Sight Set on Triathlon
Wildflower Blog

Sight Set on Triathlon

A Blind Athlete’s Journey to Wildflower Triathlon

By Megan Jaffe

Every athlete toeing the starting line at Wildflower has a story. In some of those stories we see ourselves, while others serve to inspire. Eva Hangartner, a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford University, is one of those athletes that both inspires and makes you fall deeper in love with the sport. Having taken up triathlon last fall, Wildflower 2018 was Eva’s first non-collegiate sprint triathlon and her fourth triathlon ever. Like many who attended the race festival weekend, she came with a large group of friends and athletes and took advantage of the chance to camp at Lake San Antonio. Like many, she set up her bike in transition, laid out her running shoes and gear, donned her wetsuit and headed to the swim start. Unlike many, she did all of this without the benefit of sight.

At about the age of four, Eva was diagnosed with cone dystrophy; a general term for a group of rare degenerative eye disorders that affect the cone cells of the retina. Cone cells allow a person to see color and fine detail, and they work best in bright light. When cone dystrophy sets in it can cause a variety of symptoms such as decreased central visual clarity, a reduced ability to see colors, and an increased sensitivity to light. Specifically, the condition causes Eva to see a black dot in the center of her vision.  While she does retain some vision (with a prescription of 20/200), she also has extreme sensitivity to light and difficulty with depth perception and movement. However, looking at Eva and watching her move throughout her world, you’d never know she was managing a such an impairment, instead you are struck equally by her buoyancy as her intelligence.

Eva was born and raised in Manhattan, New York. She attended the prestigious and selective Bronx High School of Science, an elite and specialized public high school located in New York City. While there, Eva participated in track and swim and eventually became captain for both teams during her senior year.  Also while a senior, Eva was nominated by her coaches and teachers as an NY1 Scholar Athlete of the Week. She is fluent in three languages and her goal is to add many more to that list.  Academic pursuits are just as important as her athletic aspirations — all of which she intends to pursue during her time at Stanford University.

Upon arriving at Stanford, Eva immediately joined the marching band, taking up the trombone and winging it until she got the hang of it. This spirit of adventure also sparked her to join the triathlon team having had no prior experience in the sport. “I showed up to the first practice with an old ladies’ bike, no helmet, and flat pedals,” she laughed. “The coach sent me home and told me to come back the next day with a helmet.”

Undeterred, she figured out a way to procure a proper bike and returned a few months later to join in on the team trainer workouts. Because she wasn’t training on the road, Eva had reservations about disclosing to her coach and teammates the limits of her vision. She didn’t want pity but soon realized that the security provided by the smooth surface of a track, the stationary safety of a trainer, or the black lines on the bottom of the pool were gone when it came to racing triathlon. This sport was going to pose some new challenges that would require Eva to petition the help of others. “I have never been defined by my condition,” insisted Eva. “I have a disability but I am not disabled.” With typical conviction, she set out to learn what accommodations were necessary for accessing this sport.

Her first collegiate race was the Davis Triathlon, which she raced on a rented a bike and without a wetsuit. “It was fun, but I didn’t know what I was doing or what I needed — when I got out of the swim and into the transition area I realized there was no way I was going to find my bike.” Once she did find her bike and took off on the course, she discovered that her limited vision made it impossible to see important signage and so she missed the turn-around markers causing her to crash. Fortunately, she was not badly injured but her soul took a slight hit.

Photo Credit: FinisherPix

The Davis Triathlon highlighted some of the other challenges outside of the bike that she was going to face in the sport: sighting the buoy on the swim, reading her watch to check her run pace, and seeing the finish line, to name a few.  “It was really hard and kind of depressing,” she admits. “I realized I needed a guide and I felt overwhelmed. I had never before thought about my eyesight as something that would hinder me.” For an independent girl from NYC, Eva wasn’t entirely comfortable asking for help. Luckily, she didn’t need to look beyond her own team.  Fellow Stanford teammate, Eric Wilburn, was more than willing to be her guide for the upcoming Wildflower race.

The event would mark a few firsts for both of them; Eric as a first-time guide for Eva, and Eva’s first time racing a triathlon open to the public with a large field of participants. While Eva secured an avenue to compete with the safety of a guide, her journey out there on the course would reveal the story about a girl who is so much more than her disability.  Perhaps Eric says it best in his meaningful reflection upon Eva and their day racing together:

Photo Credit: FinisherPix

This was the first time I’ve guided and I could not imagine a more thoughtful and patient person to have guided for than Eva! She has an incredible way of asking me to do different things in a kind and compassionate way (like when she told me I didn’t have to talk ALL the time), helping me remember that part of the enjoyment of the race is the solitude of racing, even among so many people. Which upon reflecting more is truly the amazing thing about Eva and her racing. So much of my race is about myself and my going into a world where more or less I am the only occupant. But Eva is so much more conscious of the world and people around her when she is racing and so much more rational in her actions and risk-taking during the race than I have ever been. In such an individual and competitive sport, she has an incredible capacity to have empathy and compassion for other people on the course while still competing at her max.

The duo complemented each other beautifully on the course, taking in all the excitement and challenges an event like Wildflower has to offer. Eva finished the race in 1:38:31. She had hoped for a faster time but hadn’t calculated in the sadistic number of hills on the course. However, for the first time in one of her races she knew exactly where to find the finish line.  Eric alerted her of their final distance and Eva took off for a strong finish. “My favorite memory was Eva kicking down the finishing chute,” said Eric. “Her mile pace dropped by 2 min/mile when she entered that chute. It was so awesome to get her into the chute and then watch her take off and dig deep, going to the well through the finish line.”

It is stories like Eva’s and Eric’s that remind us why we lace up our shoes for early morning runs and why at times we have to look to each other during those moments when we just don’t think there is enough gas in the tank to keep going. We all have a story to tell but most importantly, we have to have someone with whom to share it.  We look forward to reading Eva and Eric’s next chapter at Wildflower 2019.

Eva Hangartner crosses the iconic Wildflower finish line as guide, Eric Wilburn cheers her on — Photo Credit: FinisherPix

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