Limited sight, clear athletic visions
Triathlons, cycling help nearly blind former Marine feel alive and set an example
Steve Walker had always wanted to be a Marine, to test himself against the best. So after graduating from high school at 17 in June 2000, he joined the Corps, weathered boot camp and graduated from the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Then, about a year into his four-year commitment, Walker started having trouble with his vision.
"When I was in the field at night or early in the morning at the rifle range, I wouldn't be able to see that good," he says. "But I really didn't think anything of it. I was able to maintain and do what I needed."
As the weeks went on, things got worse. In August 2001, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease that is sometimes exacerbated by stress or head trauma. It gradually and severely limits a person's field of vision.
Walker was allowed to remain in the Marine Corps, doing clerical work, but he says he was termed "undeployable." By the time he left the service in 2004, he was legally blind.
"My visual field had shrunken down smaller than 20 degrees," he says.
Over the past 10 years, the scope of his life also narrowed. He stopped driving. He no longer was able to work in the mortgage industry. He lost his sense of freedom.
"I was starting to feel like I was losing a little bit of myself," says Walker, 31. "I couldn't figure out how to cope with losing my vision as quickly as it was happening."
One day about two years ago, as Walker and his wife, Kacey, were talking about their future and the adjustments they would have to make, she made a suggestion: "Why don't you do a triathlon?"
As a boy, Walker had watched the Ironman World Championship triathlon on TV and had talked about one day doing it. But with his time in the Marines, starting a family, work and his vision problems, the idea was shoved to the bottom of his to-do list.
"We were trying to look at what our life would look like now that his vision started to decrease," says Kacey. "We're very goal-oriented people, so we always like to have a purpose in front of us.
"'You spoke about this being an interest. Why don't you try it and let's see if it's something you like and want to pursue?'" she recalls saying. "And he did. He liked it."
In 2013, Walker -- who has lost 95 percent of his vision -- completed three triathlons. On March 29, he will do his fourth and most difficult yet, the Accenture Ironman 70.3 in Oceanside, Calif., a half-Ironman distance that will traverse Camp Pendleton, where Walker first experienced his deteriorating vision. If all goes well, Walker will do his first full Ironman at Cozumel, Mexico, in November.
And there, off in the future, is the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. He's lost his sight, but not his vision of someday doing the iconic race in Kona.
Looking through a straw
"If you were to look through a thick straw, that's kind of what I can see," he says.
But even that can be blurry if conditions aren't right. And he's so light sensitive that he usually wears dark glasses outside. So to do a triathlon -- even to train for one -- Walker needs a guide. That's where Dr. Carl Feld comes in.
Feld, 45, is an experienced triathlete who put his name on a website years ago as a volunteer, indicating he was willing to be a guide -- called a pilot or captain -- to a blind athlete. By the time Walker found him a little more than a year ago, Feld had forgotten he signed up.
Feld lives in Westchester, not far from Walker's home in Redondo Beach, and the two have become training and triathlon partners. Feld will be right with Walker throughout the Oceanside race (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) and November's full triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run) in Cozumel.
They are tethered at the waist in the water and swim side by side. They ride a tandem on the bike portion, with Feld up front. And on the run leg, Feld stays (without a tether) on Walker's right to protect his most-limited side as they run elbow to elbow.
To Walker, Feld has become a good friend and conduit to feeling free again. Feld often picks Walker up and takes him to a nearby pool where they do swim workouts. They also go on long training rides on the tandem bike. It was after their first ride together that Feld knew they would mesh. It was about a 35-miler, and Feld pushed the pace to see how Walker would fare.
"At the end of that ride, he said, 'So the next time we do this bike ride, I want to make sure I do this, that or the other thing better,'" recalls Feld. "And I said, 'We'll never do this ride again. Every ride from now on is just going to get harder.' And he was OK with that. He didn't flinch a bit."
It was on that ride that Feld guided them through a tight, crowded and curvy section of road. He admits they probably got a bit too close to a wall going at a fast clip. Even though Walker couldn't really see what was happening, he could sense it.
"'I could feel that wall it was so close to me; I didn't have to see it. I could feel it with my arm hairs,'" Feld recalls Walker saying. "And he doesn't have that many arm hairs."
A swimmer? Barely
Walker's biggest challenge has been in the water. Though he grew up in Redondo Beach, he wasn't much of a swimmer. He barely survived Marine Corps training in a pool.
"I knew how to not drown," he says, laughing. "I didn't necessarily know how to swim."
So Feld -- a strong swimmer -- had to coach up his new partner, teaching him basic breathing techniques and strokes. It hasn't been smooth. Feld says Walker just isn't comfortable in the ocean.
He's making progress, though. At the sprint-distance Redondo Beach Triathlon last year, it took Walker 45 minutes to complete the half-mile swim. At the Superfrog half-Ironman in Coronado later in 2013, he covered more than twice the distance in the same time. Still, while Walker is strong on the bike and a decent runner, the swim has held him back.
Then, too, at the Superfrog, he had a knee injury that forced him to walk almost as much as he ran. He finished in six hours, 13 minutes, a time he calls "horrendous." At Oceanside, he and Feld are aiming to be under 5:45. And when he gets to Cozumel, he hopes to crack 12 hours.
"Even if I could get in at 11:59, I'd be happy with that," Walker says.
Between Saturday's race and Cozumel in November, Walker and Feld will push their training.
"Just kind of keep chipping away throughout the spring and summer to get ready for November," Walker says.
Going all out
The former Marine isn't going to back off. Though his sight is almost gone -- and will probably be lost completely eventually -- Walker has a full plate and plenty of goals.
Aside from the triathlon, he has discovered he has talent as a cyclist. He is now training in an attempt to make the U.S. Paralympic cycling team for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
He and Kacey -- who met when they were 15 and 14 and married when Steve was 19 -- are raising a daughter, and Walker has gone back to school at Cal State-Dominguez Hills. He should graduate with a degree in psychology in the spring of 2015.
He then hopes to get his master's degree in marriage and family therapy and work with Marines and their families, because military marriages can be subject to enormous stresses. He and Kacey experienced them, and he wants to give back. And, he says, it's a profession where sight isn't essential.
"Let's say my vision goes completely bad," he says. "I could still talk to people."
Plus, he's grateful he lives in a marvelous age when technology is his best friend and the people and organizations around him are willing to help him achieve his goals. He doesn't need to learn Braille, for instance. His iPad and smartphone read his books, emails and other content to him.
Meanwhile, his wife goes on runs with him, former high school and Marine buddy Capt. Joe McLaughlin has trained and completed races with him, Feld has been his pilot, and the Challenged Athletes Foundation has helped in numerous ways. Walker's life is full and fast-paced.
And since becoming an athlete, much more enjoyable.
"I think it's really important for him to always have an outlet to show our daughter that he's really striving for things," says Kacey. "It was really good to see him start doing things like this. He came alive."
Steve feels the same way. When he's swimming, running or biking, he feels free. That's especially true on the bike.
"When we hit 40 and 50 mph going downhill, it does kind of replace the feeling of being able to drive," he says. "It's kind of nice. I was never able to drive a motorcycle, but I kind of get that need met.
"It's really been a big help in making me feel better."
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