21 Years

Last Friday night

Yeah we danced on tabletops

And we took too many shots

Think we kissed, but I forgot. Last Friday night.

Yeah, we maxed our credit cards

And got kicked out of the bar, so we hit the boulevard

Last Friday night

We went streaking in the park

Sky dipping in the dark, then had a

Menage a trois

Last Friday night

Yeah, I think we broke the law

Always say we’re gonna stop-op, oh whoa

—Last Friday Night (TGIF) by Katie Perry

Ah 21… The age when we in the US can legally drink alcohol, when we think we’re really adults, and think we know absolutely everything. I often cringe, laugh, and shake my head at the things I did around the time I was 21. Seven years removed from that “wild age” I feel significantly older and a touch wiser. But if I want to relive those wild and crazy days I have the opportunity because “Blind Kyle” turns 21 today!

On October 9, 1998 mom and dad drove me to the hospital just like they’d done hundreds of times before. But something was different. Mom had gotten up extra early and instead of her usual sweat pants and ponytail, she’d dressed nicely, done her hair and put on makeup. Dad was extra quiet and the early morning before sunrise appeared extra dark outside the car window. Walking into the hospital everything seemed extra dark as well.

I knew why we were here. I knew our last option to beat the cancer I had was to remove my right eye. After all, Dr. Hered had removed my left eye just the year before.

I was tired. Tired of waking up early to go to the hospital. I was tired of needles being driven into my chest to put me to sleep so the doctors could do whatever they did to my eyes. I was tired of being sick from chemotherapy, having to swallow all different kinds of pills, having radioactive material sown onto my eyeball. I was tired of the smell and sound of the hospital. I was also tired of straining my one eye to see the chalkboard in my first grade teacher’s classroom. I was tired of the lights either being too bright or too dim. I was tired of feeling strange for having to walk around with this long white cane practicing for when I couldn’t see. I was just ready to be done with it all.

Normally only one of my parents was allowed to walk back with me as I was wheeled into the operating room. Today though, both mom and dad accompanied me, one on either side with their hands on my arm or shoulder. I’d already been stuck with the needle and the anesthesia was working it’s way through my system. Mom touched my face and asked me to look at her. I did and that was the most beautiful I’d ever seen her. As I closed my eyes and the crushing crackling haze of the sleep drugs closed in around my mind I do remember saying “It’s going to be ok mommy.”

The next thing I remember was drowsily coming awake in my hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with a massive wad of bandages covering my right eye. There was nothing in front of me, or around me. There were the familiar sounds of my parents voices, the ding of the hospital intercom calling for this doctor or that nurse. The hospital bed felt like hundreds of other hospital beds I’d woken up in after some procedure or another. The smells were all the same and the hospital food was as plain and tasteless as it always was. Could I get a bigger helping this time? Or better yet, could you just bring me a pizza? Do you have any idea how hungry surgery makes me?

The only thing that was different was that I couldn’t see what was around me.

What would happen to me as a totally blind kid, teenager, adult? The answer to that question was as absent as my light perception. I had no idea. My family had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted to somehow still play with my friends, play basketball, and ride my bike. I wanted to watch Disney movies, Star Wars and football games. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to do it all, but I mst’ve known that I could, otherwise I wouldn’t have said “It’s going to be ok.”

It was just a short while later that I met world-class blind athlete Erik Weihenmayer. He was a rock climber, sky diver, downhill skier, and did all kinds of stuff I’d never heard of or thought was possible.

Erik’s dad, Ed, lived less than an hour drive from our house in Jacksonville. A family friend heard Ed speak and passed his contact information along to my dad. Ed and dad had both served in the Marine Corps so they instantly hit it off. Erik was coming to town for a series of speaking engagements and Ed arranged time for Erik to talk with me.

My parents told me about this Erik Weihenmayer guy, but come on, who did that crazy stuff. Climb walls? Jump out of airplanes? I imagined this guy to be some kind of super human.

When I met Erik he shook my hand and asked our dads to just step away so the two of us could talk. Erik introduced me to his guide dog. He asked me questions about myself. What I liked to do, my favorite subjects in school. We talked about Braille, computers and eventually he got around to telling me about his adventurous lifestyle.

I was fascinated. The only experience I’d had with other blind people were the handful of blind/visually impaired kids at my elementary school. I’d never really interacted with any adult blind people. Erik wasn’t treating me like a normal adult would either. He was talking to me like I was an equal, like he knew the struggles I was having adapting to a world that was now dark.

When we parted ways Erik told me to not be afraid to live and be a kid. He told me to give rock climbing a try and that he’d always be there if I needed a friend. Less than two years later, my sisters and I were competitive rock climbers. My family was taking long camping and rock climbing trips up into the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains. We then started taking family ski trips. My dad and I began tandem biking a lot.

In 2003, I was a surprise guest to Erik on the Oprah Winfrey Show after he’d climbed the seven summits—tallest peak on each continent. In 2006, I accompanied Erik and a team comprised of visually impaired and sighted students from across the US to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, I joined up with many of those same visually impaired and sighted students to summit Mt Kilimanjaro—tallest mountain in Africa. I climbed some more mountains; became a high school and college wrestler; graduated from an academic magnet high school; and earned my B.A. in Communication from the Comniversity of Central Florida after just three years of study. Then I took on life as an adult blind guy.

Post college I had the millennial mindset of “I’m going to apply for every job CEO and above.” That didn’t work out so well for me. Then I began applying for any and every job. At every turn it seemed I wasn’t getting a fair chance. The low point was not getting a bag boy job at a local supermarket. I was spiraling down fast after having been so positive and optimistic for so long.

I eventually started running as a distraction. That led to meeting my buddy Mike who introduced me to triathlon. Then began an emotional roller coaster.

I began working for a nonprofit about who’s mission I cared deeply. I then developed a cancerous bump on my upper right eyelid which was surgically removed. I was finding success in a sport I loved. My engagement to a girl I’d been dating for four years fell apart. Now I was not in that relationship and I needed a place to live. I struggled with thinking I was in a dead end job. Then I got a raise and changed jobs. I blew all of my money on pizza and craft beer. I lost my faithful guide dog of seven years to a sudden heart attack. Then completed my first Ironman and decided that I wasn’t truly happy with my life. I quit my steady well-paying job and moved to Colorado.

Once ensconced in Colorado, I focused on improving athletically. I went on to qualify for and run the Boston Marathon, twice, and set personal bests at various distances of triathlons and road races. In 2017, I broke the 12 hour barrier at Ironman Arizona. In 2018, I stepped into the world of ITU racing with fourth and second place finishes. Then I broke the 11 hour mark with a 10:59:17 finish at Ironman Arizona. Then I set my sights on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

In January, 2019, I moved to the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, having been offered a spot through the USA Triathlon Resident Program. I happily submitted myself to the daily routine of wake up, train, eat sleep, repeat. I’ve thrived with the structure and taken my short course racing to a completely new level. In my five triathlon/duathlon starts I hit the podium four times including three seconds, a third, and fourth place finishes. My loan race off the podium came in my last race of the season in Tokyo which was modified to a duathlon due to poor water quality.

Apart from training I’ve slowly become more friendly with my fellow paratriathlon teammates as well as several other resident athletes from other sports. I’ve also made a few friends outside of the training center and am overall enjoying my life in Colorado Springs. So, how does blind Kyle plan on spending his 21st birthday/anniversary? Well, I plan on rounding up a crowd, doing 21 shots of Don Julio, dancing on bar and tabletops, and maxing out multiple creditcards… Or maybe I’ll get together with a few friends around a fire pit and drink a few good craft brews… Or maybe I’ll go out for a decent steak… Or more likely I’ll eat whatever is here at the training center and go to bed around 8 PM ready to get after it tomorrow. But have no fear, I’ll toast 21 years of blindness with a glass of chocolate milk, or a nalgeen of water. Yeah, 21 year old blind Kyle is likes to party hard.

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