Ethan & Sasha: Blind Athlete & Guide, tackling YOLO Triathlon

303Triathlon is proud to share the story of Ethan Johnston & Sasha Underwood, who have been inspiring us for months, and will be participating in the Paratriathlon division of the YOLO Sprint Tri at Aurora Reservoir this weekend.

“Sports and music have always been my medicine,” says Ethan Johnston of his blindness. Originally from Ethiopia (his native name is Esubalew Truneh), he grew up in Missouri with 25 brothers and sisters – 21 of whom were adopted from all over the world.

His start in sports was early. “My friends and teachers never kept me on the sidelines. I always participated. I learned to ride a bike, I played baseball. I always participated. I had great opportunities.”

It is remarkable that this young man has such a positive outlook considering the scars of his past, and the events that led to his blindness.

Ethan does not like to talk about how he came to be blind as a child. Not because of the story’s heart-wrenching and cruel nature, but because he does not want those events to define him. “I don’t want a sympathy card,” he says. “I’ve been faced with challenges, but life is what you make it. There are plenty of others who have it worse than me.”

Born in a countryside village in Ethiopia, Ethan was taken from his family at age five, intentionally blinded, and put on the streets to beg. (Read his full story here.)

“You can become what you want to become,” he says, with his trademark huge smile.

That attitude has helped him to attempt many things most would assume would be impossible for a blind person. Basketball, competitive running. And now, triathlon.

“Sometimes I’m a little too confident – I always want to try something new,” he notes. “I always say I want to be the best blind athlete – I want to be good at everything I put my mind to. That’s why I want to try triathlon.”

Ethan has been running since 2008, aided by the Achilles Running group. This is where he met Sasha Underwood last year, who has guided blind athletes in many running races. The two hit it off, and Ethan asked Sasha, an accomplished triathlete, to teach him to swim, and help him attempt his first tri.

Watch how their training has progressed in the video below. On Sunday, Sasha and Ethan will compete in the Paratriathlon division of the YOLO sprint triathlon, which serves as the USAT regional championship for Paratri. Race Director Barry Siff generously provided race entry for the pair, and 303Triathlon will be there to cheer them on.

“Everybody has a story – it’s what you make out of it. You can feel sorry for yourself or you can pick yourself up and use it as a motivation.” – Esubalew Truneh