by Bettina Dolinsek
From the Editor: A good deal of our 2017 National Convention agenda dealt with raising expectations through physical fitness, going beyond the comfortable, and asserting that physical activity is as normal and necessary for blind people as it is for any other segment of the population. One of the more inspirational presentations was delivered by Bettina Dolinsek. Here is what she said to the crowd:
Good morning everybody. Are you guys as excited to be here as I am? [cheers] Let’s hear it. [cheers] Fantastic. First of all I want to begin by thanking President Mark Riccobono for inviting me to speak to you guys today. This is incredible. This week has been just one of the amazing weeks. Usually on a Friday at work I’ll wish everybody a happy Friday because we’ve reached the end of the week; that doesn’t seem necessary today.
I want to start off by telling you guys what we’re not going to talk about: a lot of people—when they hear somebody coming up to speak to them about fitness, wellness, nutrition—the first thing they think about is, “Oh, great. They’re going to tell me to go to the gym. I’m not going to do that.” [laughter] Another thing they would say is, “Oh, no, they’re going to tell me what I should not eat. I’m not going to do that.” [cheers] The other thing I’m not going to do is tell you that CrossFit is the best exercise out there. I think that, but you may not, and that’s okay because you have to do what you want to do.
I want to ask you guys a question: when you were growing up, or if you’re currently in school, were you ever excused from PE class because you were blind. If you answered yes, I can also say yes, I was too. If you answered no, I’m so excited, I’m glad that you’re not. I’ve got a follow-up question—I love this audience participation thing, this is great. So here’s my second question for you guys: if you said yes to question number one, when you were excused from that class, were you happy about that? [chorus of negative responses] I was. I was very excited about that. I was in junior high school, I was in high school, and I was told that I didn’t have to go out with my peers and I didn’t have to try to play a sport I didn’t know anything about and look like a fool in front of everybody. I was happy about that. But I’m glad you’re not. And we’re going to get back to that piece of what I’m talking about in just a little bit.
So now what I want to do is I want to kind of tell you my story and how I got to where I am. When I was a kid growing up in school, I did like sports. I love sports. I love baseball—do I have any Cubs fans in the house? [cheers] When I was a child at home after the summer holiday, every Cubs game, never missed a one of them, it was fantastic. I love football, basketball, running. But you know what happened? When I was going to school what was told to me? “You can’t play, you’re going to get hurt.” Have you guys heard that one? Absolutely. Another thing was, if you were playing on the team, who was picked last? That made you feel good about yourself, didn’t it? And the other thing was, you were told that you would slow down the team, and they didn’t want to do that, either. So unfortunately at a young age I thought sports were not for blind people. We could listen to them on the radio, we could watch them on TV, we could sit in the audience, but we could not play. And honestly, at that point, I was okay with it, I didn’t know how to do many of those things.
So let’s fast-forward just a little bit. I’m out of high school, I’m starting to work a job, and I’ve never looked back at that time and thought that what happened was wrong. After working for a while, I started a new position. I worked at the Iowa Department for the Blind, and at that agency we started a wellness committee. I was so excited about that because—like I said earlier—I did like sports, and I liked fitness; I just didn’t know how to get involved. So we started this wellness committee, and we would come up with activities for the staff to do. We would meet during a break time and start in the basement, walk all the way up the stairs, all the way up to the sixth floor, and walk back down again. And I thought, “Hey, stair climbing, this is excellent, I can do that.” By the third floor I wanted to take the elevator [laughter]. But again, we would keep going. We had yoga classes over the lunch hour; we were introducing things like that. I started to walk on the treadmill, maybe walk on the elliptical for a little bit. But after two weeks of that I was bored, so that went by the wayside.
The chairperson of our committee at that time then received another position and left the agency. They were looking for someone to fill that spot, and I was eager to do so. So I said, “Hey, I volunteer. I would love to do that.”
And they said, “That’s great. You can go ahead and join, and we’ll have another person, and you’ll be co-chairs.” I was excited about that, but there was one problem: I was not fit. I was overweight. I wasn’t the example that I felt was necessary for them to have. I truly believe if I’m going to give advice, I need to lead by example. So we got together in our committee and we started putting our heads together and thinking of different things we could offer, things that would get people excited.
My co-chair said to me, “You know what, I do a CrossFit class over the noon hour in the gym. You’re welcome to come, and let’s get some other people to do that.” I had no idea what I was in for. Do you guys know anything about CrossFit? Has anyone heard of it? [affirmative responses]. If you haven’t, I want to give you a quick definition: it is high-intensity, functional movements. So what that means is if we’re going to work out for twenty minutes, fifteen minutes at a time, you’re going to have your heartrate up that whole time. We also incorporate weight training, so different types of lifts using weights. But I didn’t know that’s what it involved. All I knew was that we were going to be doing a class that involved different types of exercises every day.
So I show up on day one; it took me probably the whole class time to do the warmup. That right there should’ve been my first sign that this was going to be a difficult class. After about a week of being involved in this class, I thought to myself, “This is hard. I don’t know if I want to continue doing this. I can get my fitness walking on the treadmill; I can do it walking on the elliptical.” But then I remembered, “You tried that, and it lasted for two weeks. Keep going, keep pushing forward.” So I said to myself—talked to myself a lot back then—I said, “Alright, keep coming to the classes, keep participating.” And I did. And I started seeing things I never thought possible.
We started an exercise there called box jumps. And that’s just exactly what it sounds like: you start out on the floor, and you jump up on a box. We started with lower inches, maybe two or three inches off the ground at first. I thought to myself, “When we get up to the boxes that are made of wood that would hurt if you missed.” I’ve done it, I could tell you, “I don’t have to do it.” I could tell my coach, “I don’t want to do this part of it; I think it’s too dangerous.”
And he said to me, “Bettina, if you’re going to be in this class, everything I expect out of everybody else I’m going to expect out of you.” [applause] I’m so glad he said that to me. And I started jumping on boxes—twelve inches, eighteen inches, twenty inches, twenty-four inches. My highest jump to date is 31 1/2 inches. [applause] But without that encouragement I would have never done that. We used to do a day a week or a day every other week where we would come up with something that was scary, and we would then practice that.
So as we continued to go through these classes I could stand on my hands—I thought I could barely walk a straight line or even hold the balance on my feet, now I’m walking on my hands, this is amazing! I’m doing pull ups—only guys do pull ups. I’m lifting heavy weights. I’m seeing all these things, and something clicks. And in CrossFit I did what a lot of other people have done before me—I drank the Kool-Aid. [laughter] I went to my coach after we had worked so long and I said, “I want to become a coach.”
And he said, “That’s fantastic.”
I said, “Do you think that we could do this?” And he said yes.
It was important to me; I was so excited about it. I wanted to go where it all began, and that was in California. [cheers] I thought I could hear from you guys over there. I went to San Francisco Bay area, and I visited some of the first CrossFit gyms. I went there, and I received my level one certification. Since then I have also received a certification in gymnastics. [applause] I can’t flip around; don’t get excited.
So after I got back from that I wondered, what can I do with this? Because another thing that was important to me was not just to have a piece of paper telling me that I could do something. I wanted to put that to use.
Do you remember earlier when I talked to you guys about being excused from PE class? What I did was I started contacting TVIs in our area, schools, and saying, “What can I do to help integrate the blind kids back into this class? [applause] We want them to be involved.” Unfortunately, when you visit a public school, and you see blind children being excluded from certain classes like PE, or then you see them at another time being taken out a class to do something else, it sends a message, that separatism message. And that’s not a good thing. We all want to be involved. So I would go to the schools and I would show the PE teachers, “Here’s how you can teach the blind students to be a part of your class.” And then after a while I moved to Texas and lived in the Fort Worth area—we’ve got a few Texans over here. [cheers] I worked at the Lighthouse for the Blind Fort Worth, and I was their wellness specialist, and I did the same. I worked with clients there, and I also went into the school systems. There was a school that contacted me that said, “We have a young kid that wants to run and wants to be on our track team. What can you do to help him?” And we figured it out, and that was amazing.
So at the beginning I told you that my message to you was not going to be about what gym you join or what you should eat, and it’s not. What it’s about is finding your passion—what it is that you want to do in life and then figure out how to do it. There are many people in this room who have gone before us. If you were to contact the different people sitting next to you, they could be mentors to you. They could be the ones you look up to and say, “How can I achieve what I want? How can I make my dream come true?” And they’d be happy to help you. I’ve had mentors. And I want to thank the people who’ve gone before us, the people who have walked the road so it’s easier for the next generation. I can think of a few, especially my husband who supports me every day when I want to be in the gym for hours on end.
So please, connect with the people around you, connect with those who can help you. Make your own dreams come true. Live the life that you want to. Thank you very much. [applause]