BVA Runners Shine at International Marathon

by Tim Hornik


For the first time ever, BVA members, through the Operation Peer Support Committee organized only two years ago, represented BVA at the California International Marathon (CIM) held in Sacramento December 6. CIM brings together hundreds of runners, more than 2,000 volunteers, a two-day exposition center, and qualifying trials for the Boston Marathon. CIM features a visually impaired runners’ category through the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA).

Visually impaired runners from across the country flock to the event to participate with USABA, thanks to the generosity of donors such as the BVA Operation Peer Support Committee. VA adaptive sports grants also encourage participation. In total, 60 sighted guides and 48 marathon runners, 11 of whom were veterans, demonstrated how blindness need not slow down a person with vision impairment.

BVA ran competitors on two teams. The primary BVA team consisted of Richard Hunter; myself, Tim Hornik, guided by Dr. Robert Chen; Danny Wallace, guided by Delta Gamma’s Andrea Witherspoon; and Travis Fugate, guided by Brad Morris. This team finished the relay in three hours and 54 minutes, exceeding the average marathon time of four hours and 21 minutes.

Dale Stamper, guided by Dan Tyree, ran the final leg with another blinded veteran team. We each owe our sighted guides—Rob, Andrea, and Brad—much credit for their willingness to volunteer and lead the way.

Dr. Robert Chen, left, and Tim Hornik appear pleased following their portion of the blinded veteran relay at the California International Marathon.
Dr. Robert Chen, left, and Tim Hornik appear pleased following their portion of the blinded veteran relay at the California International Marathon.

Dr. Chen came to CIM already a hero of sorts to BVA and to the Operation Peer Support initiative, having participated in an Australian Iron Man competition earlier this year and donated the proceeds to the Major Charles Robert Soltes Memorial Golf Tournament, which in turn is Operation Peer Support’s primary source of financial assistance. He and his wife, Bonnie, became friends of Major Soltes and his wife, Dr. Sally Dang, after meeting them in Texas following medical school. Major Soltes was an Army optometrist killed in Iraq and for whom the VA Blind Rehabilitation Center in Long Beach, California, is named. Sally is now a low-vision therapist at the Center.

Andrea Witherspoon is a Delta Gamma Alumni and a Captain in the United States Army. She represented Delta Gamma after winning a national contest to run with a blinded veteran during CIM. Brad Morris is Travis’s friend and esteemed business partner with whom he co-founded their company Graphspan.

We could not have run CIM without the enduring service to us of these excellent volunteers.

The visual impairment portion of CIM would also not have been possible without the efforts of Richard Hunter. Richard is a blinded veteran who served in the military in the 1990s. He lives the BVA motto as he selflessly advocates for and assists his blinded peers in endurance sports. Around 2007, Richard approached CIM’s organizers about including a visually impaired category, similar to what the Boston and New York marathons do. CIM officials immediately concurred with his rationale for making the request and allowed him to aid in the development of this category. What started as two visually impaired runners in 2007 has evolved into the aforementioned 48 runners and 60 sighted guides in 2015.

The BVA Operation Peer Support Committee’s involvement in CIM was more than its mere participation in the event. The Committee acted as a catalyst to promote the Blinded Veterans Association among the visually impaired veteran runners, USABA, and Delta Gamma.

The significance of our connection to USABA is the fact that it is the premier organization for blinded veterans interested in becoming athletes and participating in the World Games or Paralympic Games. Through a VA adaptive sports grant, USABA covered travel and lodging costs for all of the veterans who are USABA members, thus making their attendance and participation possible.

Looking into the future, it is indeed feasible, through a unified BVA and USABA advocacy campaign, that we might succeed in efforts to increase the number of visually impaired adaptive sporting events at VA’s Golden Age Games or at President George W. Bush’s Invictus Games. Currently, blinded veterans are marginalized to just one or two events in these recreational programs for the disabled.

Another beneficial aspect of BVA’s Operation Peer Support participation is the opportunity to network with Delta Gamma, a sorority whose Greek letters represent its motto: “Do Good.” Both the mission of its sisters and its charitable foundation aim to serve individuals with visual impairments. This stems from Delta Gamma’s 1936 national convention when a visually impaired member conveyed the need to support individuals with sight loss. Those with visual impairment benefited from Delta Gamma’s volunteers as the sisters acted as their sighted guides at meals, conducted guided walking tours with them throughout Sacramento, and guided them even during the CIM run.

As part of the Joining Forces, Delta Gamma reconfirmed its commitment to aid those with visual impairments by seeking opportunities to serve visually impaired veterans.

Demonstrating Delta Gamma’s Joining Forces goal, a national contest promised either a Delta Gamma sister or an alumnae the chance to serve as the sighted guide of a blinded veteran. It is most inspiring to reflect on how Delta Gamma has instilled the motivation in its sisters and alumni to serve those with visual impairments. What may have been considered a burdensome task became an honor as the winner of the contest actually coveted the chance to guide a blinded veteran!

Adding up all of our experiences and observations, Dale, Danny, Travis, Richard, and I unanimously agree that returning to CIM next year will benefit BVA. However, running in the relay team will not suffice as each has now set a goal to complete either the half or full marathon as an individual. This first year at CIM allowed us to witness the value of attending such events. We sincerely hope that additional USABA and BVA members participate in the future. For more information about the visually impaired veteran runners at CIM, please visit https://usabanmc2015.wordpress.com. To view pictures of the BVA CIM runners, visit https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B07GY8gBYGDpfmS. To view all of the USABA photos taken at CIM, please visit its Facebook pages.


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