How A Blind Triathlete And His Guide Took On The 2016 IRONMAN World Championship
By Kim Constantinesco
When you think of an Ironman race, you think massive individual effort, not necessarily “team sport.”
For Michael Somsan and Dominic Bernardo, completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run is done, and celebrated, in tandem.
Somsan, 46, a former first lieutenant in the US Army, completely lost his vision in 1995 when he was shot in the head while trying to break up a fight. Bernardo, 34, an equally impressive athlete, functions as his eyes. Together, they recently crossed the finish line of the legendary 2016 IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.
The two, who reside just outside of Phoenix, trained together for only nine months, but they became brothers — brothers in pain, sacrifice, and vision.
And, when the going got really tough, each knew how to kick the motivation into high gear for the other.
“On the bike, we hit some strong headwinds on the way back,” Somsan said of their race in Hawaii. “I started to complain and get irritated with the whole situation. Dominic said, ‘Hey, I have some news for you…Christina is pregnant.’ When he told me he was going to be a father, I started pedaling faster, and we both said, ‘Let’s get home to our families!'”
That’s how this pair rolls.
An Ironman in Waiting
Bernardo may be the guide now, but he knows a thing or two about perceived restrictions. At 10 years old, he was diagnosed with Legg Perthes, a hip disease in which blood stops flowing to the joint. The femur removes itself from the hip socket in search of blood for nutrients. Once the blood starts flowing again, it’s important that the femur is aligned correctly into the hip socket.
“During that time, I was put in a leg brace for two years — something similar to what you’d see Forrest Gump wearing,” Bernardo said.
Before that, he always loved to run. Once he got out of the brace, he continued to be active. He ran cross country in high school and even started receiving scholarship offers, but his mushroom-shaped hip began giving him trouble again.
He visited a sports medicine specialist who told him he couldn’t run competitively anymore, so he continued to hit the weight room throughout college. It wasn’t until he and his wife were watching an Ironman on television years later that he decided to try and get into the sport.
“I figured the cross training would be good for my hip,” Bernardo said. “My wife and I signed up for an Olympic distance triathlon and I enjoyed it. The thought of doing an Ironman started dripping on me because I had always wanted to run a marathon. So, I signed up for a full Ironman in Arizona in 2013 to prove to myself that I could do it.”
And, indeed, he did.
Finding A New Passion
Somsan was born in Laos, but moved to the United States at five years old when his family was displaced by the Vietnam War. He went to high school in Europe and college at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu, where his family resides. So, the IRONMAN World Championship was something he was inspired by throughout his life.
However, at 24 years old while visiting a friend in Austin, Texas, a fight unexpectedly broke out at his friend’s house. Somsan saw three men attacking his buddy, so he jumped in and got shot in the face at point-blank range.
After multiple surgeries and weeks in a coma, Somsan woke up to discover that he was blind.
“When you become disabled, you’re not just sidelined on the couch,” Somsan said. “You’re shoved in there so far, you just don’t know how to come out.”
Somsan’s way out was a new career path. The guy who shot him was a student and a foreign national, who slipped through the legal system. He was released on bail and fled the country. Because justice wasn’t served, Somsan decided to go to law school while concurrently enrolled in an MBA program.
Still, Somsan wasn’t an easy guy to be around.
“When I was newly blinded, I was not a pleasant person to be around because I didn’t know how to communicate effectively,” Somsan said. “When I was first out of law school, I went through five secretaries in six months because it was a high stress job and I didn’t know how to balance my life and communicate.”
Over the years, Somsan developed a greater appreciation for everyone who helped and supported him. He transitioned into his new life as an attorney, and grew into a leader in his community by sitting on several non-profit boards. He also volunteered his time taking on pro bono cases, and continuing to be active in running groups, participating in local and national disabled sports programs.
Then in 2014, Somsan, decided to take on a new challenge: A triathlon. He had been a runner, but was never into swimming or cycling long distances.
As fate would have it, Bernardo’s sister, who helps run a non-profit called Arizona Disabled Sports, introduced the two men because the organization didn’t partake in triathlon events at the time, but she knew her brother could be a resource for Somsan.
“He asked me to train, but I was fatigued and mentally burned out from the Ironman, so I declined his offer,” Bernardo said. “I told him I’d be happy to be a mentor to him; a resource throughout his journey, and when he finished, I would be there to put the medal around his neck.”
That year, Somsan did a sprint triathlon, an Olympic distance, a half Ironman, and a full Ironman all within four months of each other. True to his word, Bernardo was present at Soman’s first Ironman finish by presenting his friend with a finisher’s medal.
That kind of schedule would do anyone in, but for a first-time triathlete, no one would have blamed him for dialing it back and at least taking a year off. Instead, he signed up for another full Ironman in 2015, determined to fine tune his triathlon skills and focus on getting to Kona.
“I went out to the Ironman Arizona to cheer on one of my friends and I saw Michael out there again,” Bernardo said. “I thought, wow this guy is nuts. He’s doing it again? This guy is crazy.”
Somsan finished first in his division despite the terribly cold and brutal conditions.
“The fact that he finished, I thought it was remarkable,” Bernardo said. “I sent him a congratulatory email and he responded saying he was looking for a guide for Kona because his was retiring.”
Somsan had put his name in for Kona, and in the meantime, wanted to start working with Bernardo to develop some cohesiveness out on the course. So, they signed up for the Oceanside half Ironman. A week after that race, Somsan found out that he was one of five adaptive athletes selected to compete in the 2016 IRONMAN World Championship, the most prestigious race in the sport. Bernardo was all in.
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
When the duo began training together, Bernardo did a bit of research and talked to Somsan’s previous guides, but a lot of their teamwork and friendship developed with time and experience.
“I came in as a newbie and we evolved together,” Bernardo said. “I think the greatest compliment he gave me was actually on the run portion during Kona. He said I was the best guide he’s ever had. I think that was just because of my diligence in communicating. Maybe I communicate a little too much, and I probably push him and hold him accountable a little more than the others.”
That quality is exactly what Somsan said he needed.
“He’s intuitive,” Somsan said. “I think sometimes when people are around disabled people, they pamper the person too much and don’t give the disabled person room to grow. Dominic dug into me at times when I needed it.”
With long weekend training sessions that consisted of 2,500-meter open water swims followed by a 120-mile bike ride and a 10-mile run, Somsan took the push in stride.
“There were times when we would fight like siblings,” Somsan said. “One weekend, I was really tired because I had a lot of work to do and I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t push it as much. He said, ‘Look, I’m giving it all my effort, and because you’re not right now, you’re going to get me injured.’ When Bernardo said that to me, I felt really bad because it was true. He was giving up his time and was always saying how he didn’t want to let me down. I didn’t want to let him down either.”
There’s No Guide For Guiding
There’s no doubt Ironman competitors need strength and endurance, but one who is also working as a guide needs an extra reserve.
“Guides are not handlers,” Somsan said. “They’re athletes — exceptional ones for their volunteerism, dedication, and loyalty, and commitment. Remember, it’s 140.6 miles for everyone, and if my guide does not go, I do not go.”
The extra responsibilities a guide takes on shouldn’t fly under the radar.
“You really have to be focused on the other athlete that you’re guiding and put them more or less before yourself,” Bernardo said. “At the same time, you can’t neglect yourself completely because if you’re not focusing on your nutrition and things you need to be doing, it can impact the athlete that you’re guiding because if you can’t move forward, they can’t move forward. It’s almost like multi-tasking for 15 or 16 hours, and that can be a tough challenge, especially toward the later stages of the race when you’re fatigued.
According to Bernardo, biking is the easiest discipline to guide someone simply because communication is more straightforward, and energy is expended in more of a controlled environment.
“Swimming presents its own challenge because you can’t communicate. You’re really going off of feel,” Bernardo said. “Running, there’s a lot of stuff you have to move around. There might be curbs or obstacles, and when you make turns, there’s cones. That’s probably the most challenging.”
However, Somsan made Bernardo’s job easier thanks to his attitude and perseverance.
“It’s his sense of gratefulness, that he’s actually able to be out there course and enjoy it,” Bernardo said. “He said to me a number of times, especially in the longer training sessions, ‘We should just be appreciative that we’re able to be out here.’ I think in the moment, he’s very competitive. He wants to prove that he can do it. He can be stubborn at times, but I also think that’s what makes him preserve the way that he has.”
A Finish That Heals
Returning to Hawaii for the race gave Somsan an opportunity to connect with family he had not seen in years, some of whom were still tormented by his traumatic injury.
To see him enter the rowdy finisher’s chute and cross the line meant a lot to them. In fact, his mother couldn’t stop crying and thanking Bernardo for what he did in guiding her son “home.”
“When we crossed, I realized that I helped Michael achieve something, and it has helped his family heal, and maybe to some extent, him, too,” Bernardo said.
“As I was going down the chute, I thought back to after I first got shot and I couldn’t even walk down the street without this fear of breaking down,” Somsan added. “Now, I’m a Kona World Championship Ironman.”
While Bernardo embarks on a new event — fatherhood, Somsan has his sights set on the his new role, too: as a member of the Paralympic National Cycling Team.
While their paths are veering in different directions, the two will always be linked by their unforgettable experience in Kona. They will train together on occasion, too.
“I know even if Dominic isn’t my partner in the future, he is always going to be there to support me,” Somsan said.
After all. He’s a guide and great friend, through and through.
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