We are the champions

Athletes who are blind love sports for the same reason as everyone else – the joy of competition and the thrill of victory

Taylor Howell on the back of a bucking bronco at a rodeo.

When Taylor Howell rides a bucking bronco, he’s shattering stereotypes about what athletes who are blind can achieve. Photo by Paul Hellstern.

When Taylor Howell slides onto the bare back of the bronco, his blindness is irrelevant. He’s intensely focused on getting the tightest possible grip on the leather rigging handle in front of him.

His right hand securely in place, Howell leans back, lying almost flat on the horse. He adjusts his white cowboy hat with his left hand. There’s a brief second of calm.

The rodeo announcer introduces Howell to the crowd. “The thing is,” he drawls, “this cowboy is blind.”

The bucking chute’s metal gate swings open and the bronco charges out into the rodeo arena. It bucks wildly, all four hooves in the air, before slamming into the dirt and whipping Howell’s body like a rag doll. The crowd roars.

Howell holds on with one hand as the bronco kicks and spins. He rides by feel, shifting his weight as he feels the horse move beneath him.

Howell, 20, works the professional rodeo circuit in Oklahoma as a bareback bronco rider. Sometimes he manages to stay on the horse for the requisite eight seconds; sometimes he doesn’t. Either way, it’s his skill, not his lack of vision, that makes the difference.

“I’m doing exactly what everybody else is doing,” he says. “There really are no limitations.”

A new generation

Howell embodies a new generation of athletes who are shattering stereotypes about what people with blindness can achieve – at the rodeo, on playing fields and in world-class competitions.

A few decades ago, blind athletics was largely limited to blindness-specific sports, like goalball, or mainstream sports where vision was less critical, like wrestling and swimming.

No longer. Athletes who are blind now compete in golf, skiing, distance running, power lifting, rock climbing and more.

“I’ve been involved in the field for 30 years and I’m amazed – and yet not surprised – at the many activities and accomplishments of people who are blind and visually impaired,” said Mark Lucas, executive director of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA).

This revolution is being driven by athletes who refuse to be held back by blindness, as well as new technology that makes more sports accessible.

“I imagine one day there’s going to be a blind race car driver,” said Lucas. “I don’t think anything is impossible anymore.”

The USABA is the country’s leading advocate for blind athletics. It organizes grassroots sporting events, supports Paralympic competitors and campaigns for greater athletic opportunities for young people who are blind.

“Whether you’re blind or sighted, sports and recreation provide the opportunity to grow, emotionally, socially and physically,” said Lucas. “Sports teach us how to compete against one another and how to win and lose graciously.”

An archer takes aim

Janice Walth draws back a high-tech compound bow and prepares to fire an arrow

Janice Walth prefers to win – and has the medals to prove it.

The 57-year-old from Lodi, California, is an archer. She competes nationally and internationally in the visually impaired (totally blind) category of the Paralympic Archery World Championships.

Walth is among the best in the world. She won a gold medal in Germany in 2015 and took silver and bronze medals in South Korea and the Czech Republic.

Walth started losing her vision as a child due to retinitis pigmentosa, but she still learned to water ski when she was 8 years old. “I was never told I couldn’t do something,” she said.

She picked up a bow in 2003 and was welcomed when she joined the Sacramento Archery Club. “I found people to be really inclusive,” she said. “Nobody made me feel like I was a burden or a danger.”

Her husband Courtney built the adaptive archery equipment that makes it possible for someone without vision to shoot an arrow into a bull’s-eye 18 meters away. It includes a foot locator, which helps Walth position her body correctly. Her high-tech compound bow is mounted on a tripod that’s aligned with the target. A small pin protruding from the sight helps her calibrate the arrow’s elevation.

Walth said vision contributes only about 5 percent to the success of a shot – the rest is consistency and proper form. “If I sway backward, my arrow will shoot off to my right, and if I sway onto my toes, I will shoot off to my left,” she said.

When not competing, Walth is an evangelist for blind archery. She works with the local Veterans Affairs office to provide archery equipment to soldiers who lost their vision.

“It’s a perfect sport to introduce to blind people, because it totally changes their perception of what they can do,” she said. “And then they might rethink their whole life.”

Back on the field again

Tim Syphers, wearing a blindfold, stands ready to swing a bat at a beep baseball game.

Tim Syphers knows how sports can change a person’s life.

After the 27-year-old from Grafton, Massachusetts, developed Leber’s condition and lost his vision six years ago, he became depressed and lapsed into inactivity. “But after some stubbornness, I finally opened up to accepting help,” he said.

Syphers began attending mobility training at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, where he met Boston Renegades baseball player Joe Quintanilla. The team is part of the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA).

Syphers always played sports – baseball as a kid and football in high school. He was intrigued by beep baseball, but also dubious. “I thought this was just something to keep us busy and make us feel good about ourselves,” he said.

When he met Coach Rob Weissman, he learned the Renegades are highly competitive, practicing regularly and traveling regionally and nationally.

“Right away, I fell in love with the sport,” he said. “It’s made me feel like a confident person again.”

In beep baseball, the batter at the plate takes a powerful swing at a large, beeping softball. Pitchers are sighted volunteers from each team.

Once the batter hits the ball, he or she dashes to the padded, beeping first base. Outfielders dive for the beeping ball, hoping to grab it before the batter gets to third base, the only other base used. Getting to third base scores a run.

For Syphers, beep baseball has made sports an essential part of his life again. He still remembers the first time he scored a run at the NBBA World Series in Columbus, Georgia, in 2013.

“My team erupted,” he said. “I’ve never actually felt something so satisfying.”

23.6 feet to gold

Paige Nason hurls a shot put into the air during an outside practice session.

Paige Nason, 19, also experienced sports glory.

The Perkins School for the Blind student is a shot put champion. She won a gold medal at the Eastern Athletic Association of the Blind (EAAB) Track and Field Championship Tournament in Maryland this past May, competing against students from other schools for the blind.

“I think I get better and better every year. It’s a good feeling,” said Nason, who threw her personal best in Maryland – 23.6 feet. She’s participated in track and field at Perkins for four years and also plays goalball.

Nason has a prosthetic left eye, but retains peripheral vision in her right eye. She grew up tossing the football with her brothers and loves playing outside.

At Perkins, she practices the shot put three times per week and lifts weights to train. Sports just make her feel good, she said – especially when she makes a perfect shot put throw. That, she said, feels “amazing, powerful and energetic.”

In shot put competitions, Nason steps into a 7-foot-diameter throwing circle. She can see the circle’s outline, so she doesn’t need adaptations. She holds the 8.8-pound ball close to her neck and then explosively hurls it forward.

“Your balance is most important, and the way you hold it,” she said. “And you have to push off (with your feet) or you could dislocate your shoulder.”

Competition is exciting, she said, and the praise that comes with winning a gold medal is nice. When she finished first in Maryland, she recalled, “People were saying, ‘What an arm!’”

Bronco riding is tough

Taylor Howell, wearing a protective face mask, is helped from the rodeo arena after being thrown from his horse.

Horses are in Taylor Howell’s blood. He grew up riding on a ranch in California, even though he had lost his vision as a toddler due to cancer. In high school, he joined the rodeo team and started riding bareback.

He’s the oldest of four boys, all of whom participate in rough-and-tumble rodeo sports – calf roping, barrel racing and more. “My mom tears her hair out sometimes,” he said, laughing.

When he was 18, he met another rider with visual impairment through Facebook and moved to Oklahoma to compete together in amateur and professional circuits.

In competition, Howell gets no special accommodations. Like other riders, his goal is to stay on the bronco for eight seconds, holding tight with just one hand. Riders are scored on their control and style, and horses are scored on how energetically they buck. The combined score determines the winner.

Howell said a lack of vision actually helps him stay on the wildly bucking horse because he relies on feel, not sight. “When you watch the horse, by the time you react, you’re usually a little too late,” he said. “If you can feel the horse underneath you and move with the horse, it’s better.”

Bareback bronco riding is tough – most cowboys say it’s one of the most dangerous rodeo sports. “You’re climbing onto a 1,300-pound horse that doesn’t really want you on him,” Howell said. “It feels like they are going a million miles per hour. It’s really challenging.”

Howell was bucked off this year and fell wrong, breaking his wrist. After surgery, six weeks of healing and physical therapy, he can’t wait to compete again. If being blind hasn’t deterred him from his goal of becoming a champion bareback bronco rider, a broken bone won’t either.

“(Blindness) never really slowed me down from anything,” he said. “If there was ever anything I wanted to do, I found a way.”

Photos of Taylor Howell by Paul Hellstern, The Oklahoman