Sponsored by Foundation Fighting Blindness
My mom thinks a “normal person” should always compete alongside Olympic athletes, just to put their amazing skills into perspective. And it’s not a bad idea. Even a last place Olympian could take out an average Joe with their eyes closed, right?
Tucker is a three-time Paralympic swimming medalist who holds 43 American Record times and two World Record times. In contrast, I quit summer swim lessons at age 11 because I refused to put my face in the water and am first place only in binge-watching “Gilmore Girls.” You could say there’s a bit of a skill gap. But what I lack in aquatic prowess I make up for with a long history of being a (somewhat annoyingly) competitive person. So it was ON.
A true believer of the ‘fake it till you make it’ way of life, I spent the days before the competition prepping my outfit. I suited up in all the stars and stripes I could find, shoved my swim goggles into my USA fanny pack and hit the pool.
The competition happened in three rounds:
- Swimming laps
- Holding breath underwater
- Doing pull ups
Tucker helped me put on my swim cap (those things are really hot) and I jumped (read: flopped) into the pool.
I’m a generally athletic person. I go to the gym at least 4 days a week, I play on a beach volleyball team and I always take the stairs. All that said, swimming takes some next-level athleticism. It’s a full-body workout with fancy flip turns and precise timing, all with the added risk of drowning.
Needless to say, Tucker almost fell asleep waiting for me to finish my one lap to his three. I spluttered my way back, swallowed a good amount of chlorine and stubbed my toe trying to flip turn at the other end. I was so embarrassingly out of breath, I couldn’t even come up with a witty excuse as to why I was so slow. In retrospect, ‘I’m not a world champion swimmer’ would have worked just fine.
Tucker was game to start the breath-holding competition about 2.8 seconds after I struggled my way to the pool wall in competition one, so I expertly stalled by asking him about his impressive Paralympic story.
When Tucker was 17, he woke up one day and couldn’t see out of his left eye. He was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy and quickly lost 80 percent of his central vision in both eyes. Yes, his limited vision is in color and yes, he still uses his iPhone like any other savvy millennial. He instructed me to ball up my fists and hold them about an inch from my face. “That’s about all I see,” he said.
In the pool, Tucker counts his strokes and uses his peripheral vision to watch the lane lines change color as he nears the wall. With less than two years of training after his initial diagnosis, he competed in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games and again in the 2012 London games and took home three medals. Now in Rio for what he says will be his last Paralympic tour, he’s got one last shot to take home the Olympic Gold.
I still had a million more questions, but my stalling was getting too obvious. It was onto the next challenge: holding our breath underwater.
I had a better chance at taking the win this time. After all, I did play the flute in middle school and that takes A LOT of wind power.
But alas, about 15 seconds in, I caved and came up from the water like a drowning basset hound. I cheated with a second breath of air and still came in last. Tucker burst triumphantly out of the water after 51 seconds, but was quick to note his own personal record was closer to a minute and a half.
When we got up to the roof for our final face off, I pretty much knew I had no chance. First of all, I have the arm strength of your average wet noodle and I mean, you’ve seen Tucker’s arms plenty at this point.
I completed exactly zero pull-ups until the savior of my pride, my Managing Editor Dee, jumped in to help a girl out. And even then as she pushed my legs up, together we tired before Tucker.
SURPRISE SURPRISE, the decorated Paralympic athlete crushed me, your average Chicagoan with a gym membership, at every event. But something strange happened at the end of the competition, something that’s never happened to me in the history of tough losses—I didn’t throw a sore sport tantrum or immediately challenge him to a (fruitless) rematch.
Instead, I was left (literally) breathless and incredibly surprised at just how many times that day I forgot Tucker was blind. (I avoided writing ‘inspired’ just now because I know he’d groan at this fluff term.) With unparalleled mental and physical strength, he’s one of the best athletes in the world. He’s also a down-to-earth goofball who enjoys American flag fanny packs and queso dip just as much as the next guy. And—sorry Tucker—that is inspirational.
When Paralympians don’t let their physical limitations stop them, they remind the rest of us not to let personally imposed limitations (like looking like a weakling next to a hunky swimmer) matter.
I now have Tucker’s motto taped on my computer screen: “Live your life with limitless vision.” It motivates me every single day. Sure, that means motivating me to work toward my actual life dreams of owning a Bernese Mountain Dog and having a ‘Beauty and the Beast’-style ladder in my future home library, but it also means that as soon as you’re back from Rio, your training buddy is ready, Tucker. 2020 here we come.
For a full and hilarious breakdown (that I’ll definitely be sending in as my audition tape for “American Gladiator”) check out this video: