At 25, Abigail Lanier is not going to allow a degenerative eye disease to stop her from living the life she wants.
Having been born with the condition, Abigail’s eyesight is worsening year on year.
“I still have partial sight but not enough to get around without a guide dog,” she says.
Despite this, Abigail has always been active. She regularly practices yoga and Pilates, and also loves to swim.
However, in the last four years, Abigail has taken her sporting activity to a whole new level. It all stems from a chance encounter with a blind woman who was at the time training for a triathlon.
Abigail couldn’t believe it. “I was like, ‘How are you doing that as a blind person? And can I do it, too?’ ”
It was this blind woman who introduced Abigail to Achilles International, a nonprofit that pairs athletes with disabilities with able-bodied volunteers.
Together, they train for triathlons and road races.
Abigail’s first experience with Achilles International was in New York City’s Central Park, where she joined a four-mile run.
“I remember feeling like I had been missing out on something up until then,” says Lanier, who hasn’t looked back since.
“Sometimes I think our society has low expectations for people with disabilities, and that can prevent people from reaching their full potential.”
Since that four-mile Central Park appetizer, Lanier has taken part in over a dozen races. These include the Boston Marathon and no less than six triathlons.
One of Abigail’s training and racing partners is the 36-year-old director of the New York City Achilles chapter, Kathleen Bateman.
The pair train together three times a week, regularly running and cycling in Central Park, and swimming in an Upper West Side community pool.
“We try not to ever, ever cancel,” says Bateman. “Our athletes really count on us showing up.”
“It’s a mutual relationship of trust, and I see that translating into the outside world,” she adds.
Bateman’s interest in sports rehabilitation programs comes from her college days when she studied kinesiology and exercise physiology.
This experience helps her appreciate how training with Achilles International leads to less obvious physical breakthroughs for those athletes with disabilities, such as improved coordination.
Lanier and Bateman run tethered together by a rope, with Bateman technically the guide. However, Lanier is able to use her other senses to navigate as the road opens up ahead of them.
As she recalls the thrill of crossing the finish line in her first half marathon she explains, “running helps me see the world through a different lens than those who are fully sighted. By the time we got to mile three, I sensed that the sun was rising and the birds were waking up.”
On race days, Bateman’s main concern is Lanier’s experience. This means acting like a personal coach as the miles are eaten up, but there is a deeper relationship that has developed too.
The two women have become genuine friends.
As Bateman explains, “it’s a really special community where we train together and build our lives together and overcome challenges side by side.”
“It’s about supporting your athlete, but the magic of it is that she is equally supporting you.”
Achilles International was created by Dick Traum, the first amputee to run a marathon, in 1983. It now operates in 65 cities around the world.