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The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress

by Randi Strunk

Reprinted from Braille Monitor, Volume 64, Number 8, August/September 2021

From the Editor: Randi Strunk is a member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota, and she is active in the NFBs Sports and Recreation Division. In this presentation she shares her discovery that vision loss cannot stop her from competing in athletics.

Randi StrunkI've always loved sports. I may have been one of the few girls who asked for a football helmet for Christmas; thanks, Mom and Dad! At six years old, I was lying on the living room floor, listening to Nebraska football games for three hours at a time.

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska. I was always outside, either riding bikes or playing sports in the yard with my brother: football, baseball, basketball, whatever was in season. I didn't ever think about not playing because of blindness. Sports was just what you did.

I did have some understanding that it was a bit more difficult for me with my limited vision and lack of depth perception, but there were moments that stuck out. For example, I remember playing baseball with my brother. You wouldn't believe what a good hitter I was, crushing homers off of a seven-year-old! But one afternoon he hit a ball, and I reached up and to my left, and pop, the perfect ball meets glove sound. It is so vivid in my mind, even today! I thought, that's what it's supposed to feel like!

The first time I played organized sports was in junior high. I went out for volleyball and basketball, and I ran track. Now for perspective, my graduating class had thirty-six kids in it, so everyone made the team. There were no tryouts, and there were no cuts. Sports were among the few extracurriculars that were offered. I wanted to play, and, like most kids, I wanted to fit in. But I always felt an undertone of anxiety that I would lose the white volleyball against the white gym ceiling or walls, or that I wouldn't be able to keep track of the basketball along with the other nine players running around the court. I practiced every day and put in the work, but there was a stark difference between the real thing and the front yard with my little brother.

I ended up in volleyball on the C team. That's right: not the A team or the B team, but the C team. It was such a small school that we're not talking a lot of depth here. I began to think that I just wasn't a good athlete.

Then I played basketball my freshman year, and I quickly started to dread it. With each step up in age and grade, the speed of the game gets much faster. As a result, I increasingly had trouble. I worried about keeping track of the ball and everyone moving around me really quickly.

I remember a particular drill in practice one day that did me in. It involved four lines of players, lining up at each corner of the square. You were to start running diagonally; then you would catch a ball coming at you from your right; and then you would turn and pass the ball to the person at the front of the line, in the direction you were running. It was very fast and super chaotic, with multiple balls being passed. I remember walking up to my coach and telling her that I just couldn't do the drill. At that point I felt pretty defeated.

I finished out the season—you know that whole "If you start something, you can't quit it" situation—but I hated it. It wasn't all bad, though. There was one highlight. I was put in at the end of a couple of freshman games, and I remember dribbling down the court, pulling up at the top of the key on the left-hand side, and sinking a shot—my one entry into the scoring column. I thought to myself, So that's what it's supposed to feel like.

Randi Strunk rides a racing tandem.After basketball I quit sports. I didn't feel like it was worth the work or the stress. After all, I told myself, I just wasn't an athlete. The only sports that I played for the next ten years were in video games. I could do those on my own terms.

But a chance conversation changed my view on sports forever. I was at a chapter meeting in Minneapolis, the Shadow Metro Chapter. I was talking to Michelle Gittens, and she mentioned to me that she was working out with a trainer who taught "Learn to Run" classes. I had no idea how blind people could run, and she told me about guides and tethers. I never thought about sports being adapted for blind people. Maybe more accurately I never had considered using alternative techniques for sports.

We contacted the trainer, and she agreed to do a Learn to Run class for a few Federationists. For our first lesson we met at a park near the headquarters of BLIND, Incorporated. After a few drills, teaching us techniques such as where your foot was supposed to land when you run, we each took a turn running around the park with Jenny, the trainer who was guiding us. As I finished my loop she looked toward Ryan and Emily, and she said that I looked like a natural athlete.

Now those are not words that I expected to hear, and frankly, I didn't believe them. Nothing in my experience with sports up to this point made me believe that I was athletic. But I did enjoy running. We got a treadmill, and I started running a few times a week. I even ran a couple of races over the next few years.

One day I was working out with Jenny, and she mentioned a sport called triathlon. I had no idea what a triathlon was, let alone how a blind person could do one. I Googled it, and I saw blind people doing triathlons with their guides. This was going to be a giant experiment, with me as a first-time triathlete and Jenny as a first-time guide.

I signed up for my first triathlon in 2015. This was an Olympic distance triathlon, consisting of a one-mile swim, a twenty-five-mile bike ride, and a 6.2-mile run. First I had to learn how to swim - no big deal, right? The only experience I really had was wading around the edge of a lake. I'd gone water skiing, but you wore a life jacket for that.

So yeah, that was a big deal. We also borrowed a tandem bike so we could start training.

Race day came around. We had trained for about six months, and I wasn't sure if I would be one and done or if I would like the whole triathlon thing. After a good swim and bike ride, we embarked on the run. It was a very hot day, so I took Gatorade at one of the aid stations, and this didn't go well. There is a saying in triathlon; they say, "Nothing new on race day." I didn't listen to those wise words, so we ended up having to walk four of the 6.2 miles as I was dealing with terrible stomach cramps.

Despite that, I finished, and I was proud. I was exhausted. But I also thought, I want to do this again. I can get more fit. I can get faster. I can do this on my own terms with adaptive techniques such as a guide or a tandem bike or a run tether. I'm in control of this. I'm in control of what I put into it, and it has nothing to do with blindness.

The National Federation of the Blind taught me never to be satisfied with the status quo. We in the Federation are always striving for more, whether that be more access or more equality. Through my involvement with the Federation, I also learned to embrace the idea of doing something that scares you just a little. It could be running for a position on the chapter board, organizing a fundraiser, maybe giving a speech at General Session at a national convention. It could mean signing up for a race that's a little longer than you're used to or going for a swim in a lake instead of the pool. It could be as simple as going somewhere new, cooking something new, or applying for that job you're just a little bit nervous about.

The Federation taught me that I should reach a little farther than I thought possible, and that I should want to do that. And it's possible to achieve your goals, even if you have to walk instead of run. There's a whole community here to support you in that.

Community is also a great part of triathlon. People come to volunteer at race check-ins or aid stations, and people come out just to watch other people race. They come out and brave wind, rain, heat, and standing on their feet for hours simply to encourage other people. I see great parallels with the community we have here in the National Federation of the Blind. We build each other up. We volunteer to mentor new and prospective members, and we volunteer to do all of the work that needs to be done for us to achieve our dreams.

I'm up here today because we believe it's important to highlight our own; because when one of us succeeds, we all succeed. And it is important to share our stories.

Let's flash forward in my triathlon journey to April 28, 2018. As I zipped up my wetsuit on a calm, clear morning, overlooking the Lake of the Woodlands in Houston, Texas, I was nervous but confident. I was about to embark on an Ironman Triathlon.

Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. And you have to do it within seventeen hours. I knew it would be a long day. I knew I would have to be flexible. But I knew also that I had a community behind me.

We got into the cool water, and I would be wishing for that for the rest of the day because it was Texas, after all. Now in Ironman races, the disabled athletes get to start with the professional women, which means we get a cannon start, which is pretty awesome. When the cannon roared, we started swimming. Now, you can't think of the 140.6 miles that are ahead of you, otherwise you'll get discouraged. I told myself, "Stay calm, stay strong," and I repeated that mantra.

Since we started with the professionals, we had ten minutes of glorious clear water around us before the rest of the racers started. Each time I turned my head to breathe, I heard things like the singing of the National Anthem or the announcer getting the other racers fired up to begin their day. With each stroke I felt the water.

I listened to the other swimmers come up around us, and, as Dorie said, I just kept swimming. It's my guide's job, on the other hand, to make sure we're swimming straight and to tell me when we need to turn around the buoys that mark the course. She also makes sure that no one swims over the tether that connects us in the water. I'm happy to report that my guide Caroline's foot only had to connect with one person's face on purpose to encourage them to change their course.

After the 2.4 miles were complete, we got on our tandem bike and headed out for two loops on the Hardy Toll Road. The advantage of being a blind triathlete: you get someone to talk to the whole time. The bike course was flat and fast. It was also straight and kind of boring. But we affectionately called the bike ride a rolling buffet because you just swam 2.4 miles, so you're starving, and it's easier to digest food while you're riding than it is while you're running. You try to replace a lot of calories on the ride and get ready for the run. Let me tell you that an uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwich has never tasted so good along with the salt and vinegar chips I got halfway through the ride. They were a welcome distraction from the chocolate energy bars and quickly warming Gatorade that I had been consuming. Side note: I actually practiced with Gatorade before this one, so I learned one lesson at least.

We finished the bike ride in good time, and we headed out on a three-loop run course. We run holding a tether about eighteen inches long, and my guide calls out turns and changes in the road surface. The great part about a three-loop course is that each loop seems manageable. The bad part is seeing the sign for Mile Twenty right next to the sign for Mile Three, especially when you're on Mile Three!

The first eight miles went pretty well. After that, the eighty-five-degree heat, humidity, and lack of shade in Texas caught up with me. After all, I had been training inside in the Minnesota winter, and we had gotten snow a couple of weeks before, so my body was not loving Texas so much.

The run turned into a brisk walk, but that gave us a bit more time to enjoy all the spectators, many of whom showed up in costume or holding signs with encouraging phrases such as "You think you're tired? My arms are killing me," or, "Worst parade ever!" One of my personal favorites was, "This seems like a lot of work for free Gatorade." Finally, "Don't worry, you won't feel your feet at all tomorrow."

As we looped around the final lap, we could hear the music from the finish line, and we could hear Mike Riley, known as "The Voice of Ironman" calling the finishers home across the line. Athletes on the course cheered each other on and encouraged each other because we were all so close to accomplishing our goal.

At last, after over fifteen hours of swimming, biking, and running, we made the final turn onto the red carpet. We were under the lights, with the music blaring and crowds on each side of the road screaming. Caroline and I raised our arms as we crossed the finish line. And I heard the words that many triathletes dream of hearing: "Randi Strunk, you are an Ironman!"

I hugged my guide, and we got our finisher medals; by the way, mine is hanging up behind my left shoulder right now. I was really proud! And I thought, Now this, this is what it's supposed to feel like!

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