July 2017 - ATHLETE PROFILE
No Is Not an Option
Family: Mother, two sisters, three nephews and a niece
Occupation: FedEx Package Handler
Primary Sports: Bicycling and CrossFit
Secondary Sports: Running
By Christine Bishop
TJ Sherwin has run numerous races from 5Ks to Tough Mudders, and recently completed a 100-mile bike ride at the Saratoga Tour de Cure, but these accomplishments are not what set him apart from other athletes. TJ is a talented athlete who is also deaf and legally blind. However, he does not let these disabilities get in his way or color his attitude. Most of his friends view him as the embodiment of the American Ninja Warrior up to any challenge while radiating infectious enthusiasm.
When he was two years old, TJ’s hearing and vision deteriorated for unknown reasons. Many conditions and syndromes can cause this combined loss, but none were assessed as being causative at the time. TJ learned to live with these and became quite independent. When he went to school, physical education was the only area where he was segregated. He either was with a few kids or by himself with a coach. Although he found this discouraging, it did not diminish his love of athleticism. He took up gymnastics and later boxing. For years, he went to a local gym to work out but ultimately found it not sufficiently challenging. Then he found CrossFit.
CrossFit is a discipline made up of high intensity workouts that are constantly varied. It combines many aspects of fitness that are designed to prepare people for occupations that demand physical prowess such as the military or police. TJ loved it. The challenges were thrilling as was the interaction with other people unlike in school where he was isolated. On the Albany CrossFit website it states, “TJ hits every workout like it’s his last, and he has turned into quite the fire-breather. His gymnastic movements are through the roof, and his power to weight ratio is one of the best in the gym.” If you go to YouTube and do the following search, “TJ Crushes the WOD,” you will be in absolute awe of his skills and understand why he’s so sculpted.
TJ is very independent. He is a homeowner who takes care of himself. To get to work at FedEx, he takes Star, a special program run by the CDTA for people with disabilities. For everything else, he rides his bike going from four to 20 miles a day, whether it’s 90 degrees outside or minus one. The travel can be difficult since he can’t clearly see crosswalks or intersections until he is close to them, and he cannot hear oncoming traffic. About riding by himself on the road he’s said, “It’s also really tricky when I am in busy roads with no shoulder. I don’t like to ride too close to the edge. I feel like I might lose my balance and fall off the road. So I usually ride on the white line or in the road a bit.”
You would never know to look at him that he has any trouble riding his bike on the road, just as you would not know that is legally blind when you see him coolly navigate the gym, and goes running outside with others. His daily training has helped him to reach the next stage of his life: the conquest of cycling.
TJ recently became a member of the Kivort Steel Cycling Team, having been recruited by John and Kathy Casey of Watervliet. John had this to say about TJ, “Nothing holds him back. He’s a real go-getter. You throw something at him, he says, ‘Sure, why not?’ – and his power to weight ratio is out of this world so he’s a great hill climber.”
When John enlisted TJ, the team was preparing for the annual American Diabetes Association’s Tour de Cure held June 4 in Saratoga Springs. The ride is a prominent part of the war on diabetes raising thousands of dollars. In 2005, Robert Kivort, owner of Kivort Steel, biked the ride for the pure joy of cycling, but later realized that since his brother had Type 1 diabetes, he could help him and countless others by forming a team to raise funds, with team co-captain, Howard Katz of Clifton Park. This year the Kivort Steel team was so successful that they were again the number one fundraising team in New York, and fourth in the United States, raising $125,000! Since the team’s inception nine years ago they have raised over $900,000 and are closing in on the million-dollar mark!
To begin preparations for the ride, TJ was advised by Kim Seevers, a close friend from the Albany CrossFit gym, who is program development and grants director at the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Windham. She contacted her coworker, Chris Brower, the building and equipment supervisor, to ask if he would be a guide for TJ. For years, Kim has acted as a mentor and guide for visually impaired skiers who want to participate in the Paralympics, so she knows the ins and outs well. Her last protégé competed in the Paralympic skiing events at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Kim realized that Chris was an ideal fit for TJ, since he’s an avid cyclist with years of experience, and former teacher familiar with all types of settings and students. Chris welcomed the challenge of working with TJ to prepare him for the Tour de Cure and looks forward to helping him to realize his dream of competing in the Paralympics in 2020.
For the ride, Chris and TJ had to work around TJ’s strengths and limitations. TJ can see colors and a small field in front of him if the light is strong enough. He can read if a font is magnified. He can hear slight sound, but not enough to help in a bike ride, or in daily activities. The usual way to talk to TJ is through email or texting but this cannot be done while biking. TJ knows how to read lips and can use sign language, which most people do not know.
So Chris and TJ devised a communication system using a bike handlebar bell. When Chris gives a signal, TJ gives an acknowledging ring. If TJ rings the bell a lot, it’s trouble time. The bike speed has to be kept at no higher than 15 miles an hour to keep TJ safe. That means that the speed riders gain on the downhill, or momentum approaching a hills is lost, making the 100 miles a longer, more challenging ride. TJ thought it best that they start last in the group ride, this way he could “see” Chris, and not confuse him with other cyclists. Chris wore an orange bib saying “Guide” and TJ an orange bib saying, “Deaf, Blind Rider.”
Despite the challenges, they made it anyway, much to the joy of the members of the Kivort team, who were cheering triumphantly when they crossed the finish line – nine hours later! Everyone had tears of joy for the wondrous accomplishment followed by the reflex, “Where’s the food?”
TJ’s goal is to take part in the 2020 US Paralympics Summer cycling competition in Tokyo. To do so he must attend a qualifying meet in Colorado Springs this October, where emerging talent is identified. If TJ is chosen, he – and Chris, as his guide – will receive the much needed funding to train and compete.
The world of these events for people with disabilities is not understood by the general population who conflate Special Olympics with all such contests. For clarification, Special Olympics are only for people with cognitive disabilities; the Deaflympics for hearing impaired; and the Paralympics for impaired people in ten categories. There is no Paralympic category for both blind and deaf persons, so TJ would compete with the vision impaired. The Paralympic games take place immediately after the Olympics and are held in the same venue. Like the Olympics, medals are given to the top three competitors in each competition.
Kim thinks that TJ and Chris have a good shot to be selected at the Olympic Talent Identification Camp in Colorado Springs. TJ has the strength, agility, mental focus and definitely the attitude to successfully compete. “He is an amazing athlete.” She says that Chris has the coaching skills and love of the sport to make this happen. To do so, TJ and Chris must learn to ride together on a specially designed tandem bike. The team borrowed a tandem bike for TJ and Chris to practice on, but the size turned out to be too small. This did not dampen TJ’s enthusiasm, who mentioned that the 50-mile ride was exhilarating, even though a mite uncomfortable. Both could see they were a step closer to achieving their goal. A tandem bike is costly, so members of the Kivort team have set up a GoFundMe.com website, where contributions can turn their dream into a reality. All donations are appreciated.
The journey to the Paralympics has been a thrilling one for TJ. He loves the interactions with other members of “Team Kivort” and being part of a team. He modestly says that his deeds are “not that great,” but his ability to motivate others is undeniable.
The Kivort team’s motto sums up TJ’s outlook on life and what he has done for others. “Success isn’t just about what you accomplish in your life, it’s about what you inspire others to do.” The adventure for him has been awesome – keep on cycling, TJ!
Christine Bishop (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Schenectady is a retired media specialist who loves running, photography and bird watching.