Ashley Eisemenger raced casually before college and saw some success doing so. As a result, the coach at North Central College, Jenny Garrison, reached out to her to see if she wanted to come on board and continue her development as an athlete there.
She raced varsity women’s triathlon her junior and senior year. Partly because NCAA triathlon is so new and because the nature of adapting triathlon for athletes with disabilities, Eisenmenger is considered the first NCAA triathlete with a disability that required some sport specific adaptation.
Eisenmenger is a blind triathlete, so she races alongside a sighted guide, swims tethered, and rides a tandem bike. “Guides are essentially responsible for everything they would normally be doing in a race on top of seeing for me, because I am unable to do that,” she said.
How she first got into triathlons is an interesting story. “I was an endurance runner prior to getting into triathlons. I actually lost a bet with a friend and as a result I had to race a triathlon with her as my guide. At the time it was very daunting and something I didn’t think I would enjoy at all but halfway through the bike and I yell at her that we have to keep doing this, it is so fun.”
Now it is all she does. “I did that one race and I was like I want more, I need more-I love triathlon.” She reached out to this random stranger on the internet because she was searching tandem bikes to learn more. “I messaged Carolyn Gainer, who introduced me to this whole world. She connected me with the para-tri community.”
Riding a tandem bike wasn’t new to her however. Eisenmenger rode a tandem bike once at a youth summer camp in Michigan, which was the highlight of her week at the camp. Prior to that, she hadn’t ridden a bike since she was about 10 years old, when she stopped riding a single upright bike because her vision had deteriorated to a point where it wasn’t safe. So it had been six years since she had been cycling.
“When I learned that tandems were a thing and that I could ride one again, I immediately knew that at some point in my life I wanted that to be a regular thing. At 16, I didn’t think it would be through triathlon though. But here we are.”
Swimming is a different story. “I never took up swimming competitively. I learned to swim basically so I wouldn’t drown. Swimming is just the part of the race that I have to get through. I’m glad it is first. I can check it off the list and move on.”
So it would be a toss-up between running and cycling as her favorite component of a triathlon. “Running will always have a special place in my heart. It got me through a lot as a teen and I love it. I love the people I get to run with and that I’ve met.”
In 2015, Eisenmenger connected with Dare2Tri, a Move United member organization based in Chicago, and registered for one of their camps. “I consider most of them family and good friends.”
All three components of the triathlon has to be done with the same guide and if is competitively, the guide has to be female. “I race with a few woman. But I’m fortunate to train with a good mix of people, including Dan with Dare2Tri. I can’t run outside without a guide. I can’t swim without a guide. I can ride a tandem bike without a guide. Any time I want to train outside, I have to train with someone else.”
In terms of triathlons, the Chicago Tri, which is obviously local for her, will always be a fan favorite for Eisenmenger. “Nothing beats hauling down Lake Shore Drive without any traffic. It is so fun. Another favorite course is in Sarasota, Florida where the International Triathlon Union (ITU) holds the Continental Championships. “I’ve raced with Team USA there and that course really plays to my strengths as an athlete.”
When it comes to training for triathlons, Eisenmenger likes to equally distribute the four sports (swim, bike, run, and also strength training) throughout the week, meaning she tries to work on each two to three times during the week. “I like to stay busy and triathlon helps me do that.”
Eisenmenger is one in a set of triplets that were born premature, about 13 ½ weeks early. As such, they developed an eye condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP). “That means the structures in our eyes didn’t have type to develop because we were born so early.
She likes to say that vision loss occurs on a spectrum. “We are a perfect example of that. One sister is able to drive a car and has almost perfect vision with correction. The other is in the middle because she isn’t a braille reader or guide dog user, but does benefit from larger text and some additional assistance. I fall in the more severely side of things. I have no vision in my right eye and can see light and occasional large object in my left eye. I’m a cane user.”
Growing up, she could read large fonts but had a drastic drop when she was in the 8th grade. There has been some fluctuation since. “I’m not 100% sure what the outlook is. I take everything day by day. I’m super grateful for the limited vision I do have, but I’m also accustomed to functioning without it.”
Although she has some vision, she identifies as a blind woman. “My vision isn’t functional enough to assist me in seeing in ways that the sighted person next to me would consider helpful,” she said. “It is easier for me to tell people that I’m blind, because I would rather them assume that I could see nothing than assume that I could see some things. It tends to lend itself to an easier flow of interaction.”
In addition to running triathlons, Eisenmenger also coaches other athletes. Not long ago, she was able to get certified as a USAT coach. “I was able to further my education, thanks to Move United, and get certified in coaching para triathlon. I now get to take my lived experience as an athlete with a disability and my professional experience as someone who races fairly well and work with athletes that come to different tri camps.” As camps begin to hopefully resume this year, she is exciting to bring “sport back into people’s lives again.”
Outside of sports, Eisenmenger works for a nonprofit in Chicago called Access Living where she does diversity, equality, and inclusion consulting and training.