Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Incredible Patricia Walsh

Patricia Walsh is a graduate of Oregon State University, a former Microsoft engineer, an author, entrepreneur, and extraordinary triathlete who competes at the international level. She works hard, has achieved a lot, and has ambitious goals for the future. 

All of this (and much more), without the sense of sight.

Patricia lost much of her vision due to a brain tumor at age 5, and the rest due to complications at age 14. Through sports, Patricia found an outlet to cope with and overcome her challenges, and she has become a source of inspiration to both the blind community and the general public. At Ironman Lake Placid in 2010 at age 29, Patricia became the first blind female (accompanied with a guide) to do an Ironman. At Ironman Texas in 2011, she crushed both the women's and men's record for blind triathletes at the Ironman distance with a time of 11:40.

We featured this awesome girl as part of our recent Rudy Project article, but wanted to share more of her story with this separate interview. Thanks for the time, Patricia!

You're obviously someone who's overcome a tremendous amount of adversity. What are you most proud of in your journey both as an athlete and a person?

As an athlete I am most proud of the transformation from feeling "lessor" compared to today where I have an overwhelming feeling of capability. My feeling of lesser had less to do with my vision and more to do with my learned helplessness and resultant poor health.

I am most proud of the first step I took to reclaim my health and quality of life. The accomplishments along the way are just icing on the cake with consideration for my improved quality of life. As a person I am most proud when my friends and family confide in me. I’m proud they find me loyal and trustworthy. Last September I saw a cousin of mine I had not seen in a decade or more. She expressed to me that of all of the grandkids I am the one most like my Nana. I take that as the best compliment I have ever received. She was trustworthy, warm, and always thoughtful, and as a person I’m very proud to live up to her legacy.

Where would you be today without sports in your life? How has being an athlete helped you deal with challenges?

Before I discovered athletics I felt the world was full of closed doors. I felt defeated every day. Sports helped me reclaim a sense of self by giving me some small wins along the way that built into ever increasing challenges and victories. Sports provided an outlet for me to cultivate a sense of self rooted in all that I was capable of doing. I started to see myself in a world full of opportunity and open doors. Sports gave me confidence that overflowed into my education, career, and personal life. With the improved confidence instilled in me from my origin as a marathon runner, I have been featured on NPR, Success magazine, CEO magazine, SlowTwitch, and the Huffington Post among others. I thrived in my industry as I had learned through athletics how to develop a solution to any problem.

What advice do you have for kids, or anyone for that matter, who may feel "broken" by a handicap they're living with?

I am no psychologist, but I have noticed this; everyone feels isolated in their suffering. If you’re adapting to a disability, your struggle may be tangible and visible. If you are struggling with self doubt, your struggle may be more hidden and make you feel isolated. The truth of the matter is everyone is having struggles. You are not alone in this open sea. My advice is to be honest with yourself as to where you are today, figure out something you enjoy and can stick with, and start taking baby steps in that direction. Through incremental victories you may be able to build some momentum and exceed your own wildest dreams and conquer your own worst fears in the process.

The feedback I get from speaking is that what really resonates is my transition from a broken child without a support system to a happy person with a well rounded life. Not so much my success at school, work and athletics.

Tell us about your company, Blind Ambition Speaking. Who are your typical audiences? What are some general messages you share?

Blind Ambition is a company whose mission is to help individuals and organizations exceed their perceived limitations. My typical audiences are state agencies, engineering conferences, and corporations. My book (editor's note: pic to left) can be found on the general business category shelves of your local book store. This is now required reading for MBA students as well as NBA players if you can believe that. Blind Ambition teaches a goal achievement strategy that maps highest level intrinsic motivation to day to day tasks.

This helps answer the question “Why are we doing what we are doing?” Using this strategy your motivation becomes your own accountability. This is a way of infusing purpose to your otherwise mundane tasks.

What are the highlights of your athletic career and goals for the future?

For now I only see one goal for the future; that is gold at the Paralympics in Rio in 2016. People are often asking me what will be next. I am trying to stay focused on one thing completely. I do not see myself coming back for the 2020 games based on opportunity cost in my engineering career. For that reason I am looking at this as being my one and only chance.

Highlights up to this point were my first marathon in 2001. My first marathon was life changing as it was the first time I felt capable as an athlete. For my very first attempts at running, I went to a trail. There was a border where the gravel met the concrete and also where the gravel met the grass. I could feel that with my feet and I’d run along that edge. When I came home after that first run, I had fallen several times and I looked all beaten up. The attitude of friends and family was, "OK. She is going to learn her lesson. Thank God she is going to get over this quick." But I continued. Pretty soon I got a team of five friends to run a half marathon with me. I left all of them behind by the 4th mile, finishing around 1:40. That’s when I realized I had some potential, and I was able to get my marathon time down to 3:30.

My Ironman world record in 2011 was another highlight. I got a call telling me that a professional triathlete wanted to do Ironman Texas with me and I said OK! We finished in 11:40. I was really touched when Charlie Plaskon, the guy who had set the blind men’s Ironman record, hugged me and said he was happy I was the one to break his mark. I got a lot of national press, which was exciting. As a result, I was added to the USA Triathlon national team.

I love the distance races and am proud of holding my own against sighted able bodied competitors. The transition in this race was seeing myself not only as a capable athlete but as a competitive athlete. I also have received 2 bronze medals at ITU races. These of course are highlights, but truthfully I feel that it is more just a taste of what I hope to accomplish in 2015 and 2016.

What advances in technology have been most beneficial to the blind over your lifetime thus far?

Apple has accessibility built into all machines and devices. I could not live without my iPhone! Thank God for technology. One thing that has changed in the world that I HATE are the beeping traffic lights. I’m fairly certain no blind person was involved in the design. They beep to say ‘go’, with no regard to what direction. They are hard to ignore and they distract from the existing traffic patterns you can follow. If a person is left to their own devices they can hear when traffic is moving parallel to them, and following traffic surges they can cross safely. Following the ‘go’ signal is probably how I’m going to die. I hope you receive this message before the inevitable accident happens…

In your opinion how can society improve in assisting the blind community?

I think blind or not it is hard to ask for and receive help. As a blind person I feel people help you with what they want to help you with and almost never help you with what you really need help with. When you are approaching anyone, blind or not, and you want to offer that person help, the first step is to ask them if they need help and then listen to their response. I get swarmed with people trying to help me who don’t listen to me almost every day. It makes me ever more guarded in asking for help when I do need help. When people don’t listen, they are creating a harder situation when it would be best to either leave that person alone or listen.

Also, society should expect more of their blind participants. With advances in technology, gone are the days of dependence and struggle. I recently was on a plane and a fellow passenger was telling me all about how AMAZING his blind daughter was for getting to and from the swings by herself. I assumed he meant a child. When I asked how old she was he told me she was 34. That is my age. I asked a few more questions. My vision is actually worse than hers. If you treat someone like they are developmentally disabled they will learn to act the part. Do not treat people with disabilities like children. Expect more of them. Do not shelter them until they are further disabled. In my mind it is a form of child abuse to undermine their sense of capability to such a degree.

You probably get sick of this question, but from a practical standpoint, how do you train for swimming, biking, and running as a blind athlete?

In a race I swim with a tether tied around my mid-thigh. I then communicate through either a slight pull toward my guide or a push in the other direction from my guide. It is important that our hands not be too close or touch. If our hands touch, like a three legged race, we both lose momentum. This leaves us with a vocabulary of 2 words: left or right. It is hard to swim straight. I have only recently overcome my panic in the swim. To me it is total sensory deprivation. I just feel lost and anxious not knowing what way the shore is.

I bike on a tandem bike. I read a book recently entitled “The Boys in the Boat.” It is all about the 1936 Olympic crew team. In the book they mention having to work with each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Tandem cycling is the same. Neither athlete gets to work with their own strengths. You can only go as fast as your slowest athlete. Sometimes this is the athlete, but sometimes this is the guide. I once in a while hear someone say they think the tandem bike is an advantage. I know immediately those people haven’t spent much time on one. Tandem bikes are called "divorce makers" for a reason! It is not easy to work with each other’s strength, yet each party is limited by the other’s weaknesses. The run is a free for all. The weather does what it can. Cones and curbs appear out of nowhere!

For training I swim with both the University of Texas masters team as well as Rolling Wood masters. I swim in a lane with everyone else. My lanemates get used to watching out for me. So long as everyone is doing the same set and is somewhat predictable, I can circle swim. There have been some accidents. This past December I gave myself a concussion on a backstroke bar. Everyone rushed to explain to me the shape of the bar. The shape was never the problem… the fact that I completely forgot it was there was the problem!

For the bike I do almost all my training on my trainer with a Wahoo kicker. I focus on cadence and on power output for every workout. I spend hours on that thing. We have a love/hate relationship.

For the run I have an army of helpers. I have a dear friend who runs with me twice a week and guides the occasional 5k. I also have 2 coach’s sessions per week on the track. I do some treadmill work and some easy runs on the track. I can run on the track by myself by feeling the inside lane with my foot. Everyone thinks I can see the line but actually I just run on the edge. It breaks down a bit when the track gets crowded.

Do you usually have the same guides each time or does it vary?

It varies based on time to prep for race, injury, and previous commitments. That being said as we get closer to the Paralympics I am training with the same guide.

From a practical standpoint how were you able to be so successful with your education and career in engineering at Microsoft?

I spend a fare bit of my life completely terrified. I think if you’re taking something on that is worthwhile, something big, it will be terrifying. The one skill that I’ve learned that I also teach through my business is to first map your goals to something you care about today that you will still care about in 6 months to a year, and then use that motivation to employ some purpose into every baby step it takes to get you toward your goal. Every step of the way has been hard and even demoralizing at times, but every step has been wholeheartedly worthwhile.

Tell us a bit about team CAF. What is the history of the team and how does it operate?

I believe the team is in its 2nd year. The team exists to help cultivate the US Paralympic team for 2016. We have amazing sponsorships including Rudy Project, Nike, and Powerbar among others. For athletes they provide equipment and funds to travel. The funds to travel have made it possible for me to compete all over. As a blind athlete I am responsible for my guide’s expenses. This would be untenable if not for the help provided by the CAF team and sponsors.

Follow Patricia's Olympic journey, watch videos, and learn more at Patricia's site

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