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Visually impaired veteran: My guides are my heroes

Shelly  Gigante

Posted on October 25, 2018

Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Man in Achilles Team shirt and bandana preparing for road race

As an Army veteran who served during the Gulf War, Rob Sanchas already had the mental skill set needed to train for a marathon. It was placing his trust in a stranger, to serve as his eyes, that proved to be the bigger test.

“I give praise to my military training for teaching me how to set goals and accomplish them in the safest way possible and to not overdue it,” said the part-time special education teacher in Rhode Island and father of two. “It’s the same with running. I have to figure out how I’m going to run it, what I need to do to train, and who is going to be my eyes.”

And his story is an example of how acts of mutuality, where people are helping people, ends up being rewarding and beneficial for everyone.

After losing his vision in 2008 following a military training accident, Sanchas, 50, said he avoided exercising for nearly a decade because he did not like asking for help. But by 2017, at the behest of his doctor, he knew it was time to get back into shape. That’s when he connected with Achilles International , a nonprofit group that pairs athletes with disabilities with guides who do not have disabilities. (Related: Special needs strategies)

“I was at a chapter meeting for the National Federation of the Blind and a woman from the Achilles International was there,” he recalls. “She came up to me and put a shoelace in my hand and told me that I could use it like a tether and run with a guide. I still have it.”

Sanchas admits that the prospect of running again felt daunting. Even before he lost his sight, he had never been a distance runner. But he agreed to start small, walking at first with a guide, then running intermittently as he grew to trust her verbal cues.

“For the first month, I only walked with my guide until we built up a rapport,” he said. “We started doing a bit of jogging and she would tell me if there was a curb or a low branch coming up. You have to trust that they are not going to run you into a tree. I am basically putting my life in their hands.”

After building up to a 5k, Sanchas said he challenged himself to run a 10k. Then, in the spring of 2017, his mentor and first guide, Alice, announced she was moving on Memorial Day to finish her master’s degree. “I told her that before she left I was going to do a half marathon,” he said. “She said, ‘OK, you have five weeks to train.”

It went well and, after pairing up with his new guide, Erin Williams, he set his sights on his first marathon that fall in New York. Since then, Sanchas has joined the Freedom Team running group as a veteran and started traveling for full- and half-marathons in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. ““When I first started running, I said I could never do a marathon, but now I’m addicted,” joked the former smoker. “I traded one addiction for another.”

Williams, who moved to Rhode Island 13 years ago, said she enjoys hearing stories about Rob’s childhood as they train on the bike path near his hometown.

“During the many training miles, I’ve gotten to know a bit about Rob’s goals, his challenges, and his motivations,” she said in an email interview. “They are a mix of things that would remind you of any athlete out there putting in the effort and more unique things that most of us would never need to consider. Getting to know, manage, and celebrate these things is what makes our guide/athlete pairing successful!”

On race days, Rob said he loves to hear the crowds cheer him on as he hits mile markers on the marathon route, but he says it’s his guides who deserve the praise.

“Not all heroes wear capes,” he said. “My guides prevent me from making mistakes and can tell just from the way I talk when I’m getting overtired. A runner who is not visually impaired can just pick their way through the crowd, but a guide has to think for themselves and talk me through any obstacles to navigate. They spend hundreds of hours volunteering and they do all this hard extra work for nothing more than a thank you, just because they love to run. They are my heroes.”

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