McClain Hermes competes at the 2022 World Para Swim Championships.
Tri Again: A Second Shot at Triathlon Brought New Life to McClain Hermes
by Karen Price
McClain Hermes’ first triathlon in March of 2022 wasn’t what she’d call a great success.
In fairness, she was brand new to the sport. As a two-time Paralympic swimmer, she was comfortable in the water, but the bike and the run were foreign, and the format was much different from anything she’d done throughout her long career in the pool.
“I said, ‘I hate this, I’m never doing this again,’” said Hermes, 22, from Dacula, Georgia.
Thank goodness she did. Hermes is now living at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with the goal of competing in triathlon in Paris next summer. And one year after her first not-so-great triathlon, she won her first international race at the America’s Championships in Sarasota and Bradenton, Florida, this past March.
“I crossed the finish line, and I didn’t believe it,” said Hermes, who is blind. “I didn’t believe (guide Kirsten Sass) when she said we won. I cried, but tears of happiness instead of tears of frustration and wanting to quit. All the hard work, all the sacrifices, moving to Colorado Springs, changing my life, changing from the only sport I’d ever known to dedicating myself to a new sport was paying off. Seeing my progress from one year to the next was incredible.”
Hermes has been swimming since she was a little girl. When she was 4 years old, she told her parents she wanted to swim at the Olympics. After she began losing her vision at the age of 8 because of Wagner Syndrome, her dreams turned to the Paralympics. She went to Rio in 2016 and then to Tokyo for the 2020 Paralympics, held in 2021.
But after Tokyo, as her college swimming career at Loyola University in Maryland drew to a close, Hermes realized she didn’t want to go back to swimming by herself, without a team. She made a call to Brad Snyder, the former Paralympic swimming gold medalist who had trained on the Loyola campus and later became a Paralympic triathlon champion too.
“I was close with Brad; I knew him well and so I reached out and said, ‘Hey, I think I want to start training for triathlon,’ and he said, ‘I’ve been waiting on this phone call for years,’” Hermes said. “He was really encouraging, and he put me in touch with the people from the triathlon team, and a few weeks later I was at a talent ID camp.”
The timing worked out well. Paratriathlete Amy Dixon retired after Tokyo and her guide, Sass, had indicated that she’d like to continue if Team USA had another athlete who needed her. Sass met Hermes at the camp, brought her a bike helmet and shoes and a pair of running shoes and they’ve been a team ever since.
One of the biggest challenges so far, Hermes said, has been learning to run properly. Part of it is that she spent 17 years in a pool, so doing a weight-bearing sport is much different.
“And it’s different learning how to run blind,” she said. “I learned to swim when I could still see, so I knew what the different strokes looked like and what flips looked like and how to do proper technique. Learning spatial awareness, where to place your feet, how your ankles should be working, the right angle to hold your head or your chest has all been hard to learn properly.”
Although swimming is her strong suit after years at the elite level, it’s also taken some getting used to doing in open water. In the pool, Hermes has the lane lines to touch with her fingertips so she knows where she is, and she can count strokes knowing that each lap has a certain number before she hits the wall.
“In open water you have no concept of where you are,” she said. “Luckily Kirsten is incredible and she realized I was freaking out a little bit and said, ‘If you need to hit me, hit me.’ I’m basically swimming on top of her like she’s my lane line, but then I don’t freak out because I have contact with something. It’s not just swimming in what feels like an endless amount of water where I don’t know where I am or what’s around me.”
At the race she won this past March, Hermes came out of the water with a lead of a minute and a half, then got passed on the bike. Despite still being a relatively new runner, she regained the lead on the final leg and held it for the win. Her run time was five minutes faster than the year before. Overall, she finished a full 17 minutes faster.
And the training hasn’t taken away from her swim times. In fact, she’s now four or five seconds faster in the 400-meter freestyle than she ever was before, she said, and will be looking to podium in the event at the Para swimming world championships this summer after a fourth-place finish last year.
“I love being able to challenge myself in new ways, doing different workouts and saying, ‘A year ago I would never have been able to do this,’ or ‘Six months ago I never would have been able to do this,’” Hermes said. “I love the variety, the nuances and learning different techniques, and the racing is so fun. It’s thrilling the whole time, like an hour and 10 minutes of pure adrenaline running through your veins. I feel like I’ve grown so much as an athlete and a person.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to USParaSwimming.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.