Aaron Scheidies thinks attitude is everything.
"If you think you can, you can," said the 27-year-old visually impaired triathlete who will compete in Saturday's Ironman World Championship 70.3 on Clearwater Beach. "You have to learn how to smile through the pain."
Scheidies, a physical therapist from Seattle and four-time world champion, began to lose his eyesight in middle school.
"I went through some really hard times," said Scheidies, who now has just 10 percent of the vision of a fully sighted person. "I battled depression. … I wanted to be normal like everyone else."
Scheidies suffers from a hereditary eye disease called macular degeneration. His condition worsened in high school, but instead of giving up sports, the avid runner and swimmer focused on what he did best.
"When I first started running triathlons, I still had enough of my vision left that I could do them on my own," he said. "The bicycle part was a little dangerous. Eventually it got too difficult, and I had to start racing with a partner."
Triathlons helped Scheidies in other areas of his life.
The self-confidence that the training and racing gave Scheidies helped him achieve a 4.0 grade point average and earn a bachelor of science degree from Michigan State University. In July 2008, he completed a doctorate in physical therapy from the University of Washington.
"Still, when I race, there is an asterisk by my name," he said. "I always wonder that if I could see better, could I be more aggressive on the bike, could I swim straighter, could I focus more of my energy on the race than where I want to go."
But in the end, Scheidies is proud of his accomplishments. He has competed in more than 100 triathlons, including the Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) as well as several Ironman 70.3 events, so named because they are exactly half the distance of the famous Hawaiian race.
"I am still pretty fast," said Scheidies, who hopes to complete the Clearwater course in 4 hours, 20 minutes. "But I wonder if I could be faster."
The buddy system
Scheidies won't be the only visually impaired athlete at Saturday's event.
Ryan Van Praet, a 29-year-old from Chatham, Ontario, will compete. Like Scheidies, Van Praet suffers from a hereditary disease, retinitis pigmentosa.
"It is all I have ever known," Van Praet said. "I used to play hockey, but as my vision steadily deteriorated, I had to do something else to stay active.''
Van Praet did his first triathlon at age 19. He completed his first 70.3 race in 2003 and his first Ironman the following year.
"I learned a lot from Aaron," Van Praet said. "The major thing is that there are a lot of genuinely nice people out there, willing to help a total stranger."
Scheidies and Van Praet will each have a guide tethered to them on the swim and run then share a tandem bike on the cycling portion.
"It took some getting used to at first," Scheidies said. "But now it is kind of fun. It makes a triathlon, a solo sport, sort of a team sport because you do everything together."
Van Praet's eyesight has deteriorated enough that he has to use a white cane.
"It is funny, but some people think because (Aaron and I) race with a guide, we are somehow cheating," he said. "But I can tell you there is no advantage not being able to see."
Scheidies said he has had a few laughs over the years. "I heard one person say, 'Look at those two convicts. … They are tied together,' " he recalled.
But both men said they don't swim, bike and run to prove a point.
"This is what I love to do," Van Praet said. "I am not a big fan of excuses. You adapt, you change, you figure out a way to move ahead, then you do it."
Scheidies, who crashed recently on his bike during a triathlon in Jamaica, will compete despite an injured hip.
"I didn't get into the sport to be an inspiration," he said. "I'm just living my life. But a leader is somebody who leads by example. I think if you have a good attitude, others will be drawn to you and follow your lead."
Terry Tomalin can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8808.