Blind Triathletes Take the Lead at Inspiring Others

Have you ever tried this swimming exercise? You jump in a pool with no lane lines and swim with your eyes closed while a coach or a friend monitors your progress.

The point of this exercise is to figure out your strong and weak sides. Some of us will naturally swim to the left, others tend to veer to the right, while a few lucky or talented swimmers will swim dead straight.

If you try this drill you'll immediately learn two important lessons:

  1. Which direction you tend to swim when you are in open water and,
  2. The sheer terror and challenge of swimming blind.

Casey Jones

"Trouble with you is the trouble with me,
Got two good eyes but you still don't see."

In April, 2008, I had the privilege to attend the second annual Tri It Camp for blind women in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. My lovely wife decided that she wanted to learn how to guide blind triathletes, so I loaded up our son, our gear, and joined her for one of the most extraordinary weekends of my life.

The camp consisted of a small group of seven women athletes and seven women guides from around the country, of all ages, who learned over the course of the weekend how to swim, bike and run together. The culmination of the camp was a mini triathlon on Sunday morning where the blind athletes put all of their newfound skills together for a one hour sprint tri.

I still vaguely recall from my years at journalism school that the above sentences cover the five basic "W's" of good reporting, which I'm sure you know consist of: who, what, where, when and why.

But between you and me, the five "W's" need some explaining to really capture the spirit and meaning of the camp to both the blind athletes and the sighted guides, as well as myself.

Who

The biggest challenge that many of us face when getting up in the morning is to figure out what color shirt to match with what color pants. Or perhaps you are like me and your morning challenge consists of deciding what type of fruit you'll add to your cereal.

Now imagine getting up in the dark, with no hope of a sunrise. I have to be honest, that thought just terrifies me; yet it is exactly how the seven newbie blind triathletes began their camp day. Actually, I'm not being completely honest because some of the blind athletes still retained a bit of light recognition, as some of the women progressively lost their eyesight throughout their lives.

So I guess to be completely fair, imagine getting up in the morning and seeing just enough shade of black to help you remember what it was like to see; to remember how it felt to get up and be able to match your clothes, make that cup of coffee, and slice that banana into your morning cereal.

But instead you wake up in a pitch black hotel room, at just about 6,000 feet of elevation, hundreds or even thousand of miles from your home, your friends, your family, your established routine, and your familiar surroundings with the knowledge that today you get to swim, bike, and run your first triathlon with a stranger.

What

Now before I go any further, I want to be absolutely clear about the word inspiration, because I'm verging on the edge of making these blind athletes sound like they could, should and would inspire you. But my real sense from getting to know these women is that that's the last word they would feel comfortable using to describe themselves or their motivation. For them it was just business as usual.

The camp and the triathlon was just another obstacle to overcome in a lifetime of proving people like me wrong. Showing me that just because they can't see doesn't mean they can't live independent lives. In fact, proving to me that sight, or lack thereof, is not what defines them as people or, for that matter, as athletes.

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