Deaf-Blind Triathlete Calls Out Baffling Gender Rules

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CN) – Ironman triathlon organizers face a federal complaint from a deaf and blind woman whom they will not let compete with the same male guide she has used for three past competitions.

Scheduled for July 2017, the Ironman Lake Placid consists of 2.4-mile swim in open water, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, with the Adirondack Mountains serving as the backdrop to the grueling athletic event.

Kathleen Borrone, a deaf and blind resident of Little Silver, New Jersey, says she has been training for such competitions for the past eight years with a guide named James Armstrong.

Guides are allowed for Ironman competitors in the physically challenged division, but Borrone claims in a Dec. 19 federal complaint that organizers World Triathlon and USA Triathlon changed their policy this year.

Citing its gender-specific tents for competitors to change clothes between events, the organizers allegedly informed Borrone that she would have to start competing with a female guide.

“Borrone is not aware of any other guide who can perform the necessary function that Armstrong performs,” the complaint states. “Specifically, Armstrong is the only individual Borrone knows who is both capable of communicating with her in tactile sign language and completing triathlon events.”

Borrone also questions why the guide who helps her change clothes has to be the same as the one who assists her during events.

Noting that she has a female volunteer for such duties, Borrone says “her male guide never enters the female changing tents.”

Borrone already competed with Armstrong in the American Triple T in southern Ohio; the Ironman 70.3 in Syracuse, New York; and the 2016 Iron Man Lake Placid.

It was while Borrone was training for the latter event that World and USA Triathlon rolled out their new gender policy on guides.

Filed with a federal judge in the Northern District of New York, the complaint says Borrone received a limited exception to the new policy so that she could use Armstrong as a guide for two events in June-July 2016.

“Defendants have stated unequivocally that in 2017 and beyond they will not permit Borrone to use her male guide,” the complaint states.

“Defendants’ policy will exclude Borrone from future events because there are no other individuals qualified to serve as guides who can communicate with her in tactile sign language and guide her through triathlon courses.”

Saying she has been humiliated by her treatment, Borrone wants damages and an injunction, alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, as well as disability and sex discrimination.

The complaint notes that Armstrong’s guide work involves keeping pace with Borrone and communicating via tactile sign language, allowing Borrone to touch his hands while he signs.

During the swimming and running portions of the triathlon, Armstrong swims and runs alongside Borrone. During the biking portion, both of them ride a two-seated bike, which Armstrong navigates from the front seat.

A representative for USA Triathlon said they had not yet received the lawsuit and could not comment. Emphasizing that USA Triathlon does “not ‘own’ or ‘operate’ any Ironman events,” the representative said USA Triathlon sanctions Ironman events held in the United States as the national governing body.

World Triathlon Corporation has not returned a request for comment.

Kathleen Borrone is represented by Michael Stein at Stein & Vargas in Washington, D.C.