Racing to freedom: Blind biathlete Shawn Cheshire building confidence through sports

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9 2013 11:35 p.m. MST

Shawn Cheshire, left, competes as a visually impaired athlete with the help of guide Maddie Talkington in the adaptive biathlon race at Soldier Hollow in Midway Jan. 9, 2013. Cheshire lost complete use of her eyes in an auto accident.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SOLDIER HOLLOW — When Shawn Cheshire crossed the finish line of her first race outside of high school, she wept.

Her tears weren't about mileage or a time or even the kind of victory rewarded with a medal. The emotion that washed over her as she crossed the finish line of the 10-mile Mountain Goat challenge tethered to another runner came from fighting through fear so thick and debilitating, that just a few months earlier she thought it would swallow her whole.

"I was just grateful," said Cheshire, a 37-year-old veteran and single mom who lost her sight after a 2009 fall. "My coaches and I have had many discussions about fear. I think it's about trying to channel it. Some people have the argument with me that you can't channel fear. Well, I would disagree with that, and I'm learning to do it every day, in sports and in everyday life."

Last winter she could barely bring herself to leave her house.

This winter, she's competing in the U.S. cross country adaptive championships at Soldier Hollow. In five days she earned four national titles after spending less than a month on skis.

"It's a decision," she said of pushing through her fear. "It's an individual choice just to do. … Almost every day is a learning experience. You have no control over anything else around you, that's what they teach you at blind rehab is how to be safe, how to be as independent as possible. But you're still scared. You're always going to be scared. You can't see the things everybody else sees."

Cheshire joined the U.S. Army in 1994 in search of unique life experiences.

"All of my friends were going to college, getting married, having babies, and I just wanted to do something different," said Cheshire, whose mother and grandfather served in different branches of the military. The Texas native scored so well on entry exams that they gave her a list of jobs to choose from.

"I had my pick of really anything," she said. "So I thought, 'Should I pick something I can use in the civilian world when I get out? Or something where I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? I chose the once in a lifetime opportunity."

She specialized in maintaining the armament systems of helicopters — guns, rocket pods, missile launchers.

"I loved it," she said laughing, her blue eyes sparkling.

After a knee injury ended her military career in 2002, she focused on raising her two daughters, Brytni and Erin, with her husband, whom she'd married in 1997. He worked in law enforcement in Texas, but eventually they moved to Oswego, N.Y.

Cheshire said her marriage was marred with abuse, and eventually they divorced in 2007.

"It took me 10 years to get up the courage to leave," said the Camillus, N.Y., resident. "And there is still fear associated with that."

She went back to school to become an EMT, and was just feeling confident and proud again when another accident sent her life careening in a completely different direction.

"I was working in the back of an ambulance on a patient in a snowstorm," she said of the 2009 incident in which she slipped while carrying a patient to the ambulance. "I cracked the back of my head, on the right side, and I guess it was hard enough to damage the back right, left front and some cranial nerve damage."

She said she was in denial about the physical effects of the accident, and managed to fool her colleagues for a year and a half. Then in November of 2011 her vision deteriorated so badly that she could no longer hide the fact that she was going blind.

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