There are only three things I remember from the day the doctor told me I would go blind from retinitis pigmentosa (an inherited disease that causes progressively worsening tunnel vision). The first is that he said I would be blind by age 40. The second was that every word thereafter was just the sound of wind rushing past my ears. I didn’t hear a word the doctor said because my mind went into hyperdrive and began recalling all the times I had tripped, needed help in the dark or walked into people and objects. And my racing mind also thought to the future, wondering if I could still pursue my hopes and dreams. And third, I decided right then and there that I would someday compete in the Paralympic Games.
As with many forms of adversity, there is often a way to turn lemons into lemonade, to turn adversity into opportunity. And for me, that opportunity has been to compete for the U.S. and the United States Olympic Committee in Paralympic alpine skiing with other blind or visually impaired athletes. And from this truly remarkable experience, I offer seven things you may not know about blind athletes and about being blind in honor of World Sight Day on Oct. 12:
1. Blind Athletes Are Dazzlingly Attractive
If you have heard the old saying that “he or she is so good looking they need to beat them off with a stick,” well, that’s the real reason we have canes.
2. Blind Athletes Are A Bit Crazy And Enormously Courageous
Imagine yourself standing at the top of a double black diamond ski run. Imagine it is 0° Fahrenheit, blowing hard with flat light and you are only wearing a flimsy Lycra speed suit that provides almost no insulation. Imagine that you are at 12,000 feet and that you will descend 3,000 feet over nearly two miles in under two minutes reaching speeds of 80 mph. Imagine hitting these speeds over icy, steep and bumpy terrain that would crash a car in seconds. Imagine hitting jumps at 65 miles an hour and flying well over 60 feet. Now imagine doing all of this while blind. Imaging following a guide down this race course that you can barely see, if you can see them at all (100-percent blind racers follow the sound their guide makes using a speaker mounted to their back). That is what blind alpine ski racers do and love. Are we crazy, courageous or just nuts?
3. Blind Athletes – And All Paralympic Athletes – Love Sports
Blind athletes, and all Paralympic or “adaptive” athletes as a whole, derive tremendous freedom from the limitations of our disabilities through sports and this is a truly joyful experience. Additionally, Paralympic/adaptive athletes are part of a close fraternity that acts as a terrifically therapeutic support group. So if you know some athletically-oriented blind or physically-challenged people, please encourage them to become involved in Paralympic sports.
4. Blind Athletes Lead Glamorous Lives
Winter sport athletes are blessed to train or compete in Colorado, Utah, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, France, Slovenia, Canada and elsewhere during the winter. During the summer, we train at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, and wherever there is snow in Chile, Austria, Switzerland and New Zealand.
5. Blind People Can Be (And Are) Enormously Successful
Without naming names, there is at least one blind billionaire, one blind person who has climbed the seven summits (the tallest mountains on the seven continents) and one blind lieutenant governor amongst many business owners, technology workers, counselor/therapists and many other interesting professions. Before my eye disease was diagnosed, I was a private pilot; so there may have even been a legally blind – and incident free – pilot.
6. Blind Athletes Are Amazing Athletes
Blind athletes take the Paralympics as seriously as Olympians take the Olympics and we train similarly to Olympians. Were America’s best ski racers – Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn – to wear special contacts to replicate my vision and then race me, well, quite frankly, they would kick my butt. But boy, would that race make for an epic day!
7. Blind People Are On The Cutting Edge Of Medical Research
Blind people are on the cutting edge of gene therapy and stem cell research and treatments. The eye is the optimal body part with which to start much of the early gene therapy and stem cell research and therapy because the doctors and researchers can readily inspect the eye compared to other body parts to see why the therapy is or is not working. And the promise of these technologies is huge. Gene therapy can ‘fix’ the mutated gene that causes the disease and thereby ‘cure’ the disease. And stem cell therapy offers the promise of restoring site to many by returning disease-free eye cells to the eye. Those of us with blinding eye diseases will, thankfully, benefit first from much of this worldwide research and medical breakthroughs.
Let me conclude by stating that these are very hopeful times for the blind. Though blindness is the second-greatest fear behind getting cancer, there is much less reason to fear blindness today than ever before. Firstly, the vast majority of blindness causes are treatable or preventable – think of causes like cataracts or diabetes. And second, medical science will have tremendous breakthroughs for most of the remaining inherited/genetic causes of blindness in the not-so-distant future. For example, the first breakthrough blindness cure is launching within a year. This will be the first FDA-approved gene therapy treatment of any kind and will cure leber congenital amaurosis which causes childhood blindness.
Going blind need not be something to fear. With today’s athletic opportunities, adaptive equipment for life and work, and with tomorrow’s medical and technological breakthroughs, the future is very bright for the blind and visually impaired.