Kyle Coon lost his sight at the age of six after a hard-fought battle with Bilateral Sporadic Retinoblastoma. While this would be enough to make some people give up, it propelled him forward. Since then, he has turned adversity into his vision, becoming an inspirational speaker, impressive athlete with passions that involve college wrestling, spin instruction and his most avid achievement, climbing and hiking. Below he reflects on an important 20 year anniversary for him.
Dates are curious things. We attach various meanings to them: birth dates, marriage, momentous shifts in life. We also attach importance to years passing by: 16th, 18th, 21st, 25th, 30th etc birthdays; 10, 20, 25 30, 50 year wedding anniversary. Sometimes I wonder why we put such an emphasis on dates and years past. Maybe hundreds of years ago it was to mark being thankful for surviving another year of hardship. I know we put emphasis on certain birthdays because of some “right of passage.” (16, able to drive, 18 legal adult, 21 able to purchase alcohol, 25 car insurance payments hopefully go down, 30 because “Oh my God I’m 30 and getting old!” Or something to that effect.)
Sometimes for me looking at the years passing makes me think I’m getting old. Sometimes I marvel at where I was and how far I’ve come. Sometimes I think I haven’t come far enough.
On the morning of October 9, 1998 mom and dad drove me to the hospital just like they’d done hundreds of times before. But something was different. Mom had gotten up extra early and instead of her usual sweat pants and ponytail, she’d dressed nicely, done her hair and put on makeup. Dad was extra quiet and the early morning before sunrise appeared extra dark outside the car window. Walking into the hospital everything seemed extra dark as well.
I knew why we were here. I knew our last option to beat the cancer I had was to remove my right eye. After all, Dr. Hered had removed my left eye just the year before.
I was tired. Tired of waking up early to go to the hospital. I was tired of needles being driven into my chest to put me to sleep so the doctors could do whatever they did to my eyes. I was tired of being sick from chemotherapy, having to swallow all different kinds of pills, having radioactive material sown onto my eyeball. I was tired of the smell and sound of the hospital. I was also tired of straining my one eye to see the chalkboard in my first grade teacher’s classroom. I was tired of the lights either being too bright or too dim. I was tired of feeling strange for having to walk around with this long white cane practicing for when I couldn’t see. I was just ready to be done with it all.
Normally only one of my parents was allowed to walk back with me as I was wheeled into the operating room. Today though both mom and dad accompanied me, one on either side with their hands on my arm or shoulder. I’d already been stuck with the needle and the anesthesia was working it’s way through my system. Mom touched my face and asked me to look at her. I did and that was the most beautiful I’d ever seen her. As I closed my eyes and the crushing crackling haze of the sleep drugs closed in around my mind I do remember saying “It’s going to be ok mommy.”
The next thing I remember was drowsily coming awake in my hospital bed, hooked up to an IV with a massive wad of bandages covering my right eye. There was nothing in front of me, or around me. But there were the familiar sounds of my parents voices, the ding of the hospital intercom calling for this doctor or that nurse. The hospital bed felt like hundreds of other hospital beds I’d woken up in after some procedure or another. The smells were all the same too and I was sure the hospital food would be as plain and tasteless as it always was. And could I please get a bigger helping this time? Or better yet, could you just bring me a pizza? Do you have any idea how hungry surgery makes me? The only thing that was different was that I couldn’t see what was around me.
And what would happen to me as a totally blind kid, teenager, adult? The answer to that question was as absent as my light perception. I had know idea, my family had no idea. All I knew was that I wanted to somehow still play with my friends, play basketball, and ride my bike. I wanted to watch Disney movies, Star Wars and football games. I wasn’t really sure how I was going to do all of those, but I must’ve known that I could somehow, otherwise I wouldn’t have said “It’s going to be ok mommy.”
It was just a short couple of months later that I met Erik Weihenmayer. Erik was a world-class blind athlete. He was a rock climber, sky diver, downhill skier, and did all kinds of stuff I’d never ever heard of or thought was possible for anyone to do let alone a blind guy.
Erik’s dad, Ed, lived in Amelia Island, less than an hour drive from our house in Jacksonville. A family friend had heard Ed speak and got a hold of his contact information and passed it along to my dad. Ed and dad had both served in the Marine Corps so they instantly hit it off. Ed told dad that Erik was coming to Jacksonville for a series of speaking engagements and he arranged some time for Erik to sit down and talk with me.
I had no idea what to expect. Mom and dad told me about this erik Weihenmayer guy, how he was blind and did all kinds of crazy cool things, but come on, who did that stuff. Climb walls? Jump out of airplanes? I imagined this guy to be some kind of super human.
When I met Erik he shook my hand and asked our dads to just step away and go to another table so the two of us could talk. Erik introduced me to his guide dog, he asked me questions about myself. What I liked to do, my favorite subjects in school. We talked about Braille, computers and eventually he got around to telling me about rock climbing and everything else he did. I was fascinated. The only experience I’d had with other blind people were the handful of blind/visually impaired kids at my elementary school. But I’d never really interacted with any adult blind people. Erik wasn’t treating me like a normal adult would either. He was talking to me like I was an equal, like he knew the struggles I was having adapting to a world that was now dark.
When we parted ways that day Erik told me to not be afraid to live and be a kid. He told me to give rock climbing a try and that he’d always be there if I needed a friend.
Less than two years later, my sisters and I were top ranked competitive rock climbers. My family was taking long camping and rock climbing trips up into the Appalachian and Smokey Mountains. We then started taking ski trips as a family. My dad bought a tandem bike and we began riding a lot.
In 2003, I appeared as a surprise guest to Erik on the Oprah Winfrey Show after he’d successfully climbed the seven summits—tallest peak on each continent. In 2006, I accompanied Erik and a team comprised of visually impaired and sighted students from across the US to hike the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, I joined up again with many of those same visually impaired and sighted students to climb and summit Mt Kilimanjaro—tallest mountain in Africa. I climbed some more mountains, became a high school and college wrestler. I graduated from one of the top high schools in the country having been mainstreamed since elementary school. I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a B.A in Communication after just three years of study. And then I took on life as an adult blind guy.
Post college I fell into the millennial mindset of “I’m going to apply for every job that’s listed as CEO and above.” I quickly abandoned that approach after a couple of months of it not working. Then I began applying for any and every job I could. At every turn it seemed I wasn’t getting a fair shake or chance. One of the low points was not getting a job as a bag boy at a local grocery store. I was spiraling down fast after having been so positive and optimistic for nearly 15 years of being blind.
I eventually found my way to running in order to distract myself. That led to meeting my good friend Mike Melton who steered me in the direction of triathlon and who taught me almost everything I know about the sport. Then began the roller coaster of emotional ups and downs. I began working for a nonprofit who’s mission I cared deeply about. I then developed a cancerous bump on my upper right eyelid which thankfully was able to be quickly dealt with with surgery. I was finding success in a sport that I was quickly growing to love. The falling apart of my engagement to a girl I’d been dating for four years. Suddenly no longer being in that relationship and needing a place to live. Struggling with thinking I was in a dead end job going nowhere. Then getting a massive pay raise and moving jobs. Blowing all of my money on pizza and craft beer. Losing my faithful guide dog of seven years to a sudden heart attack. Then completing my first Ironman and deciding that I wasn’t truly happy with my life. Picking up, quitting my steady well-paying job and moving to Colorado because I didn’t know what else to do.
That was just a scant two years ago now and since then I’ve been working at finding myself. I continued my swim, bike and run training. I qualified for and ran the Boston Marathon twice. I self coached my way to becoming only the ninth person who is blind or visually impaired to complete an Ironman in under 12 hours. And somehow I moved from the realm of struggling unemployed college graduate screw up to semi-professional triathlete representing such great companies like Bubba Burger, Base Performance, Independence Run and Hike, The United States Association of Blind athletes and several others. I began being coached by a multi-time world champion triathlete, Lesley Paterson, who took me to an entire new level. I was asked to partake in the Race Across America as a member of the first all blind stoker team of tandems. We completed that epic feat which included me riding halfway across the country with a fractured radial head in my right arm after a crash in Kansas. I then went on to set another personal record at the half Ironman distance with a good friend guiding me. And that brings us to today.
October 9, 2018. It’s been 20 years to the day since my right eye was removed leaving me totally blind. Looking back over the last 20 years I can’t help but have a crazy range of emotions. I marvel at the things I’ve been privileged enough to get to do. I cringe at the stupid decisions and mistakes I’ve made. I laugh at the occasional (ok maybe more than occasional) fool I’ve been in situations. But more than anything I wonder how I can take these past 20 years and make the next 20 years even better and more epic. I know there are going to be some hard times. There are going to be more emotional roller coasters. I’m going to make money and lose money. I’m going to win races and lose races. But at the end of the day I guess what I said to my mom as I was being wheeled back into the operating room is going to hold true. “It’s going to be ok.”