Every time Paralympic hopeful Amy Dixon makes it to the end of another grueling triathlon, she knows her trusty companion will be waiting for her at the finish line.
Sixteen years after she lost vision in her right eye, which she says she viewed as "a death sentence" at the time, Dixon, 38, is now a champion triathlete pursuing her dream of making the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her guide dog, a Labrador named Elvis, has been with her every step of the way for the past six years.
"From the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, your life is different in every possible positive way you can imagine,'' Dixon told TODAY on Friday about her experience getting a guide dog. "Not just because you know that you're going to be safe 100 percent of the time, (but also) that you've got a companion. You're not going through a very difficult disease alone."
Throughout Dixon's journey becoming a world-ranked competitor, Elvis has been a crucial part of her success.
"To have Elvis accompany me to every race and be at every finish line and lick the sweat off of my face when I'm done, I am so, so lucky,'' she said.
At 22 years old, Dixon was diagnosed with a rare form of uveitis, an inflammation of the middle layer of the eye that drastically reduced her peripheral vision and left her legally blind. Working as a sommelier and buyer for a national corporation, Dixon was devastated by the news.
"I was pretty angry because I didn't know how the next 56 years of my life was gonna look, so I really viewed it as a death sentence,'' she said.
A suggestion by a family member to get a guide dog from the organization Guiding Eyes for the Blind, combined with a focus of getting back in shape, helped turn her life around. Guiding Eyes has also teamed up with NBC to work with TODAY's new puppy, who is being trained to be a guide dog.
"Guiding Eyes, they do such an amazing job of matching you and your personality and your lifestyle with your dog,'' Dixon said. "I call it 'Match.com for dogs.'''
Elvis has even helped Dixon make new friends during her travels around the world for events.
"He’s got more stamps on his ‘paws-port’ than most people!'' she wrote on her blog. "He’s been a great traveler from the start, sleeping for up to eight hours on a flight, and patiently waiting to relieve himself in weird places on fake grass at international airports. Plus, I’ve met so many incredible people at airports who I’ve later become friends with thanks to him making the ‘introduction.' Everyone wants to meet him from our flights."
Dixon's career as a triathlete was set in motion initially when she was trying to lose weight after undergoing multiple surgeries and chemotherapy to help slow her vision loss after her diagnosis. A former competitive swimmer, she got back into the pool to shed the extra pounds because she could do it without assistance. She soon began running and biking, and an acquaintance suggested she try a triathlon, which combines swimming, running and biking.
"I said, 'Well blind people can't do triathlons,'' Dixon said. "Next thing you know I'm on Team U.S.A., went to the world championships, ranked sixth in the world."
Dixon still works part time as a sommelier, but is training and trying to raise money for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team in Rio next year, which be selected in the spring of 2016 before the Games based on points accumulated in triathlons up to that point. After undergoing her 17th surgery at the beginning of last year to combat her rapidly progressing glaucoma, she also competes in para-cycling, where she knows Elvis will always be waiting at the finish line.
"To say he's my best friend is sorta cliche, but it's true,'' she said.