Imagine being blind – and climbing Mt. Everest. Or playing college football. Or winning gold medals as a competitive speed skater. Or bowling a perfect game.
Sound impossible? Don’t tell that to the four individuals you’re about to meet. For them, “impossible” is just another obstacle that can be overcome through talent, training and tenacity. And with every new milestone and gold medal, they’re rewriting the rule book about what’s possible for athletes with blindness.
Climbing the world’s highest mountain
More than 280 people have died trying to reach the top of Mt. Everest – but that didn’t scare Erik Weihenmayer, who is blind. Weihenmayer started losing his vision as a child from juvenile retinoschisis, a disease of the retina. He remained physically active, first as a wrestler in high school and later as a rock climber. He honed his tactile climbing techniques, feeling for holds with his hands and feet, and then took up mountain climbing. In 2004, he did what no person with blindness had ever done – he reached the summit of Mr. Everest, the world’s highest mountain. In 2005, Weihenmayer co-founded No Barriers USA, which encourages people with disabilities to lead active lives. He embodies the organization’s motto, which is “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way!”
Skating competitively at 30 miles an hour
You can’t tell as he races around the ice oval at more than 30 miles an hour, but Canadian speed skater Kevin Frost is deafblind. Frost lost his hearing as a boy, and at age 27 found out he had Usher syndrome type 2, which causes gradual hearing and then vision loss. Today, he has only 9 percent of his hearing and less than 3 percent of his vision. He had to give up his dream of playing in the NHL, but turned to speed skating, which he says is “pure freedom.” During competitions, Frost skates by counting his strides around the oval rink, and gets positioning advice from his coach via a wireless receiver in his hearing aid. In 2015, he won two golds and a silver at the World Impaired Inclusive Short Track Championships in Scotland. When not skating, Frost competes in golf tournaments and tandem bicycle races.
Bowling a perfect game
Bowling is difficult. You have to hurl a heavy ball down a 60-foot wooden lane and try to knock over 10 stubborn pins. That’s why it’s so remarkable that Dale Davis, who is blind, was able to bowl a perfect game – 12 consecutive strikes – in 2008. Davis, who was 78 at the time, used the tiny sliver of peripheral vision in his right eye to line up each throw. He was a regular bowler before he lost his sight to macular degeneration, so he knew how to throw the ball cleanly and powerfully. On that night in a bowling alley in Iowa, he couldn’t see the result of his final throw, but heard the crowd cheering as they watched him score a perfect 300. Even more remarkably, the American Blind Bowling Association reports that it was the fourth perfect game scored by a bowler who is blind in the last 60 years.
Playing Division 1 college football
Imagine several 300-pound linemen charging at you at a crucial moment of a football game. Now imagine that you’re blind. That prospect doesn’t bother Jake Olson, a long-snapper for the University of Southern California’s football team. “People freak out too much about it,” he said. Olson was born with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, and lost both eyes by the time he was 12. But he decided he wanted to play football, so he picked the one position where vision is less essential – long-snapper. Consistency is important, so Olson practiced snapping the ball at the same height and distance every time. He made the varsity team at Orange Lutheran High School in California before going to USC. Now, he’s made the USC Trojans as a reserve walk-on long-snapper. Quebec, his guide dog, accompanies him to games.