“Giving is easy for her”. That’s what we learned about Jenny Senko.
At a recent sporting event, we met a woman with a puppy that was wearing a special vest. Being avid animal lovers, we struck up a conversation with her.
We quickly learned she was way more than someone just watching an event with a puppy. We found a person who amazed us with their passion to help others beyond her desire to compete in triathlons and Ironman races. Jenny Senko is truly someone who thinks day-in and day-out of ways to enlighten and enhance other lives. Jenny is a twenty-ish year-old teacher of students with visual impairments. She works within the school system with students who cannot see well enough to access their materials. She teaches everything from braille, how to use the infamous white cane, and how to properly use magnifiers and other activities for daily living skills. Even the puppy is her way of helping others. Read on to learn what we mean!
CocoaElite: So Jenny, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you find the sport of triathlon?
JENNY: Well let’s see here. I found my way into sports through running. Running was my passion until my senior year in college when I fell out of love with it. I struggled through a year or two of running off and on before giving up the sport completely. About a year later, my boyfriend mentioned that he might want to do a triathlon. I thought he was crazy of course, but I supported him by going to his first race.
As he waited in line to jump into the pool, I got those pre-race jitters running through my blood like I used to get when I enjoyed running. That nervous energy didn’t go away for the rest of the race. Watching the sport was exciting enough for me that I didn’t want to ever be a spectator again. I started going to the gym and did my first sprint about a month and a half later. Triathlon gave me the joy running alone wasn’t capable of doing anymore. I could always feel proud of my accomplishments whether it was going faster or further, but the variety of sports always gave me something different to focus on.
CocoaElite: We wanted to do an article about you because when we met you, you were accompanied by a young puppy in a vest that said Leader Dogs for the Blind. Can you explain what that was about?
JENNY: Sure! In my spare time, I raise guide dog puppies. Before a dog is trained to help someone with a visual impairment, they are placed with families for a year. The family is responsible for teaching the young puppies manners and what it means to ignore distractions while working. The puppies go everywhere with the families for a year including restaurants, movies, stores, etc. Aero was the puppy you saw me with, a yellow lab golden retriever cross. She accompanied my boyfriend and I to many races during the year she was with me. Aero made it as a guide dog and is partnered with a woman in Michigan now.
CocoaElite: That must be really hard to give up the puppies at the end of the year.
JENNY: It is! I put so much time and energy into raising these dogs. Sometimes I feel like a part of my soul goes with each puppy when they leave me to enter into formal training. I also think when these dogs get matched, the trainers look at that piece of soul and match it up to someone shining with the same light. For example, my first guide dog puppy Bentley got matched with a man who ended up also getting into triathlon. Bentley was with me when I started training for my first race. He was then able to be with Austin when he was training for his first race. It’s interesting to see how paths in life cross like that. Knowing my puppy is going to someone who will take great care of them helps a lot.
CocoaElite: I also understand that Austin, Bentley’s handler and you are competing in a triathlon together.
JENNY: It’s funny that Bentley is the dog that brought us together, but our friendship has become so much more than that. I talk to Austin almost every day. He has become intensely passionate about triathlon. Since he is legally blind, he needs a guide in order to compete at races.
USAT rules prevent opposite gender guides, but Ironman recently changed their rules regarding who may guide an athlete with a visual impairment. Austin has asked me to guide him in his first Ironman next year. It’s a huge undertaking that I am honored to be a part of. Less than a year from now, Austin and I will complete our 140.6 mile journey tethered together by a short rope.
CocoaElite: What a great example of sacrificing your own race to race for someone else. What inspired you to do this?
JENNY: That sentence you just said is kind of what inspired me. My daily job is working with children with visual impairments in the school system. Unfortunately I must watch as my students are often passed up for sports, activities, and opportunities simply because people think these kids aren’t capable. I see people, other educators in fact, get upset that my student is walking down the hallway by himself. I think the key to success is to have high expectations. If society doesn’t think my students are capable, then my students are at great risk of believing this lie themselves. I simply want my students to be able to achieve whatever they dream. I want them to know they are just as capable as any other kid out there.
CocoaElite: So is doing this race a reflection of your hopes and dreams for your students?
JENNY: Yeah! Triathlons aren’t something the average person does, and an Ironman is almost unthinkable. I certainly didn’t think I could do one. Last year I signed up and raced my first Ironman, Ironman Louisville. I couldn’t stop smiling during the whole race because it excited me so much thinking everyone around me was achieving their goals. I want that for my students too. If they see Austin and I racing together, maybe that will inspire them to reach for whatever goals they dream of.
CocoaElite: Back to this race with Austin, how does someone who is functionally blind complete a race like this?
JENNY: That’s what a guide is for! In day to day life, when a person with a visual impairment needs assistance going somewhere, they do what’s called sighted, or human guide. This is when they hold onto the elbow of a person more familiar with the area and walk together. It’s a simple technique, and vital for safe travel in unfamiliar areas, especially when one wants to travel fast. Of course we want to go fast in races!
A type of sighted guide is used where instead of holding onto my elbow, Austin will be tethered to me by a short length of rope. For the swim, this rope is tied around the waist or thigh to allow for full range of movement, and for the run the tether can be around the waist, wrist, or held in the hand.
I then act as Austin’s eyes, calling out hazards and ensuring there is room for both of us to pass obstacles. Austin must communicate with me what his needs are, and I must do my best to meet those needs so that Austin can race his best. For the bike, a special bike called a tandem is used, literally two bikes attached together. We both provide power, but I am responsible for shifting and steering as well. In a sport where individual performance is the focus, teamwork is the name of the game for an athlete with a visual impairment and their guide. I hope I can be that for Austin.
CocoaElite: Well good luck Jenny, we look forward to hearing from you after your race!
JENNY: Thank you!