2014 ended in the most perfect fashion, given the year I’ve had. What began with 7 glaucoma procedures in 6 weeks to maintain the limited vision in my left eye, ended running a race with my team in Central Park at midnight to celebrate all of my accomplishments this year.
It feels sort of like an out-of-body experience. Did I really just do all that? Did I travel to Florida to speak on behalf of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Antigua to speak out against Glaucoma, Colorado to learn how to race tandem bikes, Dallas to compete and win a bronze in my first triathlon with Team USA, Chicago and Wisconsin to win a bronze medal at USA Para-cycling National Championships, Canada for another race with team USA, the World Championships of Triathlon in Edmonton, New York City with my great friend guiding me in one of the largest races in the world, San Diego to train for a week at the Olympic Training Center, and Brazil for my first International Triathlon win? Did that just happen? No freaking way.
Each week something keeps happening to cause me to pause and want to pinch myself. Tomorrow, I leave for Kansas City Missouri to speak at a school for blind children and to help them raise money at a wine event on Monday night. It’s so rewarding to me to know that my profession of 20 years is now a way for me to give back to the organizations I care about and as a means to bring funds and awareness to important causes related to physical and visual disabilities. Between the Lion’s Club, Guiding Eyes for the Blind, Achilles International, Challenged Athlete’s Foundation, the Talking Information Center for the Blind, and the World Glaucoma Patient Association, I get to share my story and inspire others to pay it forward.
The best part? I’ve had the most amazing supporter, friend and confidante by my side, my Guiding Eyes for the Blind Labrador guide dog, Elvis. He’s got more stamps on his ‘paws-port’ than most people! He’s been a great traveler from the start, sleeping for up to 8 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….
The other component to my year that has made it all possible was my introduction to a new friend and guide, Miss Lindsey Cook, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. We were both selected for a Para Cycling development camp, with the goal being to find and develop new cycling talent for the upcoming Paralympics in Rio. From the moment we met, it was as though we’d known each other our entire lives.
As a blind athlete, I am at the mercy of my guide’s schedules when planning racing and training. After our very first race together, I knew this was an important partnership that needed to be solidified. My other guide, and the person who single-handedly introduced me to the sport of triathlon is a woman named Caroline Gaynor. She got me to the finish line of my first race and also my first race on Team USA. Suddenly, this year, I became blessed with not one, but more than half a dozen elite female guides, all so very different from one another, but each incredible at getting me to the line safely, fast and with a smile on my face.
So imagine my delight when I take a step back and reflect on where I started last year; Preparing for yet another surgery (#17) and feeling pretty down about my rapidly progressing glaucoma. Now, I’ve completed 5 races wearing the Stars and Stripes uniform, and have medaled in all but one event this year, going from a nobody on the international Paratriathlon circuit to #6 blind female athlete in the world in my chosen sport. It’s absolutely surreal.
So when I talk about the importance of paying it forward, I mean it. It’s because of the generosity of hundreds of friends, families and local businesses that I was able to even attempt this year. People offering rides, money for travel, nutrition advice, coaching, training facilities, bike transport, bike parts and labor, guide-dog watching while I race; you name it, people have helped.
Nothing would make me and my guides happier than to see lots of new athletes sign up for races this season to bring more awareness and funding to our sport. It will be the first time it is contested as a Paralympic sport, and the time is right to shine the spotlight there and let other blind athletes know that there is a pipeline for them to pursue this as their sport, and that there are generous folks out there willing to guide and to assist. Every day I’m recruiting new guides on Facebook, at the gym and at the grocery store. People from my glaucoma and rare eye disease support groups online contact me several times a week to be introduced to running, hiking, swimming and biking in their community. I take such joy from linking them to guides and coaches and gyms that are willing to help more blind and visually impaired people become active again.
To celebrate this accomplishment, I ran 4 miles in the pitch black at midnight on New Year’s Eve with a group that supports wounded and able-bodied veterans. The high fives and ‘shout-outs’ along the course just buoyed my commitment to bringing more attention that yes, blind and visually impaired people can be active. Finally? I finished my celebration by jumping into the frigid Atlantic Ocean on New Year’s Day for the Coney Island Polar Bear Plunge.
So, what is my commitment to the visually impaired community in 2015? I commit to continue breaking barriers, pushing the envelope and showing my blind friends that there IS a way forward. Life as a blind person can not only be rewarding, there is a whole world of FUN and community out there willing to embrace you. Let’s take the leap together. I’ll go first.