World record-holding Paralympian, engineer and competitive rower Patricia Walsh lives to serve as an example of life lived beyond perceived limitations. She won’t let blindness define her or put a ceiling on her lofty goals.
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By Patricia Walsh
I spend no time wishing my life was different. At age 5, I lost vision in my right eye due to a brain tumor over my optic cortex. In my early teens, scarring from surgeries resulted in total blindness with only a small field of light perception in my left eye. I can’t see my hand at the end of my arm.
Growing up as a person with blindness, I was spoon-fed the idea that every decision had to be governed by my limitations. From school to sports, if it wasn’t accessible, I was made to believe it was not for me. But a person who goes blind is still the same person they always were, and all my life I felt untapped potential. I was born ambitious. Staying inside where it is safe and sound was so limiting. I wanted to step outside the safety to explore my own capability. I knew in order to tap any of my potential, I would have to learn to adapt to the world; the world was not going to adapt to me.
When I expressed interest in attending college, I was told it would be an exercise in failure. But I knew that higher education was the key to becoming self-reliant. So I bet on myself and enrolled at Oregon State University. Was it tough? Unbelievably. Did I receive special treatment? None. But beyond the degrees I earned, I learned a lot about myself and my capacity to overcome in those years.
It was during college that I took up running. Learning to run undoubtedly changed my life. The first time I ran, I had no idea how to make it accessible. I found a trail near my house and ran with one foot on the concrete trail and the other on the gravel. I ran a mile successfully but had no plan how to get home, so I had to recruit help from another runner. The next day, I put a rock on the edge of the trail. I ran a half-mile one way, then a half-mile home. When I hit the rock, I fell. That is how I knew I was back home.
I later learned about guides. By tethering myself to a sighted person, I was eventually able to run 12 marathons, 2 long-distance triathlons, 2 ultramarathons, become a 5-time U.S. national champion, 2012 USA Triathlon athlete of the year, 3-time World Championship bronze medalist, 2016 Paralympian and world record-holder for fastest blind and low-vision long-distance triathlon.
Athletics changed the way I saw myself. For the first time, I had some fodder to believe in myself. I was not the blind girl anymore; I was a competitive athlete. When I was pushed out of my comfort zone, I could achieve so much more than I ever knew possible. I used to look at every decision and ask, “Is this accessible?” Nothing is made with me in mind, so the answer was always no. Ever since I ran that first mile, I look at every decision with the mindset that I may not know how I am going to do this, but I will find a way.
In 2006, I graduated from Oregon State with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. I was employed immediately by Microsoft. I have since had a thriving career in engineering, currently as lead technical product manager for Dow Jones.
I am forever pushing to the next level in both my career and athletics. If I am not a little uncomfortable, then I am probably not pushing myself hard enough. Over the past year, I’ve been transitioning from a runner and a triathlete to a rower. To start over in a new sport is humbling. I made it to national team selection camp as a long shot. To be a long shot feels like a failure, even if it’s truly a sign of success to be considered at all as a newcomer in this sport. It is in these moments I remind myself that I am here to grow as an athlete. Being uncomfortable means I am on track to become better. I cannot claim experience on the water where there is none. I can demonstrate improvement every day. I can be coachable. I can be a supportive teammate.
I remind myself why I am here. It is my hope to help others live a life beyond their perceived limitations. What’s my next big goal? I aim to represent the U.S. in the 2020 Paralympics, and I believe this is an opportunity to lift up others in the process.
I’d love to help each and every one of you achieve your own blind ambitions. Read more of my story in my book, “Blind Ambition: How to Envision Your Limitless Potential and Achieve the Success You Want.”