Blind, visually impaired team overcomes odds at Trans Tahoe Relay | SierraSun.com

Blind, visually impaired team overcomes odds at Trans Tahoe Relay

Laney Griffo
Special to the Sierra Sun

It was a calm day on Lake Tahoe while 234 boats gathered at Sand Harbor waited for swimmers on the beach to reach them for the 43rd annual Trans Tahoe Relay.

One of those boats, waiting for their swimmer, held USABA Dancing in the Ark team, the first team made up of entirely blind, visually impaired and deaf-blind swimmers to compete in the Trans Tahoe Relay.

“I thought, ‘You know what would be cool is to do a team of just blind and visually impaired swimmers,” said Corvin Bazgan, team captain who had tried to put together this group in 2017, when he first competed in this race. He was only able to put together a partial team of blind and visually impaired swimmers that year, but didn’t give up on the goal.

This year, Bazgan along with swimmers Drew Hunthausen, Lorie Hirson, Marc Grossman and Gabe Griffith and guides Greg Smeltzer, Ekaterina Hardin, Johan Schimmel and Ron Hirson were able to team up and compete during the July 20 event.

Bazgan, a software developer, has Usher syndrome, an illness that has slowly taken his sight and hearing. Retinitis pigmentosa is the part of the disease that affects vision by deteriorating light-sensing cells. Surgeries have allowed Bazgan to see straight ahead, but he’s completely lost his peripheral vision.

Despite hearing and vision loss, Bazgan has continued living an active life, competing in open-water swim races, marathons and triathlons. With the help of a guide, no race has been out of reach for Bazgan.

“For us, it’s very important to be active,” Bazgan said. “It’s a great way to counter the difficulties of vision loss.”

GUIDING THE WAY TO THE GOAL

For the Trans Tahoe Relay, Hardin helped guide Bazgan. There are several ways guides can help swimmers. Since Bazgan has both vision and hearing loss, he wore a harness attached at the legs and hips which was tethered to Hardin.

If Bazgan veers too far to the left, the tether will tighten and if he veers too far to the right, he can feel Hardin’s stroke in the water. Since the Trans Tahoe Relay is a straight line across the lake, guiding is made easier.

Hardin, who has been a guide for swimmers a little over a year, was once an avid triathlete. She said she became discouraged with the sport when she developed adrenal fatigue and was unable to compete at the same level. Through guiding, she said she’s rediscovered her love for triathlons.

“It brought interest and joy for me again in the sport, since I couldn’t do it for myself anymore at the level that I wanted to,” Hardin said. “I could help somebody else to achieve what they wanted.”

When Bazgan approached the race’s co-director, Paul Carter, about competing with a blind and visually impaired team, Carter said he was more than willing to help the team by making modifications.

“Their desire to compete in our event is extremely exciting for our club and organization,” Carter said. “It also motivates us to find ways to help other individuals and teams that have obstacles, to help devise ways for them to overcome them in order to compete in this type of event.”

CHALLENGE FROM THE START

One of the most challenging parts of the race was the start. Boats lined up at buoys, a half mile from the beach. Swimmers swam from the beach to their boats, then the boat and the swimmer crossed the lake together.

Hunthausen, a swimmer who lost his vision and part of his hearing when he was 11, started the race for the team. Carter allowed him and his guide, Smeltzer, to start farther down the beach so they could be separated from the other swimmers. Smeltzer helped direct Hunthausen to the boat.

Smeltzer and Hunthausen have competed in many races together and said they have formed a bond through racing.

“That element of trust has to be there,” Hunthausen said.

While Bazgan was able to put together the team and guides through his own network, Hardin said people can find their own guides or volunteer on unitedinstride.com.

Both Bazgan and Hunthausen give credit to not only their guides but to Carter for helping the team achieve their goal.

“It was an honor to help, in a small way, bring Corvin’s vision to reality for him,” Carter said. “His enthusiasm and persistence is a great model for all of us.”

The USABA Dancing in the Ark team completed the race in 5:51:09, coming in 12th place in the “Just for Fun” category.

“Once you see a person who does not have vision or cannot hear, it really makes you appreciate what you can do,” Hardin said. “The team is incredible, they are really unstoppable.”

Laney Griffo is a freelance writer who lives in Sparks, Nevada.