Aaron Scheidies registered for his first triathlon as a high school student in Detroit a few years ago and neglected to mention his limited sight. He was legally blind, but he could see a little.
“It wasn’t safe to do it alone, but I did it anyway,” he said Thursday as he prepared for his first Ironman competition. “In the swim I could see splashes I would follow.”
Before the race, his parents drove him over the bike and run routes, pointing out potholes and hazards,
“I’ve been blessed with an unbelievable memory. I can still remember where those potholes are,” Scheidies said. “I’ve never gotten in a crash in a race.”
That first triathlon hooked Scheidies. He’s 23 now and has finished more than 60 races of varying distances. He competes with a guide, but Scheidies, a model of youth and fitness, is so talented at the sport that he requires a professional triathlete for a guide.
Scheidies is one of five blind athletes a documentary crew will follow in Sunday’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene. The five – Scheidies, Dave Bigoney, Heidi Musser, Lindsey Jessup and Charles Plaskon – will join 2,000 other athletes as they swim 2.4 miles in Lake Coeur d’Alene, bike 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles. Guides will race with the blind athletes, sometimes holding hands with them or connected by flexible tethers, from start to finish.The documentary is a project of C Different, a nonprofit organization that promotes the participation of blind and visually impaired athletes in competitive sports. The group aims to show people that blindness isn’t a restricting disability but a different approach to life. Hence, the documentary.
“My goal as a human being isn’t to work with 100 blind athletes but to teach 10 able-bodied people to do what we do, and then they teach 10 more and repeat the process,” said Matt Miller, C Different founder and a guide for a die-hard blind triathlete. “The more programs the better.”
Miller, 29, is a former Hollywood model who overdosed on the public’s obsession with his good looks a few years ago.
“I felt like I had more to offer, but I couldn’t figure out how to overcome where I was,” he said.
An answer came to Miller six years ago on a photo shoot. As he tells the story, people who didn’t know him were fawning over him because he was a model when a blind man walked past paying no attention to Miller.
“You can’t hide behind makeup with that guy,” Miller said. “I wanted to work with someone who could tell I was a good solid person.”
Part of Miller’s model physique was the result of a swimming career that had carried him through college. After college, he discovered a swimmer’s advantage at triathlons. He fell in love with the sport. The day he saw the blind man at the photo shoot, Miller said he began wondering if a blind person could do a triathlon with his help. He called the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego, Calif. They connected him with Musser, a completely blind 35-year-old woman in Chicago.
Musser is a tough, tiny woman who had competed in runs, swims and even stair-climbing competitions. Triathlons interested her, so she and Miller choreographed a smooth athletic partnership. They swam together, though not tethered, and Miller occasionally barked directions. They rode a tandem bike with Miller in front. They held hands while they ran.
Musser’s first triathlon was a sprint event in Malibu, Calif.
“All you’re about is eyes,” Miller said. “It was so exhilarating to get her across the finish line.”
The blind community noticed Musser’s experience. Miller’s phone rang steadily with calls from parents with blind children or spouses of blind people who wanted to compete in sports. Miller convinced athletic friends to serve as guides. He used his professional contacts to help athletes with equipment.
Two years ago, Miller, Musser, Scheidies, Bigoney, Jessup, Plaskon and several guides were competing in so many events that they decided they were a club. They called themselves C Different. The C stood for compete, challenge and conquer. The athletes began talking about doing an Ironman Triathlon.
Donnie Eichar, another model, was captivated with Miller’s new direction. If C Different did an Ironman, the feat belonged in a documentary, Eichar suggested. Miller immediately saw the educational potential in a documentary.
For two years, Miller scrambled for camera equipment, a crew and a race that would allow his project. While he waited for all the pieces to fall into place, Miller produced an emotional movie trailer with Eichar. The trailer focused on Musser’s exceptionally productive life as an athlete and musician and on Bigoney’s rise in the athletic world after a paralyzing childhood tragedy.
The trailer was good as gold. Ironman organizers watched it and allowed Scheidies, Musser, Plaskon, Jessup and Bigoney in the Ironman event in Coeur d’Alene.
“They’ve all done triathlons in the past. We were more than happy and willing to work with them,” said Josh Hernandez, Ironman North America public relations coordinator. “The athletes are smart. They wouldn’t try this if they weren’t sure they could accomplish it.”
Sponsors watched the trailer and offered whatever C Different needed. Panavision loaned the project three high-definition cameras to record the race. Northwest Airlines donated 15 flights. Movie industry professionals volunteered their services.
“It’s incredible,” Eichar said. “These are the same cameras that shot ‘Star Wars.’ ” One guy on our crew won an Oscar. Some of these people charge $10,000 a day for their work, but every person on our crew is working for free.”
The crew will wire each athlete and guide with microphones. One camera will shoot among the spectators and two will follow the competitors, Miller said. With luck, the documentary, called “Victory Over Darkness,” will hit film festivals next year, then move onto a public education path, he said.
The documentary on top of a first Ironman experience is stressful, Scheidies said. Bulging disks in his back are painful, and he’s not certain he will perform as well as he has in the past. He wants the camera to capture him at his best.
“I never set out to inspire others, but I do,” he said. “The documentary is an added burden. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
Plaskon, 62, traveled from Naples, Fla., for the race. Crossing the finish line will be a victory over age more than blindness, he said.
“I’m concerned I could be the parent of all four of the other competitors and the grandfather of two,” he said chuckling. “I’m putting my faith in my guide.”
Miller will guide Musser as he always does, and the message the cameras will capture is priceless – he’s a pretty face and she’s blind, but together they’re made of iron.