A Blind (Transamerica) Odyssey

May 25, 2021

The next time you’re out riding your bike—close your eyes. How long can you continue to pedal before you feel like you might crash? Ten seconds? Twenty? Now imagine riding across the country without the aid of vision. Enter Shawn Cheshire.

Shawn Cheshire is a blind athlete who lost her vision as a result of a traumatic brain injury that she sustained in 2009 while working as a paramedic in upstate New York. Following the accident, the former veteran slipped into depression, as Cheshire says, “my list of things I couldn’t do was much larger than things I could do.” In 2012, she was encouraged to try tandem cycling, riding second to a sighted pilot. The renewed sense of agency she felt along with the exhilaration from the physical movement was a transformative experience and the following year Cheshire became determined to compete in the 2016 Paralympic games in Rio de Janeiro. She was told that her 2016 goal wasn’t feasible—in order to be considered, most athletes are required to have a minimum of five years spent achieving mastery of the sport. But Cheshire’s tenacity and work ethic—two qualities that have continued to serve her well—got her there anyway, and she competed in tandem road and track events along with Mackenzie Woodring for Team USA in 2016.

Following her first Olympic games, when Cheshire learned that the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim record for a blind person was 28 hours, she knew she had to try to beat it. The famed double-crossing is an ultra-distance route—over 40 miles with 11,000’ of vertical gain—that (typically) begins on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, drops down to the Colorado River at the canyon bottom, climbs out the North Rim, returns down to the canyon bottom again, and climbs out the South Rim. The terrain is rugged and at times the footing technical. In 2018, Cheshire bested the previous record with her time of 24hr 15min, setting the new overall record for a blind person.

In addition to the many endurance activities she uses for training—running, nordic skiing, cycling— by taking on these larger challenges Cheshire is hoping to inspire others to change their perception of what it means to be disabled while also finding meaning for herself, “I’ve really been trying to figure out how to live life to minimize feeling hopeless. Why should someone who’s blind live a subpar life?”

Her latest challenge is a Transamerica crossing by bicycle, which she set off for last week. Since her early days of tandem riding, Cheshire has become confident riding a single bike and will be taking on the 3,800-mile route completely under her own power. Her route will loosely follow the Adventure Cycling Association’s TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, with the exception of avoiding the early northern foray into Montana, to avoid extra mountainous terrain. Cheshire will be accompanied by two friends, Jesse Crandall and Steve Martin, who will act as her guides on the road. Martin (also an Army veteran, and a bilateral below knee amputee) and Cheshire have been scheming such a trip since 2014, but with Cheshire’s busy race and training calendar, they never seemed to find the time. After spending last year without any races or objectives to look forward to Cheshire was itching to go for something grand.

Crandall will be leading the group and be riding with a Bluetooth speaker on his seat post, playing music for Cheshire to follow, “Stuff that will make me crazy before the end of the day—like dance, electronic, anything with a beat that’s easy for me to hear through the wind and the traffic noise. I’ll definitely be cherishing the quiet when I’m off the bike.” The team of riders will also be connected via headsets so both Crandall and Martin can give Cheshire cues about the terrain. Along the way, Cheshire and her team will be making stops at schools for the Blind and visiting with first responders, veteran organizations, disability advocates, and cycling communities. Their first stop at Gooding School for the Blind and Deaf comes later this week.

Pink Sirens group ride in Miami

Just before her big send-off, Cheshire had the opportunity to team up with the Pink Sirens, an all-women cycling group, for a fundraising group ride. The Sirens are on a mission to empower women through sport and proudly share that their “Siren’s Song is one of inclusiveness and empowerment to women of all skill sets.” Cheshire is still taking donations to support her ride through her website.

Already one week into the trip, Cheshire still has a long way to go, but she’s taking things one day at a time, “I’m excited every day I complete a day, and I’m hoping that as we get into the groove we make connections with other human beings as an experience, as a part of this ride.”

Stay tuned for a film documenting Shawn Cheshire’s Blind Odyssey, slated to release early next year.

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