Vision Loss Won’t Stop This Iron Woman

By Caroline Garner | Jan. 10, 2017, 2:31 p.m. (ET)

Caroline Garner

I awoke on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016, with a loss of most of the vision in my right eye. There was no warning. No injury. No prior problems. In fact, at age 51, I didn't even require glasses!

I was 1,000 miles from home when it happened. I had to drive my 86-year-old mother from Wisconsin to her new home near me in Texas beginning that very day; no way out. So I went to see the doctor.

The doctors did several tests that were inconclusive. I might have been experiencing the first attack of multiple sclerosis; I might have had a virus that settled in my eye; I might have merely suffered a side effect of stress and lack of proper sleep.

I was afraid to close my eyes at night, for fear the next morning I would awaken with both eyes broken. Blind.

I stared at pictures of my two grown children to memorize their features just in case.

I could still see well enough with my one working eye, and I thanked God for the gift of my left eye every chance I got! So I went on with life, sometimes wearing a patch over my right eye when it grew weary and uncomfortable from straining.

Meanwhile I contemplated my new reality. As a certified public accountant, my vision is critical to my career. As an active, independent person, my vision is just, well, "required." As a triathlete, I wondered how in the world?

One of the most inconvenient aspects of this was that exactly two months from the date of my sudden partial blindness, I was to board a plane to Phoenix to compete in IRONMAN Arizona on Nov. 20.

Some of my friends and family said to me, "I guess you'll have to quit training now." Or, "You're not going to be able to do the IRONMAN now, are you?" Those would be the friends and family members who didn't know me quite well enough.

I thought, well I still have one working eye. And I have my legs. And I have come too far to quit now!

And I also thought: what if on Nov. 21, I should awaken with both eyes broken. Truly and completely blind. Won't I wish like H-E-double-hockey-sticks that I had at least given IRONMAN Arizona on Nov. 20 a try?

In 2006, I had my right ACL reconstructed after a ski injury. In 2007, the saphenous vein in my left leg disintegrated from a spider bite. Now I have a tricky right eye. But I still have limbs and heart and a mind to make it all work!

Thankfully, my eye has improved slowly but surely, and in a couple more months it’s expected to be completely healed. I pray that it is so, and that it and its partner will remain so ... and that I will never again take my vision for granted.

My rehabilitation periods with my legs years ago left me eager to move and keep moving as long as I could. This partial blindness has only increased that drive, so that I may "see" what else I have left in me.

And it has made every sighted moment so very precious. As I compete in Arizona, I will take in that sunrise over our swim, I will look each volunteer that helps me in transition and along the course in the eye, I will count the cacti along our desert bike ride, I will take mental videos of the run course, which I will replay on runs at home, and I will look for my husband's and daughter's dear faces in the crowd. And God willing, I will have the bright, spectacular, colorful moment when it is said, "Caroline Garner, you are an IRONMAN" seared forever in my mind's eye.

For you see, this IRONMAN has for months been my vision. And whatever your circumstance, you never know until you tri!

Caroline Garner

Postscript: On Nov. 20, I embraced the shock of 65-degree water and smiled as I caught glimpses of fans lining the shore, cruised through rugged and beautiful desert scenery for 7 challenging hours, relished the sight of my daughter in T2 as she changed my shoes and sent me away with a proud smile, and enjoyed the serendipity of getting to do almost the entire marathon with my friend. My right eye was (and still is) not quite right, my skin chafed until blood soaked my shorts, and I hurt … but I was alive and moving and “seeing” this thing through! Then after a little more than 15 1/2 hours, I looked up to see Mike Reilly saying, “Caroline Garner, You Are An IRONMAN!” As I locked eyes with him and blew him a kiss, I knew this was a moment and a sight that I would never forget.

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