Let’s go faster, Dad!
Doctors predicted Chloe Couture would never eat without a feeding tube, sit unassisted or talk.
She had severe cerebral palsy, which placed the odds of improving against the five-year-old. Her family refused to listen.
Chloe, 13, will compete with her father, Stephan, in the Age Group category of the MS Amlin World Triathlon Bermuda on April 27.
Called Team Ladybugs they’re a first for the race, one of two assisted teams that will swim 750 metres, bike 20 kilometres and run five kilometres.
“When we first adopted Chloe at age 5, she could only sign one word, ‘more’,” said Mr Couture, who with his wife Diane had to fight the British National Health Service’s view that their daughter was too disabled for a wheelchair. “Doctors were full of ‘nevers’.”
The Coutures, who had both worked with severely disabled people, adopted Chloe after reading about her in a church bulletin.
“We married later in life, 15 years ago,” Mr Couture, 54, said. “We didn’t think about children at first, but gradually we started talking about adoption.”
Chloe had been written off as “a vegetable”, but was clean and cared for when they met her.
“She was propped up on a pillow,” Mr Couture said. “The carer went into the kitchen to get something and she slipped off the pillow.
“I went to pull her back up and she reached over and grabbed my thumb.
“I just looked over at my wife and said, ‘We have to adopt her.’”
Typically caused by brain damage before or at birth, cerebral palsy is marked by impaired muscle co-ordination.
For Chloe, it also meant that she couldn’t speak and had extremely poor vision.
When she was 6, wanting to expand her world, her father strapped her to his back and took her on hikes near their home in Warwickshire, England.
“She loved it,” said Mr Couture, who used to pass his time climbing mountains in the UK, Nepal and Europe.
He then started entering himself and Chloe as a pair in sporting events, their custom-designed equipment includes a racing wheelchair that can attach to a bicycle and a kayak meant to be pulled by a swimmer.
Last year, they took part in 72 races including two ITU World Series events — one in Leeds, England and the other in Hamburg, Germany.
Chloe will typically ask on getting home from school: “Dada, out tonight?”
“We train most nights and race every weekend,” said Mr Couture. “Sometimes we race three races in a weekend, back-to-back.
“During the countdown [to the race start], she starts shouting herself: ‘3 ... 2 ... 1 ...’ Then she’s shouting: ‘Go! Go! Go!’ and ‘Faster dad!’.
“As the finish line approaches, she starts screaming and waving her arms.”
Although she still has physical challenges and the mental capacity of a four-year-old, Chloe can now eat on her own, sit up and talk.
Her father’s voice fills with pride when he talks about her progress.
“She’s come 110 per cent from when we adopted her,” he said. “We know as Chloe gets older her disabilities will get worse. We want to tackle everything we can, together.”
Their dream is to one day participate in all eight ITU World Series events, but there are obstacles they must first overcome.
Although not the case in Bermuda, organisers sometimes argue that Chloe is too young to participate or that her wheelchair presents a danger to runners.
There’s also the cost of travel and transporting their equipment; £15,000 is an easy spend in a year.
Massachusetts General Hospital and the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club offered to fund their trip here after Bermuda media detailed the Coutures’ dream of participating next week.
“It is awesome,” Mr Couture said. “We can’t thank the people of Bermuda enough. We are so looking forward to coming to Bermuda.”
Their hope is to get more disabled people out racing and believe there’s a lot that officials could do to help.
“Don’t put the people with disabilities at the back,” Mr Couture said. “There is nothing worse than coming over the finish line and everyone has gone home.
“Put them near the middle and front. The fast people can get past them quickly. We have so many runners now asking questions. They think it is fantastic.”
Mr Couture has tried running races without Chloe, but has found it doesn’t work.
“My arms are used to pushing something,” he said. “I don’t do much better without her.”
His hope is to cross the finish line in Bermuda in under two-and-a-half hours.
He’s done flatter courses in less time; they completed the Manchester half marathon in 1hr 43m 35s last year, but twisty Corkscrew Hill is of some concern.
“It’s hard to really get the dimensions of it,” he said. “I don’t know how high it is.”
At his age, he’s also careful not to push himself too hard.
“If I injure myself, then I can’t take care of Chloe as well,” he said. “I have a good physiotherapist and I am careful to pay close attention to my body. I plan to keep doing this for as long as I can.”
The Coutures arrive on Monday. Mr Couture hopes to visit WindReach Recreational Village to see what is being done here for people with disabilities.
• Read more at ladybugstrust.org.uk