It’s incredible what they are doing for the blinded service men and women who have fought for our country! I thought this was awesome! I can never say enough about how athletics have improved my life. This article speaks to how I feel about it all.
Blinded Veterans Re-learn Competition
By David F. Cline
The questions sound typical of most athletes.
“What’s your best time on the bike?” “How much can you bench press?” “Have you tried the discus, or do you only compete in shot put?”
It is the next round of questions that jolt the listener.
“Was it a mortar attack or an IED?” “How long were you in theater before you were hit?” “Do you prefer having a guide dog or a cane?”
At the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) Sports Festival & Mission Vision Program, wounded service members received workout tips, sport-specific training, and the opportunity to do something many thought impossible when they were injured: Compete.
Held in Colorado Springs, the Mission Vision Program was developed to promote physical activity as a main element of rehabilitation and recovery. Staff members from Veterans Affairs Blind Rehabilitation Centers across the country, as well as former Paralympians and collegiate coaches, offered their skills and assistance to work with the athletes. Training was available in swimming, running, track and field events, tandem cycling, and weight lifting and conditioning.
“One thing I do is get them acclimated to where they are, and help them get comfortable enough to move around on their own,” said strength and conditioning coach Mark Sampson (Woodland Park, CO). “Sometimes they are reluctant to get involved, so I try to get them to do one lift, or do 10 minutes on the treadmill. Once they do that, most of them realize they can do this, and they will come back for more.”
One of Sampson’s assistants is Cody Colchado (Linn, TX), a 19-time world champion power lifter, a three-time national champion in the pentathlon, and a national champion in CTF Tae Kwan Do Brick & Board events.
Colchado has been blind for 30 years, and is also legally deaf. He credits Sampson, and his coaches through the years, as reasons for his success, and said the same techniques used to spur him into competing are the same ones he now uses with newcomers to his gym.
“You have to gain their confidence, and let them know they can have confidence in you,” said Colchado. “It’s easier with some more than others, but steady encouragement goes a long way.”
Joe Crespo (Fairless Hills, PA) knows about confidence. As a Marine serving in Vietnam, Crespo suffered head, neck and chest injuries from a mortar attack. He awoke from a three-month coma to a diagnosis of blindness; in addition, he was suffering from amnesia.
Once very involved in running and other activities, Crespo saw his participation seriously hindered because of his wounds. Over the years he has worked his way back into physical activity, and the Veterans Administration rehabilitation coordinator he works with in Philadelphia recently introduced him to a long-distance runner. Using the Guide Running technique, in which a sighted runner and a blind runner hold opposite ends of a two-foot long tether, Crespo can now run on tracks, paths, and perhaps long-distance courses such as hills and dirt tracks.
“I have learned to adapt and with intensive and ongoing training I’m doing quite well,” Crespo said. “Mission Vision has opened up a whole new world for me, as I will now be involved in a local running program.”
Many service members and Veterans are former athletes, and those wounded in battle face a multitude of adjustment issues: recovery, rehabilitation, inability to play sports, and a lack of competition. Mission Vision was created in part to address those issues by fueling their competitive fire.
Rich Cardillo (Monument, CO), USABA’s Military Sports Program Coordinator, said disabled veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces who are blind or visually impaired who simply want to enhance their lives and to accelerate their rehabilitation through sport, recreation and physical activity will have the full support of USABA. The organization has paid for veterans, their guides and their coaches at numerous programs around the United States; to include, several learn to race cycling camps, the 2008 State Games of the West, the 2009 State Games of America, the 2009 California International Marathon, the 2010 USABA Winter Sports Program and the 2010 Rocky Mountain State Games.
“Our mission is to increase the number and quality of world-class athletic opportunities available to all Americans who are blind or visually impaired, from the grassroots to a competitive, elite level and Operation Mission Vision is just one of several programs we have to offer,” Cardillo said. “The strategic goal of any of our programs is simply to bring normalcy back into the lives of those disabled Veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces who are blind or visually impaired and to accelerate their rehabilitation process through sport, recreation and physical activity.”
Army veteran DeDe Fox-Birdwell (Centennial, CO) has known athletic competition most of her life. In the early 1990s, she was selected as female athlete of the year at her post in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. She competed in horseshoes, softball, volleyball, power lifting, and 10k runs, and was the first woman to participate in the 5k combat cross country run, in which a service member runs the distance while outfitted in full uniform with a utility belt and canteen of water.
Then came her vision loss.
Diagnosed with a disorder that sends clots to the blood vessels in her eyes, Fox-Birdwell lost her peripheral vision in both eyes and was medically retired in 1997. Since then, she has been working out in a home gym and paying attention to the athletic exploits of her children.
“There are no team sports now. I had to move away from them because of my eyes – until I found Goalball!” Fox-Birdwell exclaimed.
For the uninitiated, Goalball is a sport created specifically for the blind and visually-impaired. Competitors, three per team, wear goggles that have been completely blacked out, leaving everyone on the court with the same level of awareness. A rubber ball with nine small bells inside is rolled back and forth; the object of the game, as the name implies, is to get the ball past the defenders and into the goal.
While it may sound simple, there are strategies, including rolling the ball quietly so the opposing team cannot hear the bells. Crespo played the game for the first time at Mission Vision, and plans to introduce it to the blind children he works with in Philadelphia.
As for Fox-Birdwell, she found energy and re-discovered the joy of playing a team sport. “I will be contacting anyone and everyone I can to hopefully participate in Goalball and power lifting, and I live close enough to try out for the Goalball team,” she said.
Here, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and just miles from the U.S. Olympic Training Center, Joe, DeDe, and the others are not just visually-impaired, they are not just wounded warriors, and they are not just Veterans… they are athletes.
David F. Cline is a Senior Communications Specialist with General Dynamics Information Technology, and works in support of the Vision Center of Excellence (VCE). GDIT was a co-sponsor of the Mission Vision Program.