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Blind Ambition

He has lost his sight and endured a litany of horrific injuries, but triathlete Bobby McMullen is still going full-speed ahead

Behold the shins of Bobby McMullen, for they tell his story as well as I can. They are a tapestry of pink blotches, a welter of scar tissue from a hundred bloody run-ins with rocks, stumps, thorns, branches, stiles, mailboxes, you name it. A couple of years ago McMullen took up mountain biking, an undertaking complicated by the fact that he is blind.

Well, not totally blind. Although his left eye is, as he puts it, "basically useless," he's got 20/1200 vision--and 5% of a normal person's peripheral vision--in his right. "It's like skiing through a whiteout with your goggles fogged up," says McMullen, 42. "That's my life. It's a beautiful mess."

If you put on a loud shirt and stay within a bike-length or two of him, he can follow your line through some hairy terrain: ruts, rock gardens, deep mud. Whatever you do, don't slow down on his account. If he shouted at me once during our ride together on April 3, he shouted two dozen times, "Get off your brakes! Let's go!"

I was McMullen's guide in the REAL Mountain Bike Triathlon in Granite Bay, Calif., 112 miles north of San Francisco. Race morning dawned blustery and cold. The race director cheerfully announced to the 187 competitors that the water in Folsom Lake, site of our half-mile swim, was 58°. "O.K.," I said. "We're not in the water yet, and I'm shivering."

Said Therese Conner, McMullen's girlfriend, "Are you ... whining?"

Point taken, Therese. It isn't good form, bitching within earshot of McMullen, who overflows with bonhomie and bad jokes even though fate has treated him the way Sluggo treated Mr. Bill. Twelve years ago, during his first semester at Cal Northern School of Law, he noticed he was having trouble seeing the board. It turned out that McMullen, who'd been living since boyhood with type 1 diabetes--the incurable and harder to manage kind--was suffering from proliferative diabetic retinopathy, a common cause of blindness among diabetics. Emergency surgery salvaged what puny vision he retains.

"Ever since then," he says, not quite able to keep a straight face, "life's been a blur."

The loss of his sight came before his organ transplants but after his multiple fractures. A former ski racer at Weber State, McMullen was nicknamed Auger by his teammates, who marveled at the ferocity of his falls. He didn't always get up. In 1986 he shattered his left hip and broke his left femur in six places. Five years later he broke the same leg in twelve places.

Just because he was blind didn't mean Auger was finished boring holes in snowbanks. In '95 McMullen became a member of the U.S disabled ski team, following the commands of a guide down the mountain. His diabetes added insult to injury in the following year: McMullen went into renal failure. After five months on kidney dialysis he underwent the first of two double-organ transplants. (Both times he received a kidney and a pancreas.) The first transplant failed in 2001, and McMullen spent two years on dialysis before receiving new organs.

Between those major traumas were minor ones, including breaking the little toe on his right foot two weeks before he was to compete in the 1998 Winter Paralympics in Nagano. U.S. team doctors told him that if he competed, he would lose the toe.

"Hey," says a grinning McMullen, "I've got nine more where that came from." (He competed, and the toe was amputated.)

After double-transplant II, two years ago, McMullen decided to take up triathlons. His learning curve was steep (see his shins), his attitude unwavering. "I'm supremely confident in my abilities," he declares. "I don't know any better."

I too had confidence, in my ability to guide him during the swim. I didn't know any better. Let's just say we swam farther--much farther--than anyone else. On the 16-mile bike leg he was uncanny; I didn't guide him so much as he pushed me, bearing down on my wheel throughout the final mile, our speed hovering around 20 mph as he shouted, "C'mon, man, let's finish like bike racers!"

Although McMullen approached the run with the same intensity, his blindness and bum leg have reduced him to a 10-plus-minutes-per-mile gait he calls the McShuffle. We were passed by a steady stream of competitors along the 3.3-mile route. "I don't care if I'm DFL," he told me during the run. (He wasn't.) "I'm competing against myself."

A little while later we were passed by a fortysomething woman who asked McMullen, as she padded by, "If I wait for you at the finish line, will you sign my shirt?" ■

McMullen overflows with bonhomie, though life has played SLUGGO TO HIS MR. BILL.




The author led the unsinkable McMullen (right) astray on a chilly swim.