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