At USABA, we encourage athletes to pursue their dreams, to set lofty goals and achieve them but some athletes do not need the external motivation. Steve Walker’s internal drive got him into Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), through boot camp, and employed as a corporal with the U.S. Marine Corps. But, when a diagnosis from the eye doctor meant Walker would be non-deployable, it was his family and the community around him that helped him realize his childhood dream and cross the finish line at the 2015 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on October 10.
As a young athlete, Walker aspired to compete in the Ironman Kona. Joining the Marines and starting a family took priority, but the dream of competing in this iconic race never faded.
“I’ve been watching [the races] on T.V. since I was 11 or 12,” Walker recounts. “The images of Queen K Highway and Kailua Bay are ingrained in my mind.”
Walker’s internal drive persevered even as he was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa in 2001, just one year after joining the Marines. Retinitis Pigmentosa is an incurable eye disease that suffocates the cells in the retina. The rate of progression varies from person to person though doctors told Walker he would most likely be totally blind by the time he is 40 or 50.
Walker trained with the ROTC from the eighth grade, made it through boot camp and had just started his career as a corporal only to be deemed non-deployable. As he dealt with the news and began to make adjustments, it was his wife, Kacey, who initially reignited his internal drive to compete in triathlons.
Walker began training, and attended a USABA Cycling Development Camp in May 2014. Attending the camp expanded his network with athletes, specifically tandem pilots and stokers, across the U.S. who have helped him become a more skilled road racer. Fellow USABA members Richard Hunter and Aaron Scheidies, an elite triathlete training to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, were and continue to be huge supporters throughout Walker’s athletic endeavors.
“Aaron is a beast. He’s amazing. Physically, I want to be Aaron. We’re the same age so we’re going to grow old together,” Walker jokes.
“Richard picks up stragglers like me. He helped me so much when I first got started.”
“And he gives back so much to the community. Richard is always working with youth who are blind, and he organizes the group of blind runners for the USABA National Marathon Championships each year.”
Walker competed in his first sprint triathlon in June 2013. He has since run 10 triathlons, Kona being his tenth. Though you may think by his tenth triathlon Walker has overcome all possible obstacles, there is one major obstacle he must overcome every race – his fear of open water.
“My first triathlon, a lifeguard swam next to me. I panicked half-way through [the swim]. We had to wait until I calmed down to continue.”
Since that first swim, Walker has developed techniques that aid him during open water swim including counting arm strokes and finding a rhythm in his breathing.
“The chaos of the other swimmers actually has the opposite effect on me. I know that there are people everywhere and I feel more at ease. Now, I count 25 arm strokes at a time. I find my rhythm and breathing pattern and I’m okay,” he says.
Though the panic has happened in every race with the exception of one open water swim in Malibu, he continues to face his fear for the feeling of accomplishment when his feet touch land again.
“It’s a huge victory and small celebration every time.”
Kona was no different. Though Walker has access to training equipment in all three disciplines in his backyard, Walker and his guide, Chris Foster, trained in Long Beach Bay for the swim. He still had to face his fear in Kailua Bay.
Film crews were following him throughout the race to document and share his experience with the world.
“I kept picturing the crew having to say ‘He didn’t make it past the swim’. I couldn’t let that happen.”
Days after crossing the finish line with Foster, Walker agrees that the Ironman World Championships is a race he will remember for the rest of his life.
“[Kona] turned out better than I could have imagined. Every detail lived up to what I thought it would be like.”
He immediately attributes success to his guide. “Chris was flawless on the course. I was tested pretty hard on this one.”
Walker will compete in the USABA National Marathon Championships December 6 in Sacramento with the goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. In April, Walker will compete in the Ironman 70.3 California Oceanside.
“It’s a special one because this will be my third time racing Oceanside and the course passes through Camp Pendleton, where I was stationed. So, the area is heavy with Marine Corps and Navy.”
Meanwhile, he continues to work on getting his speed up for the USA Paracycling Road National Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C. next year.
At every opportunity, Walker encourages other blinded military veterans to get involved in sports.
“Actually, it’s overwhelming how much [information] there is. There is so much opportunity out there. It sounds cliché, but Google whatever you’re looking for and you’ll probably find it.”
Shortly after getting involved in triathlons, Walker found a circuit of military vets participating in triathlons and cycling across the U.S.
“Reach out and we’ll be more than happy to answer questions and give you information to get you going. My advice is find a veteran who is doing what you want to be doing and reach out!”
Walker’s Kona experience, as documented by Ironman PR and NBC, will air on November 14, 2015 from 1:30 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern on NBC. You can follow him on Instagram @stevewalkerracing or read about the Kona experience from his perspective on his blog.