From sea to see with Tina Ament

Years after graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy as a creative writing major, Kristina “Tina” Ament (IAA 77-80) is still telling stories. As an Assistant U.S. Attorney, Ament uses her way with words to present evidence to juries in federal criminal cases.

Outside the courtroom, Ament is not the teller but rather the subject of the stories. Ament, an elite athlete, eight-time Ironman finisher, and the first blind woman to complete the Ironman World Championship, has been featured in The Washington Post, NBC Sports, and even a forthcoming documentary film.

This past summer, Ament embarked on a new adventure, a coast-to-coast bicycle race called Race Across America. Ament was a member of Team Sea to See, which paired four blind and four sighted cyclists on tandem bicycles. Through their completion of the race, Ament and Sea to See hope to raise awareness for blind unemployment.

Listen as Ament shares her stories from the courtroom, the race course, and the Creative Writing Division of Interlochen Arts Academy.

Get updates from Team Sea to See on their Facebook page. Please note that the Team Sea to See website was deactivated shortly following the conclusion of Race Across America.

Interview transcription

Interlochen: So how did you first hear about Interlochen, and then make the decision to come here?

Ament: Back in 1977, I was living in California, and a friend of my mother's from college had married a guy who was in the Forest Service, and they were stationed in Peru. They had decided that their daughter would go to Interlochen. She came to visit us over spring break, told me all about it, and I got so excited about it that I just said, "Hey, I really want to go to this place too," and basically just started on the application process thanks to her.

Interlochen: What are some of your memories from Interlochen? What are some of the lessons, both artistically and personally that you've taken with you?

Ament: I have very, very fond, wonderful memories of Interlochen. I was a creative writing major, so I got much more of an appreciation for poetry and for reading good fiction and aspiring to write good fiction from being there. Which is funny, because now I write criminal appeals for the government, so I don't know if you call that fiction or not. (laughs)

But I think the biggest thing that I learned is that editing written work is a process, and that nobody produces perfect things to start. Everything is always a work in progress, and editing is not a bad thing. Which I think is something that I see a lot of lawyers having issues with. They think it's bad to have people have editorial advice, and like I learned from tenth grade on, everybody gets editorial advice, and some of it you might not like or agree with, but it's never a huge negative to have people care enough about your work to give you thoughts.

I think I also, along those same lines, learned the advantage of basically just hard work; that a lot of good things don't come easily and they might be really time-consuming and a long-term process instead of something that you might just say, "well, I'm really good to start" or "I don't have any hope at all." And I think both of those have been helpful in learning to do things like ultracycling, like Race Across America, which is a very long-term project. It's not something that you just decide one day, "oh, I can do that." It takes a lot of planning and training and thought about it, putting into it, to make the project work.

Interlochen: Sort of going off what you were speaking about earlier, how you kind of are still doing writing and still sort of doing narrative as a prosecutor, how did your background in creative writing, that you established her at Interlochen, help you in your career?

Ament: Well, doing the writing program there made me appreciate the importance of editing and clear written work. But I think also any time that you study fiction and what works when people try to do things like develop characters and plots definitely worked for me as a trial lawyer to sort of figure out, "how do I tell a story?" Even though the stories you tell when you go to trial have to be backed up by something; I can't just invent things that I like, like you can when you're writing a novel. But it tells you how to put things together or how to find particular spoken words that are compelling, that people say, to listen carefully to what people say and the kind of language they use, and use that in conveying a story to a judge or a jury who's considering the facts of your case.

I think in terms of doing criminal trials that's something that's helped me a lot: learning the value of narrative, learning the value of specific details that people are going to remember. And it always is gratifying to me if a juror tells me that they remembered something that I said in an argument, some specific example or language that I used in an argument. It's like, "okay, it worked!"

Aside from that, I think going to Interlochen, I met a lot of really, really diverse and interesting people, and learned that it's always really important to learn how to live with them, get along with them, and work with them. I think a lot of people learn that in their life, but they don't learn it until college or later. And a lot of my Interlochen friends were Facebook supporters of ours on our ride, so thanks to all of them.

Interlochen: When did you first become interested in law and decide to pursue that as a career?

Ament: I think I pretty much always was. I watched Perry Mason as a four, five, and six-year-old, and decided that I really wanted to do trials as a result of that. Even though I really enjoy writing and literature, I never really saw myself as being able to make a living writing. So I thought I need something else that I can fall back on to pay the bills, and law school was always the thing that I figured I would do. Obviously, practicing law never turns out to be like Perry Mason or LA Law, as everybody finds out when they're a first-year law student or they go to do their first job. Still, there are aspects of it that I really enjoy, and I think that's one of the things that drew me to doing criminal law, and drew me to doing trial work, is that it is sort of the most like what you see on TV.

Interlochen: Tell me a little bit about your journey after law school. You don't just graduate from Stanford and immediately become a federal prosecutor. Tell me a bit about that journey.

Ament: Immediately after law school, I went to Little Rock, Arkansas, and clerked for a federal district judge who was an amazing man, an amazing mentor, the kind of person that you learn a lot about the kind of lawyer that you want to be from: somebody who had so much integrity and so much interest in every single case. A judge's judge, I think, would be one way to put it. Very open to listening to what everyone had to say, and respectful of the litigants, which are things that I have always hoped that I have emulated in my own career.

So I did that for a year, and then I went to a large law firm which was a big D.C. firm. It did a lot of pro bono work, a lot of public policy work. I worked there for three years, and did some capital, death penalty defense, which was probably the most interesting thing that I did there. I learned a lot about being a really solid lawyer and "leave no stone unturned" kind of attention to detail that I think serves everybody well. That firm was very, very exacting, and had really high standards for every product we turned out. When you learn that way, then you are always careful in your own career going forward.

And then I went to the Justice Department, and I've done criminal appeals there. I went on to detail and did federal criminal trials, and then came to this office and have done D.C. trial work for 10 years and appellate work for 10 years.

Interlochen: So a bit of a roller coaster.

Ament: Exactly. But basically, once I left private practice, I have been doing criminal law ever since and probably would never go back to doing anything else.

Interlochen: Switching gears a little bit, you're not only a prosecutor, you are also an elite long-distance athlete. Let's talk a little bit about your fitness journey, because you haven't always been incredibly athletic. So how did you get started on your journey to being an elite athlete?

Ament: I'd always participated in some sports growing up. I did swim team in public school for a year in junior high, I'd done some running, that sort of thing, but never anything all that competitive. When I went to college, I rowed on the Yale crew for a year, but was never really very good at that; I'm pretty small to be a collegiate rower, and they didn't have lightweights then. And it was just really time-consuming and hard for me want to commit that much time in college. So I kind of forgot about all that.

When I went down to my clerkship, actually, my judge encouraged everyone to do physical activity. He got us all to join the Y, and he would do things like take recesses at trial to go swimming. And so, I started kind of working out while I was there, and after I left private practice and had extra time to do things with, I got involved in club rowing here and competed on a club team for 10 years, won a couple of national titles in masters events, and really enjoyed that. And when I got a little bored and a little bit tired of sort of the drama of having to put together team boats, I started doing marathon running and then switched onto triathlon.

In the meantime, I'd also bought tandem bike, and did a lot of riding in the '90s. And that was where I first heard about Race Across America, actually, was when I bought my bike. Some of my pilots were people that had either watched or officiated for RAAM, and they talked about what a cool thing it would be to be able to do that. I hadn't biked for a while—when I really got into rowing and marathon running I wasn't biking all that much—but I still had my bike and started using it again when I went into triathlon. And gradually, I switched over to ultracycling after doing a bunch of Ironman races, just because I really like riding my bike, and it's kind of a fun off-branch when you've been doing tri's for a while. I've done eight Ironmans. And doing the training for all of that sometimes can get a little much, so it was like, "Oh, what if I just ride my bike for 24 hours instead of doing an Ironman? That's a lot less things I have to worry about, like swimming."

Basically, I'd always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do RAAM, and one of the girls who piloted for me—since I'm blind and ride a tandem bike, I have guides from all over the place—and one of the girls who piloted for me had done RAAM on a team in 2012. And she and I had talked about, "oh, we should really try and do that." And we bandied back and forth, could we get a blind team together to do this, and we're not really sure, and we were sort of talking about who we would want to ask. And then these two other guys—Jack Chen and Dan Berlin—sent out a Facebook thing saying, "hey, we're looking to do a blind RAAM team, would anybody want to do it?" So I basically was like, "hey, somebody else wants to do all the organizational work, I'll just see if they'll take me on their team. And that's how I ended up on Team Sea to See. Caroline, who was my friend who did it in 2012, was one of our pilots. She didn't pilot for me the whole race, but she was one of the people who was a pilot for a blind athlete. That's kind of how I got to RAAM.

Interlochen: Let's talk a little bit about Sea to See, and about the Race Across America. Tell us a little bit about the race and what that was like for you.

Ament: RAAM is an ongoing, 24-hour a day bike race where you ride from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. It covers 12 states, three mountain ranges, about a little bit less than 3,100 miles (I think it was 3,060 this year). We did it as a team of four tandem bikes, each of which had a blind person on the back called the "stoker."

When you have a four-bike team like that, at any given time two bikes would be out on the road, so that's two pairs riders would be out on the road. And they would be riding a half an hour or so, and resting a half hour or so while being shuttled forward in a van while the other bike was riding. The idea was that you never want to have no bike moving forward. You never want to stop forward progress. When the shuttle van would stop and get out the bike, that next team needed to be ready to go as soon as the other bike pulled in, so it was like doing a relay. Then those two bikes would continue doing that for four to six hours.

In the meantime, the other two pairs would be in an RV that had gone ahead using interstates and roads you could drive faster on, and they would have driven ahead to a pre-arranged meeting point. Those people would have basically 30 minutes to shower, eat, and get to bed so that they could sleep as much as possible before they had to be woken up to be ready to take over. And so, it was 4-6 hour shifts of either riding as part of a two-man relay or sleeping.

So you're doing it 24/7, and it got to the point where, by the time we got to Colorado, you'd wake up and you'd have no idea where you were or what time it was. You'd just be like, "Hey, gotta get ready, they’re gonna be here in 30 minutes." So you'd jump up, put on your cycling stuff and wander out of the RV, and ask somebody, "hey, where are we?" (laughs) Or I'd ask Siri on my iPhone: "where am I?" It's like a really, really weird form of jet lag, and suddenly, time gets very compressed, where you have no idea what time it is or where you are. All you know is, "I'm going to either be riding, sitting the shuttle van, or I'm supposed to be sleeping.” That's basically your life.

You cover amazing amounts of terrain. It starts out in the desert. The Arizona desert, in some years, gets up to like 120 degrees, and so in those, you might take much, much shorter than a half an hour out. You might be switching off every ten minutes with your partner because you just want to get back into the air conditioning of the van and get some ice. We got really lucky. Our desert experience was pretty tame. I don't think it ever got near 100 any of the time that we were in the deserts in Arizona. Well, there was a sandstorm that my teammates were in. I think it was like 30 miles-an-hour winds and they couldn't see anything because the sand was blowing so much in front of them.

And then we had huge hailstorms in Colorado/Kansas, and those were so severe that it broke the window of the shuttle van that they were riding in, so they had to sit by the side of the road for three hours until the hail stopped because it wasn't safe to ride. I was in a lot of big, serious rainstorms where it wasn't hailing, but it was such hard rain that it was really hard for my pilot to see where we were going. You just sort of keep on moving forward and hope that your driver-navigator will tell you if you're really messing it up due to the rain. And at one point, the road was so flooded that my teammates had to pick up the bike and run carrying it because it would have knocked them over if they had tried to ride through the water; it was rushing too fast.

So those are the kinds of things that you run into. We climbed a lot of hills, a lot of mountains. I can't even begin to say all the really cool things there were. We saw cows, horses.... We met a lot of dogs along the way. I started calling it "Pets Across America" because we kept on running into different dogs.

Interlochen: So let's talk a little bit about the team that you were on, Team Sea to See. And I know that part of your goal in completing the Race Across America was to raise awareness for blind unemployment. So what are some of the barriers to employment for people who are blind or visually impaired?

Ament: Well, first off, blind unemployment right now—and we're in an environment where we're at somewhere around three to four percent (I don't know what the numbers are). Blind unemployment is at 70 percent, right? It's 20 times the national average, is what it is among blind individuals, roughly, depending on exact statistics you read. So I think there are a lot of barriers to it.

I think the biggest barrier that I've experienced is still the preconceived notion that blind people aren't capable of doing a job. I always tell a story about one of the judges I interviewed for a clerkship with. When I went in there and he found out that he was interviewing a blind candidate, his response was to ask all these rhetorical questions about like, "I just need to know, how would you do all these things in my chambers?" And he started listing off things. Well, of course, I'd never been in his chambers, I had no idea. He was like, "how would you put together the jury instructions?" but he didn't explain anything. A sighted person wouldn't have known how to put together the jury instructions if they just walked in there.

So he basically asked these questions as a way to satisfy himself that hiring me would be a bad idea. And I think that that only goes to show that his intention was not to hire, and so I think a lot of people don't want to hire, so they come up with notions in their mind about what would be a good reason or what would be a good something that the person couldn't do, and then they go on and say, "I'll hire somebody else." And of course, this was back in the days before the ADA, you know. I always thought I was the "grandma" on our team. I've been dealing with this stuff like, longer than some of my colleagues have actually been adults.

I think that bias is a huge barrier, and the other thing is that some people people say, "well, why should we bother? Why do we need blind employees?" So the idea that people aren't willing to even listen to what an accommodation would be. I think that those two things, the idea that people are just unwilling to listen, and are unwilling to make an accommodation, probably accounts for most of it.

What I would say is that what they're missing out on is people who have been solving problems their whole life, figuring out things their whole life. So they're missing out on an amazing array of talents by doing those things. Can I do things exactly the same way that everybody else does? No. But there are things that I am able to do better because I've had to learn in my life how to solve problems and how to go about it.

For example, one thing that I know that I'm better at than a lot of people, because I've sat and critiqued people on this in trials, is I actually listen to the answers that the witnesses give. It's amazing for me to see when people have notes, and they've written out an entire direct examination, they go through and they read the question and they never even listen to the answer. They'll ask a question that the witness just answered because they're so busy looking at their notes that they're not paying attention. I'm not saying that because I'm blind I'm the only person who does that, but because I'm blind I've had to learn how to do it, and so it comes naturally to me to pay attention to what the witnesses are saying, because I can't rely on notes to compensate for that. And that's just one example.

And I think that what our point in doing this race was, was to show that four of us who were—I was the only blind athlete on this team with any ultracycling experience. The four of us had to figure out, "hey, how do we put together a race team? How do we accomplish all these things that it takes to get across the country?" Well, part of that was we had to recruit a really good crew to work with us. But that's also part of what having a job is: it's knowing how to put together a team, knowing how to function with other people, how to get what you need in a group setting.

And so, we hope by having this team to show that blind people are capable of doing amazing things if they're just given a shot, and that there are many things that they start out with a leg up because they've had to problem solve for a lot of years just to do the things that everybody else takes for granted.

Interlochen: Speaking of building that race team that you had, a very key element of that is the pilots, who are the sighted individuals who basically direct the bike. And when you're cycling with a guide, or running, or swimming, as the case may be if you're doing an Ironman, you're placing your complete trust in that person to guide you safely through the course. How do you develop that kind of trust with an individual?

Ament: A lot of the time, it's just having to talk to them and make sure they're doing it for the right reasons, and they have enough of what it takes. All of our pilots were really experienced cyclists of differing things, and then they had to learn, through practice and training, what kind of things worked for us and what information we needed. Jack was saying to Caroline, "I don't really need to you to tell me anything at all except when to start and when to stop. You don't need to do a lot of narrative, because I just want to be safe, and I don't want to be a distraction." Whereas I like having a lot more distraction than that: see where we are, and what's coming, and how much longer's the hill, and all that kind of stuff. So a lot of it is just learning what works. We had to learn to trust not only our pilots, but everybody on our crew, because those crew people are your lifeline when you're out there in RAAM.

Interlochen: When you're going to take on a race like this, that doesn't happen overnight. You're training every day, on the bike, or you're running. What do you do while you train? Do you listen to music? Do you think about things? What do you occupy yourself with?

Ament: That's a really good question. If I am training by myself, like on a treadmill or stairmaster or bike trainer—because I have a bike trainer in my house—so for shorter, more intense efforts, I listen to a lot of music. I have Pandora, I have Sirius Radio, so I can listen to almost anything I want. For longer bike trainer rides, I watch a lot of Netflix. (laughs) So I've gotten through two seasons of 13 Reasons Why, several seasons of Mad Men, several seasons of—I don't even know how many shows I've watched. And I do some listening to audiobooks, but it's more TV and movies, I think, to get me through. Sometimes, it's—you know, I'm not going to lie, it can get really tedious doing five-and-six-hour rides in your house on a trainer.

And then swimming is just me and my thoughts. I've never figured out the whole trying to listen to music and swimming thing. Now, if I'm out on a bike with a pilot, I will often take my phone and a few times—not so much during this race, but on a 24-hour one I did with Pamela—I put on music on the phone, just to try to stay awake. But I usually, in running I hardly ever would do that, because I don't think it's safe to use headphones when you have a guide. So I have to put on something that I can hear the phone, but I can't use headphones. So running it's just me and my guide or me and my thoughts, if the guide doesn't feel like talking. (laughs)