Kirsty Shannon has been taking part in triathlon for over 25 years, however, she has recently had to adapt to suddenly losing her hearing in one ear.
“I have been competing in triathlon since about 1994 - before trisuits and Garmins were even invented!” Kirsty jokes nostalgically. “In the days when you swam in your swimsuit and then put on a pair of shorts for the bike just to save some dignity and used a bit of elastic joined up with a safety pin as a tri-belt.”
When taking part in a cross-country race in July 2019, Kirsty lost the hearing in her right ear and was subsequently diagnosed with sudden sensorineural hearing loss, something she feared would take sport away from her.
“It was like having a blocked ear after swimming,” she commented. “After weeks of treatments and investigations I was diagnosed with sudden sensorineural hearing loss. No explanation, just one of those things.
“I found myself permanently deaf in my right ear and I was devastated. I’d been a police officer for 29 years and loved my job, but I could no longer be frontline. In a moment, my world had changed.
“The problems transcended the hearing loss itself. One issue was the negative effect on my balance – something I soon found out impacted both running and biking. I became less sure-footed and had to focus intensely on the ground in front of me for fear of falling.
“When riding, I became more reliant on my bike buddy to watch out for traffic behind. It’s unnerving - with unilateral hearing, it’s very difficult to work out the direction of sound, but with compromised balance you don’t want to spend too much time looking around you.
“I also felt the need to leave more of a gap to the wheel in front when drafting, just in case. Other things I had previously taken for granted, like holding a conversation when riding, became something I had to think about - having to position myself to the right of the speaker just so I could hear properly was effortful.
“I also couldn’t bring myself to go swimming as the noise in my deaf ear was like lightening going off every time the water went in it.
“Whilst training is important from a fitness and performance perspective, a key motivation is being out in the open with friends, something I find is extremely beneficial for my mental health and wellbeing. I’d far rather catch up with a pal during a long-ride in the sun than spending time cooped up inside, though I am not averse to the occasional mid-ride cake stop!”
Having competed in triathlon across the country and around Europe, Kirsty initially thought that it was all over having lost her hearing, but, after several weeks of coming to terms with the loss of her hearing and the impact on her life, she challenged herself to adapt the way she took part and made the 2019 Bournemouth Triathlon her focus.
“The loss of hearing on one side also affected my balance, and running was like being on a boat, but I needed to just get on with it and adjust, and that’s what I did.
“I decided I could do this. It may be a bit different, but the rest of my body wanted to still play and was fit and healthy. With the full support of my husband, son and daughter, I focused on a standard tri in Bournemouth in September.
“I wore a wax bud in my ear to stop the water noise. I adjusted my riding and accepted that I needed to be more aware of my surroundings in a different way and as my balance improved, I was able to increase my shoulder checks and listened out more in my good ear. I finished the tri happy; I’d changed my expectations and loved it.”
With a refreshed excitement for the sport and her naturally positive outlook on life, Kirsty set out to try and repeat her achievement of qualifying for the Great Britain Age-Group Team by taking part in the European Duathlon Qualifier in Bedford that October.
“It was a feeling of ‘what next?’,” she said. “I knew the course well and it was a traffic-free event at the Bedford Autodrome – what could go wrong? I did it. I qualified for the 2020 European Duathlon Championships, my first as an ‘old bird 50-54’.
“I was a bit worried about not being able to fully hear at the briefings but my 15-year old son was allowed to come and help me. He even took part in the opening ceremony walk which he found an amazing experience.
“A race-day decision I didn’t think I’d have to make until later in life was whether to wear my hearing aid or not?
“I decided not and, although I missed out on all the shouts of support on my right side, it was an out and back run so I caught them on the way back which made me smile. I was thriving doing the thing I loved to do. I came fifth, I made new friends and glowed in great team spirit. I was amongst the loveliest people all with a common interest.”
Kirsty has also secured qualification to represent the Age-Group Team again in 2021 and, 18 months on from losing her hearing, has retired from her career in the police but remains the Chair of the HantsPol Tri-Club. She is fully embracing life and sport and is looking to complete a British Triathlon Level 2 Coaching course this year.
“I now have a disability having lost the hearing in my right ear,” she commented. “I still have those emotional moments, but they are further apart. It has changed my life, but life really does go on and it is good. Bring on the training and Age-Group races in 2021!”
To find out more about qualifying to race in the Great Britain Age-Group Team, click on the button below where you can read about qualifying races and criteria in 2021.