The Strength of a Champion: Transforming Federation Spirit into Personal Progress; Randi Strunk, Member, National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and National Federation of the Blind Sports and Recreation Division

MARK RICCOBONO: A member of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota and our National Federation of the Blind sports and rec. division, here's Randi Strunk.

RANDI STRUNK: Thank you, President Riccobono.  I appreciate the opportunity to address the convention tonight and just tell a little bit of my story.  I'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 6 years old, I was laying on the living room floor listening to Nebraska football games for three hours at a time.

I grew up on a farm in Nebraska.  And we were 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 limited vision and no 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, hitting homers off of a 7 year old.  I reached off to my left, 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, basketball and I ran track.  Now for perspective, my graduating class had 36 kids in it so everyone made the team.  There was no tryouts and no cuts. Sports were one of the only extracurriculars and I always had an understanding that I would lose the white volleyball against the white gym stealing or walls or keeping track of the basketball along with the other nine players running around the court.

I practiced every day and put in the work but this was a stark difference from 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.  And it was such a small school, we're not talking a lot of depth here.  I began to think I wasn't a good athlete. I then played basketball my freshman year and quickly started to dread it.  With each step up in age and grades, speed of the game gets so much faster and as a result, I increasingly had trouble and worried about keeping track of the ball and everyone moving around really quickly.

I remember a particular drill in practice one day.  It really did me in.  It involved four lines of players lining up at each corner of the square.  And you were to start running diagonally and catch a ball coming at you from your right and then turn and pass to the person at the front of the line in the direction you were running.  It was very fast.  Multiple balls being passed, super chaotic.  And I remember walking up to my coach and telling her that I just couldn't do the drill. I felt pretty defeated at that point.  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 freshmen games and I remember dribbling down the court in one of them, 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."  After baseball, I quit sports.  I didn't feel like it was worth the work or the stress.  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.  Shadow metro chapter.  I was talking to Michelle and she mentioned to me 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.  So we contacted this 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 Blind incorporated.  After a few drills teaching us techniques and where your foot was supposed to land when you run, we each took a turn to run around the park with Jenny, the trainer, guiding us.
As I finished my loop, she looks toward Ryan and Emily and she said that I looked like a natural athlete. Now those are not words 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 and we got a treadmill and I started running a few times a week.  I even did a couple of races over the next few years.  But 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.

So I Googled it and I saw blind people doing triathlons with their guides.  This was going to be a giant experiment with me, a first time triathlete and Jenny, a first time guide. I signed up for my first triathlon in 2015, this was an Olympic distance triathlon, a 1.5 kilometer swim, a 6.2 mile run and a 24.8 mile bike.  First I had to learn how to swim.  No big deal, right?  The only experience I really had was waiting around the edge of a lake or water skiing.  But you wear 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 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, we embarked on the run.  It was a very hot day.  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.  And 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.  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 like 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 to never be satisfied with the status quo. We in the federation are always striving for more whether that be more access or more equality.  And 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 your chapter board, organizing a fundraiser, giving a speech at general session at a national convention maybe, 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 and there's a whole community here to support you in that.  Community is also a great part triathlon.  People come to volunteer at race check ins or aid stations and people come out just to watch other people race.  They would come out and brave wind, rain, heat and standing on their feet for hours, simply to encourage other people.

But I see great parallels to 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 it's important 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.

So 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.  Which is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile run.  And you have to do it within 17 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 is Texas, after all.

Now in ironman races, the disabled athletes get to start with the professional women which means we get a canon start which is pretty awesome.  When the canon 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 to stay calm, stay strong and I repeated that mantra. Since we started with the professionals, we had 10 minutes of glorious clear water around us.  Each time I turned my head to breathe, I heard 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 no one swims over the tether.  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 toll road.  The advantage of being a blind triathlete, you get someone to talk to the whole time.  Now, 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 is easier to digest food while you're riding than it is while you're running so you try to replace a lot of calories on the ride and get ready for the run. and let me tell you, an uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwich has never tasted so good as well as the salt and vinegar chips, they were a welcome distraction from the chocolate energy bars and quickly warming Gatorade that I had been consuming.

Side note, I did actually practice with Gatorade before this one.  So I learned one lesson at least. We finished the bike in good time and we headed out on a three loop run course.  Now, we run holding a tether and my guide turns and changes in the road surface.  The great part about a three loop course is each loop seems manageable.  The bad part is seeing the sign for mile 20 right next to the sign for mile 3, especially when you're on mile 3.

The first eight miles went pretty well.  After that, the 85 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 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 of 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?  "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.  Finally, after over 15 hours of swimming, biking and running, we made the final turn on to the red carpet. We were under the lights with the music blaring and crowds on each side of the road screaming and Caroline and I raised our arms as we crossed the finish line.  I heard the words that many triathletes dream of hearing, "Randi Strunk, you are an ironman."  I rugged my guide and I got my medal which is hanging up behind my left shoulder right now.  I was really proud!  I thought now this is what it's supposed to feel like!  Thank you.

PRESIDENT RICCOBONO: Thank you, very much, Randi for that presentation.  It was great.  You would be getting thunderous applause if you were here!  I expanded my introduction of Randi.  I said is there anything I should say to the crowd beyond you're awesome.  Is there anything more to say?

So thank you for being here and thank you for what you do for our movement, especially living the philosophy in your life every day.  Let's have a door prize for Randi.