My statement through all of this is, 'I am in the process of finding my greatness.' Sometimes I'm so scared my legs shake. … But you take a deep breath and you move on to the next moment. —Shawn Cheshire
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.
She lost the job she loved. She lost her driver's license. She lost her independence. She nearly lost her will to live. She wasn't starting over; she was trying to claw her way out of a terrifying hole.
"I thought, 'I'm 36 years old, going blind, a single mom, and I thought life was over really," said Cheshire. "What did I aspire to? Nothing. I felt very alone."
Six months after she lost her job as an EMT, the Veterans Administration connected her to an organization that helps veterans find hobbies — most of them outdoor related — Team Red, White and Blue. She said it was through this group that she first re-entered the world of sports.
It was a four-mile run, and she was tethered to a volunteer.
"I remember my first run was in April last year," she said. "The feeling was exhilarating. Just that feeling of the wind in my face, doing something that felt good. Even though I was tied to someone, I was doing an activity I didn't think I would be able to do again. So it was a very freeing feeling."
She set a goal, along with the others in the group, to run the 10-mile Mountain Goat race in Syracuse, N.Y. It is a grueling race for runners who can see the mountain path under their feet. It was both grueling and terrifying for Cheshire.
But it was in learning to trust her guide that she was released from the stranglehold fear had had on her life.
"When you can't see, everything is a risk," she said. "You don't know where you're going to step. You don't know if something is going to cause you to fall, if you're going to get hurt. You become comfortable with a certain level of fear. But then it also becomes all about trust with who is guiding you."
At a camp for the visually impaired in California last June, a counselor encouraged her to explore other sports. She chose cross country skiing and then attended an adaptive camp in September.
"I did biathlon once and I was hooked," she said of the sport that combines cross country skiing with target shooting. She shoots with an audio gun that emits a signal into a headset that gets faster as her gunsight gets closer to the target. No other totally blind woman has ever competed for the U.S. in the sport.
She chose Nordic skiing over Alpine because it was difficult.
"It's physically challenging, and it was the closest thing to running," she said. "I needed that. I was struggling to find anti-depressants that work. The (medication) causes you to gain weight and then you feel bad about yourself even more. It's a vicious cycle. I am not interested in medicine anymore."
Cheshire's goals are lofty — represent the U.S. in the Paralympic Games next winter in Russia.
"At first I didn't want to compete," she said. "Then I needed the challenge. I was at that point where I thought I wasn't going to be able to do anything. I thought my only choices were to go to college and then have some sort of talking computer desk job."Comment on this story
And then sports showed her just how capable she really was. Key in that realization was meeting other adaptive athletes.
"When you surround yourself with people who are so positive, and they're like, well, you can do anything you set your mind to, if you're willing to work hard," she said, the smile returning to her face. "My statement through all of this is, 'I am in the process of finding my greatness.' Sometimes I'm so scared my legs shake. … But you take a deep breath and you move on to the next moment."