With the dozens, if not hundreds, of messages a phone can bring per day, Andrew Tollefson probably didn’t think much of it when his phone buzzed with another notification toward the end of his freshman year. But this was a rare message that would have an impact lasting beyond just that moment, week or even year: Someone had posted on St. Thomas’ track and field Facebook page asking if any of the students had interest in being a runner guide for a blind athlete who was going to compete at the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships, which was to be held at Hamline in June.
Tollefson thought about it for all of 30 seconds and then said he was interested.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into,” he said.
That post would unite Tollefson with Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt, a world-renowned blind athlete who is the American record holder for T11 (completely blind) women in the 1,500-, 3,000- and 5,000-meter distances.
From that initial meet at Hamline, Tollefson and Mosquera-Schmidt built a friendship and working relationship that took them overseas to Qatar, and helped Mosquera-Schmidt on her road to compete at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro this year.
“We made it to Rio, and I can say that Andy was a part of that,” Mosquera-Schmidt said.
Junior Andrew Tollefson and parathlete Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt race during finals at the World Championships in Qatar.
Finding a passion for running
Tollefson and Mosquera-Schmidt started in very different places to arrive on that track at Hamline. But neither of them started off with a love of running.
“As a kid, I wasn’t very athletic at all,” Tollefson admitted. He only became involved in track at Apollo High School in St. Cloud, Minnesota, because many of his friends were, but “I was very bad, very slow.” He moved through several events and kept working at it, and by the end of his junior year, he had developed at least an affinity for the sport and served as a track captain during his senior year.
He was committed enough that the track and field team’s record at St. Thomas helped draw him here.
“We have an amazing record in track and field,” Tollefson said, citing that the team has never lost a MIAC indoor championship, and has won the outdoor title 28 out of the last 33 seasons.
Since arriving at St. Thomas, Tollefson has focused on the 800-meter race. He said one of his favorite parts of being an athlete is the sense of family a team instills.
That reason isn’t far from why Mosquera-Schmidt started running. At the age of 1, Mosquera-Schmidt was diagnosed with retinal cancer and her eyes were removed to stop the cancer spreading. In 2001, while living in New York, she thought running would help her meet new people because she needs a guide.
“I was training and running with lawyers, doctors, photographers, people in the financial sector, but everyone was coming together to run and enjoy Central Park and a camaraderie brought together by a running club,” Mosquera-Schmidt said. “A lot of times people who were guiding had never really been exposed to, or had never met, individuals with disabilities. It was a neat way to teach able-bodied individuals about the disabled community.”
By 2007, she was frequently competing in – and winning – marathons and triathlons. Her hope was to compete in the 2012 Paralympics in triathlon, but a triathlon wasn’t held, and Mosquera-Schmidt didn’t have enough ranking points to compete in track and field events. Now aware that she had the times to compete in track and field, she set her sights on Rio and moved to California to train.
Upon learning that the national trials would at Hamline, Mosquera-Schmidt and her team began looking for a local guide to run the 1,500 meter with her.
Cue the alert on Tollefson’s phone.
‘The right team to race together’
Tollefson had a few weeks to prepare. He looked up Mosquera-Schmidt’s times online and made sure he could pace himself well to them.
“But I didn’t really understand how the guiding worked,” Tollefson said. “I didn’t really understand the weight of responsibility that the guide has for the athlete.”
And there is a lot of responsibility that comes with being a guide: First, the guide is tethered to his or her athlete. At this level of competition, most athletes use a hand tether, which means that the athlete’s and guide’s arms and legs have to move in sync. Mosquera-Schmidt, at this point, was using a waist tether. As Tollefson picked up on, no matter how the runners are tethered, it’s important the guide is paced well with the athlete (which, as Mosquera-Schmidt said, it can be difficult to find someone who is as fast as her and isn’t preoccupied with training for themselves), and the guide must finish behind the runner or else the runner will be disqualified. Communication is incredibly key.
“You have to signal everything that’s going on in the race, where other people are, when you’re going into straightaways, when you’re going in turns,” Tollefson said. He added that it’s important to know your runner and when he or she may need encouragement.
“Every runner is going to be specific and everybody’s going to need to hear different things,” Tollefson said. “Ivonne is very talkative, high energy, likes a lot of jokes. … But when we’re training, she doesn’t like a lot of talking. She just likes to focus on the run.”
But going into the race at Hamline, Mosquera-Schmidt and Tollefson had only met for a brief practice the day before, leaving Tollefson to figure out the nuances during the actual race.
Despite this, Mosquera-Schmidt said she had a positive impression of him immediately: “I could tell right away that he’s super high energy. Huge smile all the time just by the way he was talking. … For me, that was huge. He was overflowing with great energy. That is exactly what I need.”
Mosquera-Schmidt’s instinct was on the mark: She ran a new personal best with Tollefson during that race. Based off that success, Mosquera-Schmidt decided to trust what she had sensed in Tollefson and asked him to continue racing with her.
“It just felt right,” she said. “It felt like we would be the right team to race together.”
A journey to worlds
That meant slightly more traveling than the trip to Hamline: Mosquera-Schmidt and Tollefson began training for the 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Tollefson honed his skills by practicing with some of the shorter women on St. Thomas’ track and field team (Tollefson is just over 6 feet tall, while Mosquera-Schmidt is just under 5 feet). He also flew out to California to train a few times.
With a better understanding of their dynamic, they jetted off to compete overseas Oct. 21-31, 2015, alongside some of the best parathletes in the world.
They raced for the first time on the evening of Oct. 25 and took second place in the first round, not only qualifying for finals but setting another new personal best for Mosquera-Schmidt with a time of 5 minutes, 10.96 seconds.
“I was a lot more nervous [in Qatar],” Tollefson said. “To run and compete at the level of competition was pretty intimidating.”
The level of competition became even more evident in the finals (shown in the video above), which was particularly nail biting as China and Colombia duked it out for first – but toward the latter end of the race, attention shifted to who was going to take bronze. Mosquera-Schmidt had held steady in third place for the majority of the race, but in the last 200 meters, Brazil’s Renata Bazone Teixeira eked out less than a second ahead of Mosquera-Schmidt. Despite that, she still managed to shave 10 entire seconds off of her previous run time for a new personal best of 5:00.31.
Tollefson said one of his highlights in Qatar was meeting other athletes on Team USA.
“It was really humbling to meet all these people of such high skill, far more talented than myself,” Tollefson said.
‘A heart breaker’
After that, both Tollefson and Mosquera-Schmidt were ready to start preparing for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. There was one problem: Waist tethering had been banned, meaning they would have to shake up the formula that had been working so well and attempt hand tethering. With their height difference, Tollefson would have to significantly shorten his stride to stay in sync with her. Mosquera-Schmidt had to make the difficult call and say it was too much strain to put on Tollefson’s body.
“It was a heart breaker,” she said. “It’s hard when you’ve had such big moments with someone; it’s never easy to just then say good-bye and realize you’re not going to see them for a while.”
Mosquera-Schmidt kept Tollefson as a back-up guide for Rio, and ultimately took her new guide with her. Battling a foot injury, she ended up placing sixth.
Now a junior, Tollefson returned to track at St. Thomas with a fresh perspective and a renewed passion for the sport he wandered into during his high school years. He said he now looks to his teammates for encouragement more and focuses on “racing himself” instead of just his opponents.
“Either I do better than I did before, or I do worse than I did before, but I know that time that was better … was still me. That time is still obtainable and something I can beat,” Tollefson said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, if you keep competing with yourself, it’s going to be a lot more healthy for you mentally.”
Both Tollefson and Mosquera-Schmidt encourage anyone with a love of running – whether competitively or recreationally – to consider being a guide.
“The best part is that you’re sharing it with someone else who also loves the sport or someone who’s looking for something new to do in life,” Mosquera-Schmidt said. “If you feel some fear, feel it and go with it. Because chances are the person with the disability is also hesitant. If you put those two together, you have support to try something new. It’s really life changing.”