Nov 29, 2016

Blind Triathlete Hopes to Bend Stereotypes on Her Way to Paralympic Medal

Reporting Texas

The triathletes launched from the famous white sand of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, lined with elegant hotels and neon lights.

But Patricia Walsh saw only black.

Walsh plunged into the abyss as the race commenced. Tethered to her guide, she began what was supposed to be the culmination of her athletic career: the inaugural triathlon at the Paralympics. She wasn’t planning to leave without a medal.

Walsh, a 35-year-old Austin native, is blind. She is also an extremely successful athlete, author and speaker. Walsh returned in September from the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she and her guide endured a disappointing finish in the inaugural triathlon event in the PT5 classification, which is exclusive to athletes with visual impairments.

Walsh and the other athletes competed in blackout goggles and were tethered to a sighted guide who led the athlete along the 16-mile course. Originally, she said, this was going to be her last race at the elite level before she retired from the sport.

But she came in seventh in Rio. And now she isn’t so sure she’s done.

“It feels really unresolved to me,” Walsh said. “It’s frustrating to know I could have stopped training months ago and had the same result. It’s just not what I am capable of.”

Walsh was born blind in one eye and now sees only a pinhole of light in the other. She lost most of her vision by age 14. She ran track in seventh and eighth grades, but by the time she was 19 she was overweight and out of shape. Around the same time, her father had some serious health issues, and it struck a chord with her.

“I saw that I was on the same track and I knew that I had to do something,” Walsh said.

She began to run. There was a trail near her house in Ontario where she lived with her father, and she used the contrast of the gravel to the concrete to find her way.

“I fell a lot. Every day,” she said. “I still fall every day.”

On a dare, Walsh entered and finished her first Ironman in 2010. She was the first blind female with a female guide to finish in history. In 2011 she ran her second Ironman and set the current world record time for blind and low-vision athletes, both male and female.

Most sight-abled people rely heavily on what they see. Visually impaired people use canes while they walk  to find uneven surfaces and obstacles they might trip on or bump into, but when running they can’t use a cane. They are much more likely to fall and they will do it at a higher velocity.

“I was always really reluctant to do sports or athletics because everyone thought I would get hurt,” Walsh said.

Many blind and visually impaired children echo this sentiment, said Joe Paschall, 59, a retired athlete, physical education teacher and coach at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“If the kids don’t have anyone to advocate for them, they just sit there, and they’re stuck thinking that’s just how it is, that’s the reality,” Paschall said.

For Walsh, it was her reality until she made a change and took her health into her own hands.

The National Federation of the Blind estimates that about 52,000 school-age children in the U.S. are blind or visually impaired, and almost 70 percent of them do not participate in even a limited physical education curriculum. As well, the CDC reports obesity is 57 percent higher in adults with disabilities and 38 percent higher in children with disabilities.

Some in the blind community are frustrated by these facts.

For Walsh, it took the realization of future health issues to give her the push she needed.

That push took her all the way to the Paralympics where many would argue the athletes have more grit and determination than their able-bodied counterparts.

“It was such an emotional roller coaster,” Walsh said. “How honored I am to represent my country.” The Paralympics “really are all about the human spirit.”

Walsh is driven to compete for more than just a medal.

“Athletes with disabilities are bombarded with messages of what they can’t do,” Walsh said.  “People treat us like we’re children. I want to break out of that stereotype.”

That drive, along with a will to win, might take her to Tokyo in 2020. Sometimes, simply doing something isn’t enough.