By Kyle Coon
Greetings 303 friends, fans and family! My name is Kyle Coon and I’m a totally blind Professional Triathlete. (Wow, no matter how many times I say or write that I still have a hard time believing that I somehow managed to make my hobby and passion into something resembling a career.)
While not a Colorado native, Colorado has been my permanent home since 2016 and it’s been where my heart calls home since I first visited to learn to ski in the early to mid 2000s. From 2016-2018 I lived in Carbondale, just down valley from Aspen, but at the beginning of 2019 I made the move to Colorado Springs for the opportunity to better pursue my Pro Triathlete lifestyle/career. But before we get into that let’s back up a moment, because some of you are probably wondering “Who is this guy?”
When I was ten months old I was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood eye cancer called Bilateral Sporadic Retinoblastoma. Essentially I had cancer in both eyes with no family history. I underwent an intense treatment plan—consisting of chemo and radiation therapies, and other various clinical and experimental trials—which would go on to last several years as the cancer would regress and then come roaring back with a vengeance. Eventually the cancer, and the effects of the treatment, damaged my eyes beyond repair. So my family made the decision to remove my eyes which was really the only sure-fire way to beat the cancer once and for all. My left eye was removed when I was five and my right when I was six leaving me totally blind.
I went through a rough time as a newly blind kid. I didn’t understand “why” this had happened to me. Fortunately though my parents did their best to treat me no differently than they would have if I could see. Yes, I still had chores and was expected to bring home good grades from school. I was also very fortunate to meet a world-class blind athlete just a few months after I lost my sight. His name? Erik Weihenmayer—most well known for becoming the first blind man to climb Mt Everest and the rest of the Seven Summits. (At the time I met Erik he hadn’t yet climbed Everest and had only climbed three of the Seven Summits.)
Erik and I met and Erik encouraged me that just because I was blind didn’t mean I had to stop doing things I loved. It didn’t mean I had to give up being a kid. I just needed to become a bit more creative in how I went about my life. He suggested something to help me focus and be active at the same time—rock climbing. I’d go on to become a competitive rock climber, along with two of my sisters, and along the way get into numerous other activities.
In 2004, I learned to downhill ski. In 2006, I hiked the Ancascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, I climbed and summited Mt Kilimanjaro. I also went on to climb a few Colorado 14ers and some Cascade volcanoes. I graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2013 with a degree in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication and was ready to take on the world.
I went into the post college workforce with the excellent millennial mentality of “I’m going to apply for every job CEO and above.” When that didn’t work I lowered my expectation to “Upper level Management and above.” When that still didn’t work I made my way down the corporate ladder until I applied for a batboy job at a grocery store and didn’t get the job.
I was frustrated, unemployed, several thousand dollars in debt and felt awful since I’d packed on 25ish lbs post college. I was a year removed from graduating and I’d just about lost hope. I knew I needed to do something to distract myself so I decided I’d start running, an activity I normally associated with punishment and agony. But running was exactly what I needed. It was a problem to solve and a way to reach out to the community to make new friends.
My first running guide was an ER doctor whom I connected with through a website that partnered sighted guides with blind runners. Funnily enough though he’d never actually guided a blind guy before so we both went into it as an experiment. Mike and I started running together once or twice a week experimenting with various guiding methods. We entered some short 5ks, 10ks and half marathons and then took on the Disney World Goofy Challenge—Disney Half Marathon on Saturday and Marathon on Sunday. After that Mike mentioned that he thought I could do a triathlon, maybe even an Ironman some day. Mike had just completed Kona a couple of months after we’d started running together so I saw how cool the sport was.
This was the beginning of 2015 when I decided that I’d become a triathlete. Mike taught me to swim, we did thousands of miles on my tandem bike and we continued running together. In 2016, Mike and I took on my first Ironman in Boulder because I love Colorado and my family had recently moved to the Roaring Fork Valley so Boulder was an easy race for them to travel to to spectate. Mike and I somehow stumble bumbled our way to a 15:47:11 finish on Pearl Street and despite being more tired and sore than I’d ever been in my life I was hooked.
My personal life was a mess at the time and I wasn’t particularly happy with my desk job (yes I did eventually find my way into the world of the employed) so I picked up my life and moved to Carbondale and rented a room in my parents house. I got plugged into the local running community and worked on my run. I even found some people willing/crazy enough to pilot my tandem. And so I set my sights on doing another Ironman, this time Ironman Arizona 2017.
I completed Ironman Arizona 2017 in 11:46:43 becoming only the ninth person who is blind or visually impaired to break the 12 hour mark at the 140.6 distance. But that wasn’t good enough I set my sights higher and began pushing myself to do better. Along the way I hired a coach and started attending training and skills camps. I was recruited to be a member of the first all blind/visually impaired stoker tandem relay team to take part in the infamous “Race Across America” racing from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, MD in less than nine days. I even dipped my toe into the waters of the International Triathlon Union circuit competing in a couple races including taking a Silver Medal at a World Cup.
Then in November 2018, my guide—Alan Greening—and I set out to do something that hadn’t been done before. We raced to a finish of 10:59:17 at Ironman Arizona becoming only the third person with a visual impairment to break the 11 hour mark in an Ironman, but becoming the first person who is totally blind to do so.
I’ve certainly come a long way from that scared seven year old newly blind kid and some might say that I’ve reached almost as high as you can as a totally blind triathlete. But in August 2018 the International Paralympic Committee announced that male Visually Impaired Triathlon would become part of the slate of events at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. And in October I was accepted to become an official member of the USA Paratriathlon Resident Team. So on January 7, 2019 I made the move to Colorado Springs and took up residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Paralympics in the sport of Paratriathlon and I can think of no better audience to want to share my journey with than you, the 303 Triathlon/endurance community.
So will you join me in following my progress on the #roadtotokyo as I #trifortokyo?