FREEDOM TO RIDE: Some athletes are facing more challenges than just the heat on the 500-mile RAGBRAI ride

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When you grow up like Mike Boone, riding hundreds of miles on a bike doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

"I grew up in a household with a blind father,” Mike explains, "I saw on a daily basis how he interacted with his job and his life, and the barriers he had to face. I looked up to him because he was my dad and he did the best he could with the circumstances."

If Mike's dad could see him now - he'd be proud of what his son’s created. "This is the first ever adaptive RAGBRAI team. We have people riding. We have ten hand cyclists, a visually impaired rider..."  Mike gets excited talking about it and he isn't just helping these people ride for a week. He's launched an entire organization dedicated to creating sports and recreation opportunities for the physically disabled. You could say Mike's job - is to help people play.

Tai Blas was born prematurely. Her retinas were underdeveloped and that’s what caused her blindness. For her, doing RAGBRAI is new, but not extraordinary. "It's not amazing that I'm doing it as a blind person - but just that I'm living and appreciative of that ability."

Tai grew up with teachers who asked why she was even in school. Others questioned her ability to participate in sports. Tai viewed every encounter as a chance to prove them wrong. "I'm a strong believer that a disability is purely a characteristic and it shouldn't be what defines you as a person," she says. "I enjoy all sorts of activities... anything that anybody else would be doing. I love rock climbing, downhill skiing, anything that gets me outside."

Eric Kinman is one of Tai's partners on the ride. "I was scared to death! I mean, I didn't want someone who'd overcome so many obstacles in life to get on a bike and find that I'm the obstacle!"

These two met through Adaptive Sports Iowa as runners. For Eric, it was eye-opening. He was floored to find out how someone who lives in total darkness views the world. "I learned that Tai has an affinity for pink. She has strong opinions about color. It took me awhile to realize that that was not 'normal' in my mind as I processed things," Eric explains. "She reads in her own way, sees movies in her own way, she actually experiences things similar to what I experience and I can see how she's found ways to enjoy things that I enjoy every day - in her own way."

Eric says he learned a lot about Tai and a lot about himself. "It's somewhat challenging because it shifts the way athletes typically think. When you're involved in adaptive sports it's no longer about you, it's about the people that you're with. I think that's probably just healthier way of living in many respects."

Vern Willey has always been an avid cyclist. He broke his back fourteen years ago on a bike ride. His life changed when he crashed, but he didn't let the crash change him. "I guess my attitude was, hurry up! Get me outta here so I can get back to work and do what I need to do and go from there." Vern got out of the hospital and bought a hand cycle. He and his wife have done long distance rides all over the country.  "This, compared to what I did before, I'd say I do 150 percent more exertion than when I used my legs."

Becoming disabled and staying active is why Vern is a supporter of what Mike’s doing with Adaptive Sports Iowa. "I think it’s a great thing. They have this in a lot of other states. I go to Colorado and ski through an adaptive sports association. It's kind of a support group because even after getting out of the hospital, it's how do you do the sports and do something other than just sit in a wheelchair?"

Mike Boone is helping people do that “something other” – because his dad showed him that a physical disability doesn't define a person, that the body doesn't have to be a prison, and that obstacles can always be overcome. "Right above my desk I have a picture of my dad and me and that's a little motivation to me every day, that's the reason I go to work."


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