Triathlete Tom O'Connor had a tremendous headache. He was attempting to finish the Memphis-in-May Triathlon, and the biking segment demanded intense concentration. At 20 mph it was difficult to hear the instructions being shouted through a bullhorn from the car just in front of him: "Go left, now. That's it. To the right. O.K., we're curving hard left. There's a pothole to your right." Upon hearing the instructions, O'Connor laboriously fashioned them into a mental road map. Doing this was indispensable, because O'Connor is blind.
O'Connor, 27, lost his sight eight years ago when a surgical shunt came apart and his optic nerves were flooded with spinal fluid. That hasn't kept O'Connor, a native of Brooklyn who is now an undergraduate at Memphis State, from taking on physical challenges. "I want to open doors for others, encourage them and motivate them," he says. "I don't like to see people feel sorry for themselves." O'Connor himself had every reason to indulge in self-pity. Shortly after he lost his vision, O'Connor's mother died, and a year later he was mugged by two men, who left him with wounds requiring 85 stitches.
But O'Connor persevered and gained strength with each obstacle he overcame. In 1983 he began to run on a regular basis with New York City's Achilles Track Club. He has now completed four New York City Marathons.
But the triathlon was a different story. O'Connor, 5'11" and 175 pounds, wanted to compete without being tethered to a guide, the usual manner in which blind triathletes participate. He would complete the .9-mile swimming segment within a lane created by two 20-foot tubes pulled by a kayak, and he would run the 6.2-mile leg with a guide alongside him. The 25.1-mile biking portion would be the most difficult, both for him and for those in the escort car guiding him. "My partners have more pressure than I do, because they can see what's coming," says O'Connor. "If they make an error, it could be my life."
The man charged with avoiding such an error was O'Connor's chief guide, Gary Markley. "We went through all the emotions during training," Markley says. "Sometimes I'd say, 'I quit,' and he'd say, 'Fine.' But the next day we were out there again."
The bike ride is truly an ordeal for O'Connor. A missed instruction can mean a collision or serious injury. Even the less challenging segments provide dangerous moments. "Sometimes, during easy parts, I found myself listening to the birds and the nature sounds," says O'Connor. "I'd start to drift off, then I'd remember, Oh my God, I'm blind."
It began to rain during the triathlon, making the course particularly treacherous. He fell twice, but both times he jumped up unscathed. As he neared the finish line, he drew strength from the people who lined the course. Shouting "Tom! Tom! Tom!" they provided emotional support as he finished the triathlon in 3:49:06. He is believed to be the first blind competitor to complete a triathlon without being tethered to a guide for any portion of the competition. "The more people tell me no," O'Connor says, "the more I say, 'Yeah? Why can't I? Just because I'm blind?' "
There is little chance O'Connor will ever regain his sight, but he doesn't spend much time thinking about that. "I do better without my sight than I did with it," he says. "Now I take things for what they are, not for what they look like." While seeing is believing for most people, for Tom O'Connor, just believing is enough.
O'Connor, with help from Randy Smith, trains in Memphis for future challenges.
Ken Young, who lives in New York City, is a letters correspondent for SI.