelled so far without any kind of help and we did a great job there,
The second one it is 2014 Kitbuhel Paratriathlon European Championships because it was my first continental title and I had a great 400m finish battling against Melissa Reid from GBR who is a good friend and has been in the sport for a long time like me. The third I would choose Gold Coast 2018 Grand Final because I love Australia and I had worked very hard after Rio 2016 to try to get back on the podium.
WT: How do you think para triathlon has developed since you’ve been competing?
SR: It has progressed a lot. If I compare my first World Championships in 2012 with last years in Lausanne, it is a different world. We have a ranking system for entering races, which means that you have to work hard to have a spot on each important competition, national teams have developed structures now that help the para triathletes get to the races in the best conditions as the elite athletes we are. There has also been many competition rules changes and the sports level is much higher. One example of this, my first World Championships was won running 4.30 min/km while my last world title was won running 3.51 min/km.
WT: You also have another very important career, in the medical industry, outside of your professional one in para triathlon?
SR: I studied Medicine at Santiago de Compostela University from 2009 to 2015 and then did the exam for becoming an intern in 2016. I was studying quite hard before Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. And the last four years I have been working on physical medicine and rehabilitation department to become a specialist in this area. 2020 was a surprise with the COVID-19 pandemic and during some months, like many medical professionals in Spain, we left our daily work to join the battle against coronavirus. It was a quite hard year and still is even now I have stopped my medical job until I am back from Tokyo Paralympic Games. I am the first blind woman to become a medical doctor in Spain and I am very pleased because I love my work.
WT: How did you find the balance with your medical job and para triathlon training and competing?
SR: It was very hard. Now that I am just training I realised how crazy my life was trying to balance it all. I worked from 8am to 3pm got home at 5pm because of public transport schedule and then did my whole training from 6 pm until I finished. I used my holidays for competing which means I did not have any rest time since Rio 2016 until 2020. But I say that when you love something you don’t care about the effort you put on it or the hard it is, you just go for it.
WT: How have you coped/adapted with the challenges presented during 2019 and the ongoing pandemic?
SR: As I said 2020 has been a challenge for me since the beginning. In January I was diagnosed with a heart condition and there were some weeks when I was waiting for some genetic tests that I did not know If I could keep doing para triathlon because of swimming. Luckily all the final assessment results were quite fast and I am so pleased with my cardiologist Dr Maria Alvarez who explained things clearly and made it easier for me to make decisions. I was cleared to train and compete, started medication, created a security plan and later in the year had a little surgery to getting a cardiac monitor device implanted which is now inside my chest. It is all a bit weird but now I am very happy because all the data is transferred each night to the hospital and if there is any further concerns, I will know. I am now able to push hard again in each training session which was something that I missed for months. The sensation of doing something you love and doubting if you are at the correct place or you should be at home was not nice.
In between all the races were cancelled, training venues closed for a long time but I have tried to keep positive and enjoyed training at home every day. When I was back from work and I feel pleased that I could help in the health industry in Spain.
I have learnt a lot from this ongoing situation: there is nothing as important as health and life goes first and before anything.
WT: If you had advice for other aspiring athletes who may want to get into triathlon or para triathlon, what would it be?
SR: I would say that it is a very inclusive sport and that is not for super heroes as people think. You can start with shorter distances to see if you like it but I always say that if you do one you will repeat. I am absolutely in love with this sport because you never get bored and you can always do new things in training to improve.
WT: What else would you like to achieve in the sport?
SR: First of all I would like to race my second Paralympic games in Tokyo and try to win a medal although it will be very difficult. What I have no doubt is that I will do my best!
I also would like to work across clean sport initiatives and to acknowledge young athletes and coaches of the importance of knowing how to act in case of a sudden cardiac arrest with CPR and how to use an AED.
WT: Who has been your greatest influence?
SR: My family and especially my sister, she has been my best role model to follow.
Find out more about World Para Triathlon.