Inspirational Athletes

Erik Weihenmayer

At first glance, Erik Weihenmayer’s achievements are impressive, but not particularly amazing. Sure, he has climbed all of the world’s Seven Summits—including the famed Mount Everest—plus, he has run marathons, wrestled, skydived, and skied. But there is one part of Erik’s story that separates him from most of the other people who have achieved similar feats to his. Erik has never actually seen the mountains he climbed, the opponents he wrestled, the airplanes he jumped out of, or the students he taught. Erik Weihenmayer is blind.

Most people would consider it unlikely or downright impossible that a blind man could do all of this. But Erik is proving that nothing is impossible.

In fact, Erik is one of many blind athletes doing things that would have been considered unheard of several decades ago. Blind athletes have participated in sports including but not limited to wrestling, swimming, golf, judo, track and field, skiing, cycling, weightlifting, and mountain climbing.

And Erik is one of the top blind athletes of all time, and a man whose story is a tale of adventure and determination.

Erik was born with limited vision. Unable to see straight ahead or distances beyond a few feet away, he had to rely on peripheral vision. He was soon diagnosed with retina disease called retinoschisis, and told by doctors that his vision would mostly likely deteriorate slowly, and be gone when he was in his early teens.

Despite Erik’s limited and deteriorating sight, he was an adventurous and physically active child, and was able to play basketball, run, and ride a bicycle. He could also read with by wearing glasses and putting the book up to his nose, and see long distances by using a monocular.

But to Erik’s frustration, his vision grew progressively worse. He also began feeling alienated from the world due to his oncoming blindness.

By high school, Erik was completely blind, and despite some resistance at first, soon began utilizing some methods to adapt to his blindness and help him in life. That freshman year, he also joined the school wrestling team, eager to not only participate in the sport, but also to gain a sense of strength and independence.

After insisting that the other wrestlers should not take it easy on him, Erik was for the most part treated like everyone else during practice.

Then in the year’s very first meet, Erik was really put to the test when he filled in for an injured varsity starter. Though nobody was really sure what exactly to expect, almost everyone expected Erik to lose fairly quickly—and almost everyone was then shocked to instead witness Erik wrestle in a long and competitive match that ended when Erik pinned his opponent shortly before the final buzzer.

A surprised crowd erupted in celebration, led by Erik’s mother who had been nervously watching. It was an encouraging win, but Erik did not emerge from the battle unscathed: along with his much-deserved victory, he was also left with a swollen nose and a knot on the forehead.

Erik made strides freshman year in wrestling and life, and felt like he had achieved a sense of order in his life by the end of that year. But that summer, while Erik was attending wrestling camp, his father showed up to deliver some tragic unexpected news: Erik’s mother was killed in a car accident.

Erik’s closest companion was gone, and he later described her death as a thousand times as painful as going blind.

The news was difficult to handle, but Erik did his best to resume his life. He later participated in a blind skills camp, which offered him the opportunity to learn various sills, as well as for the first time meet other blind people his age.

And it was in the final days of that camp that Erik was first introduced to rock climbing. Instantly attracted to the sport, he eagerly learned how to climb using his senses and mental imagery, coupled with the assistance of his instructor’s directions. And on the final day of camp, Erik managed to climb without the instructor’s help, totally under his own reliance and discretion.

Erik finished high school with a solid senior year of wrestling, highlighted by 33 pin victories, and a #2 rank among Connecticut high school wrestlers in his weight class.

After high school, he went to Boston College, and spent summers taking long challenging hikes with his father and brothers in mountainous remote regions around the world such as Peru, Spain, Pakistan, and Papua New Guinea. The locals admiringly and intently watched Erik hike, and his brother patiently assist and guide him.

After graduating college, Erik went to Cambridge to get a masters degree in education. Low in funds, he tried to get a job, but was disappointed to meet numerous rejections due to his blindness.

After graduating at Cambridge, he secured a job as an Elementary School fifth grade teacher in Phoenix, Arizona. It proved to be a very valuable experience, as he devised various methods that allowed him to effectively run a class of 30 fifth graders. He also met his future wife Ellen, another teacher at the school. They eventually married five years later.

Erik Weihenmayer (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

In Arizona, Erik began climbing local hills with partners. Relishing the experience, he devoted most of his free time to climbing, and for several years he conquered the local hills. Then, looking forward to a bigger adventure and challenge, he decided to begin training for a trip to Alaska to climb North America’s highest peak, Denali (Mount McKinley)—which, measuring over 20,000 feet in height, would not be an easy climb for anyone, blind or sighted.

After thorough and diligent training and preparation, Erik made the trip and began his climb along with a team of six partners—and in a grueling 19-day climb, with the help of his partners’ verbal and physical cues, he reached his goal and ascended to the top of the mountain.

Form there, Erik went on to successfully climb all of the other Seven Summits around the world, plus other mountains worldwide. He has also participated in countless other sporting events.

Erik stands as a symbol of reaching for the unknown and accomplishing tasks that many people would consider impossible. He did not allow his blindness to get in the way of his ambitions.

He is proud to set an example for both blind and sighted people, and with the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)—the sponsor of his climbs—he is working to educate the blind and sighted world to understand the immense capabilities of the blind.

In 2001, Erik released an autobiography titled Touch the Top of the World. He is also a top motivational speaker, and continues his climbing career.

Inspirational Athletes