By Kara Tanner | April 24, 2019, 10 a.m. (ET)

Kyle Coon walks with his guide dog Skye. Kyle Coon walks with his guide dog Skye at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

Kyle Coon has been thrown his fair share of curve balls throughout his life. Coon is a visually-impaired paratriathlete and has learned to navigate life with the help of a guide dog. 

Coon lost his sight when he was 6 years old. He was diagnosed with bilateral sporadic retinoblastoma, a form of cancer in both eyes, when he was only 10 months old, which resulted in dozens of treatments and frequent hospital visits. Eventually Coon’s best and only option to beat the cancer led to the removal of both his eyes. 

“It was hard as a kid going from being able to see to not being able to see anything,” Coon said. “I definitely struggled early on.”

But when Coon had the opportunity to meet Erik Weihenmayer, a rock climber and skier who was also blind, his whole outlook on life changed. 

“He told me, ‘Just because you’re blind doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life,’” Coon remembered. “He pushed me really hard to pursue crazy adventures and different sports and activities.” 

Coon’s parents were also among his biggest supporters and cheerleaders when it came to pursuing sports. 

“My parents are the kind of people who even if I wasn’t blind they would encourage me and my siblings to push our limits,” he said. 

To assist him in everyday life, Coon relies on his guide dog, Skye, to get him safely to and from destinations. 

“Before I had a guide dog, my cane would get caught in cracks in the sidewalk or it would hit a pole,” Coon said. “When I started working with a guide dog everything just seemed to just flow much smoother. Those poles I use to run into before just seemed to totally disappear because Skye just weaves me in and around them.”

Coon no longer has to stress about counting steps from one location to another, and can trust Skye to get him where he needs to go, making traveling both near and far a lot smoother, quicker and efficient. 

Even with a guide dog, Coon had his fair share of challenges before finding his home at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“The working world has been a challenge,” he said. “I was unemployed for a year after college and was even turned down from being a bag boy at a grocery store.”

The unemployment rate for adults with a visual impairment has long been greater than 70 percent, hinting at a potential discrimination issue stemming from the misconceptions that exist among employers. 

Coon took to running as a distraction from his troubles and eventually was led toward paratriathlon thanks to the suggestion of a friend.

After attending several camps at the Olympic Training Center and spending time with the coaches, Coon knew it was where he wanted to be. 

“I’d been slowly getting better and better at triathlon and the USA Triathlon coaches really encouraged me to apply [for the resident athlete program],” said Coon. “I really like schedules and routine and I do really well in environments that promote both of those things.”
 

 

Kyle Coon poses for a photo with his guide dog Skye.Kyle Coon poses for a photo with his guide dog Skye at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

Now as a resident athlete, Coon spends most of his days doing rigorous training in preparation for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.  

Typically, Coon swims upwards of 3,500 to 4,400 meters five times a week, runs for at least 90 minutes and does long training sessions on the bike three or four days, but his training doesn’t stop there. There are still plenty of workouts to do on Saturday and Sunday, so there are no days off. 

“I want to push myself to the best of my ability, and I think the best of my ability is right up there with the best in the world,” said Coon.

In between swimming, running and biking, Coon finds time to focus on strength and conditioning; however, Coon recognizes the importance of recovery.

“I definitely have to plan in my recovery time,” he said. “I try to go into sports medicine and the recovery center once or twice a week to get a massage, sit in the recovery boots or do an ice bath. Between workouts, I like to lay on my bed, put my feet up, put on my headphones and read a book.”

But Coon isn’t training alone. Skye is by his side every step of the way. 

“I have to think about Skye, too,” said Coon. “As soon as I wake up in the morning I feed him and take him out then we head to swim practice.”

During workouts, Coon usually takes off Skye’s harness so he can interact with other service dogs and people. 

“There are a lot of people who will walk by and he likes to hop up and say hello to them,” said Coon. “When he’s in harness he can’t do that; he has to be on duty. When he’s out of harness people can pet him and give him a pat on the head, so he enjoys when I’m working out.” 

Coon says the staff at the Olympic Training Center has gone out of their way to accommodate Skye and all the other service dogs and visually-impaired athletes.

“People are always super respectful and they don’t try to distract Skye when he is in harness or when he is working – that’s a big sigh of relief,” said Coon. “He’s also a great conversation starter. People always want to learn about him.”

After a day of hard work, downtime is important not just for Coon, but for Skye, too. 

“In the evenings, I try to make some time to throw his bone around for him to chase and he loves to play tug of war with me,” said Coon. “When he’s out of harness he’s very bouncy and playful. He’s just like any other dog.”

Even though Coon and Skye share a working relationship there is no denying a dog is man’s best friend. 

“He and I are definitely attached at the hip and it’s pretty rare you see us separated,” said Coon. “He makes life a lot more fun and interesting.”

 

Check out more photos of Team USA athletes and their guide dogs below.