Blindness no obstacle for paralympian set to compete in 2012 London Games
By Brian Miller For Sun-Times Media August 9, 2011 9:12PM
Dr. Stephanie Anne Timmer of Naperville competes at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in Miramar, Fla., in June 2010. | Photo By Errol Anderson.
Updated: November 16, 2011 1:49AM
It’s 3 a.m. and Dr. Stephanie Anne Timmer is running on a treadmill in the workout center of her Las Vegas hotel.
The Naperville resident’s normal workout schedule is thrown off by the two-hour time change so running at that hour only seems natural.
A storm is rolling over the desert to the west. Timmer turns off the lights and watches the flashes of lightning from the large floor-to-ceiling windows in the room. Suddenly, the storm knocks out the power and her treadmill jolts to a stop, flinging the runner unexpectedly into the console in total blackness. She laughs while telling this story.
Timmer, after all, is blind.
Timmer, 44, has been building an impressive athletic resume over the last few years. She competed for the first time in the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in 2010 and took silver in both the 1500 and 400 meter runs.
This year, Timmer has been focusing heavily on field events — a new love — and has been just as dangerous. She again competed at the National Championships June 17-19 in Miramar, Fla., and won the shot put with a throw of 10.32 meters, while winning bronze in both the javelin and discus.
“My javelin says ‘Please make sure throwing area is clear of people before you throw,’” Timmer said. “I can’t even see where it lands.”
Her performance during the meet secured a spot on the 2011 U.S. Parapan American Games track and field team — she will be one of 16 women — which will be competing in Guadalajara, Mexico in November.
“They don’t send you unless you have a chance to win,” said Timmer about achieving team qualifying status. “Now they pay for everything — meals, uniforms, travel. I have access to coaches now. I qualify for training camps. This is awesome.”
Following the events in Miramar, Timmer took off for the 2011 World Masters Athletic Championships in Sacramento July 6-17 and competed with able-bodied athletes from across the world, in part because the USOC wanted her to be exposed to international competition.
While the results of that meet weren’t to her liking, she rebounded at the 2011 USA Masters Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Cleveland a few weeks later. In the 40 and over division, she took gold in the javelin and 10,000 meter run and bronze in shot and discus.
The globe-hopping will continue for the foreseeable future with a trip to the Czech Open in Prague in a few weeks, the PanAm Games later in the year and the big reward — London in 2012 for the Paralympic Games — just around the corner. There’s a remote chance she will qualify for the regular Olympic Games despite her physical handicap.
All in all, she’s ranked in the top 10 in the world in all three of her field events among Paralympic athletes.
“It blew me away to see that,” Timmer said. “The standards are the same as everyone else. The competition is just as heavy. Meters don’t lie — 13 meters is still 13 meters. To pull it up and see my name on all three lists and to be considered for the real Olympics, it doesn’t seem real yet. You work so hard your whole life to get to a place and then you wake up one day and you’re there.”
Timmer is legally blind and incapable of making out the facial features of a person sitting right in front of her.
“What you see at 600 yards is what I see at 20,” Timmer said. “Basically, it’s dangerous to run without a guide. I do it every day, run a 10K every day. But it’s pretty easy because I run in McDowell Woods. It’s pretty wide and well-groomed and quite safe. But I still run into things and step in holes.”
While running road races and marathons, Timmer latches onto a bright-colored runner utilizing a desired pace and follows their every move. If the runner slows, she tries to find a faster but similar visual aid to keep her going.
More than once, she’s run into immovable objects. More than once, she’s gone off course. During her first marathon, she ran an extra three miles before getting back on the proper route.
During her recent 10,000 meter run in Ohio, she ran in lane two because she did not have a guide and the lane color was different, allowing her to know where she was and not get run over by other runners. And yet she ran 25 laps — running on an outer lane could add the equivalent distance of 26 laps — and walked away with her first national championship.
Timmer’s condition is called macular atrophy, a form of blindness resulting from a genetic defect that causes the optic nerve to die. After enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17, Timmer was shortly afterward discharged honorably after failing a color test.
“Both parents have to be carriers,” Timmer said. “It’s a recessive gene. My kids could be carriers, but they won’t get the disease. Myself and my brother have it — I come from a family of seven — but no one else has it.”
It was just one part of a path to self-acceptance and overcoming adversity.
Living and working blind
Taking away sight affects more than just seeing.
“The irony is my son has Asperger’s syndrome and it turns out that (blindness) gave me a better understanding of what it’s like to live when doing things that everyone else does on a regular basis find difficult,” Timmer said. “Living without driving. My son will never drive so I’m able to teach him how to live in Naperville without driving. What you have to do. How you have to plan.”
Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder with one characteristic being a use of verbose language taken more literally with less understanding of figurative illustrations or metaphors.
“One of the greatest things the blindness has done is it’s given me the ability to work with my son to show him how to do things,” Timmer added. “How to navigate, just tips and tricks. For instance, going to the airport is difficult and I fly 100,000 miles every year. Everyone has different ways of marking their luggage. I usually use bright suitcases because they stick out. Finding out where the restrooms are — just follow a mother with children because one of the first things they have to do when they get off the plane is go to the restroom.”
Timmer, who has long been an admitted overachiever, multiple advanced degrees and has written two books, including an honest revealing of her life in “The Great Elephant Ride.”
Adjusting to things like not being able to drive, buying groceries, making your way to work are some of the obstacles that originally were frustrating to someone of her smarts until she took some time to get a routine down. Now, Timmer just walks to and from the grocery store with a wagon, but everything falls on a schedule.
“You have to really plan ahead,” Timmer said. “I can’t just get on an airplane and pick up something to read. I have to plan ahead. I have to put stuff on MP3 so I can listen to it. I have to think of what I’m going to do. I can’t just stop on the way home and pick up a loaf of bread. I have to be well-organized.”
Timmer’s work is as a computer programmer. Her and business partner Ken Grisham own Premier Literacy, which works to build software for people with physical handicaps and increase literacy.
“We create technology that reads aloud to individuals,” Timmer said. “We started 11 years ago and what happened was I was working on my Ph.D. and I was struggling. Being a programmer and out of work at the time, I decided to create something that could help me work. And it turned into a company.”
That word literacy — traditionally defined as the ability to read and write — means something different to Timmer.
“You don’t really know what it is until you lose it,” she said. “Literacy is being able to read what I want to read when I want to read it and getting the information. A lot of people say, ‘Well, if you can’t read, why don’t you watch CNN?’ Well, CNN or Fox — it doesn’t matter — that’s someone else dictating what they think I want to hear when I want to hear it. Literacy is the ability to pick and choose what I want to read when I want to read it and which format I want to read it in and which perspective, whether you’re Democrat or Republican. It’s being able to get information without prejudice.”
At the time of losing her vision, Timmer was an active, competitive cyclist and had a dream of making the Olympics. She lost her driver’s license in 1996 and over the next 10 years gained 100 pounds as a result of an inactive lifestyle.
While in Las Vegas, Timmer watched runners from the Las Vegas Marathon parade by her one day on a bridge and she made the decision then to change her outlook and accomplish the dreams she never thought she’d reach.
“I had said, well if I can’t ride bicycles then screw it, and I got fat,” Timmer said. “So I got in shape and then I started to win. That was impressive. Then the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes contacted me and put me in touch with the U.S. Paralympics.”
Everything seems to now be reaching a crescendo, despite her age and blindness, as she prepares for the biggest stage of her life across the Atlantic Ocean. She has a message for anyone who thinks it’s too late, regardless of whether the dream is in sport or some other aspect of life.
“Don’t give on your dreams. Don’t ever,” Timmer said. “The only person who says you can’t is you. There is a point of no return. If I hadn’t made the team this year, I’m on the downward slope, but fortunately throwing is one of those things you can do a little later in life. You don’t necessarily have to be as young as you would if you were doing the 100 meters. It’s awesome just the fact that you can do it.”
Timmer’s isn’t the only Paralympic success story. The USOC, which has for many years been way behind other countries’ efforts in supporting disabled athletes, has ramped up its work in the area, especially in regard to helping wounded military veterans transition back into society through the help of athletics.
“I’m blind. That’s an inconvenience compared to what some of these people have been through,” Timmer said. “And these are athletes like you wouldn’t believe. These are phenomenal people. To think of what they do to compete, I have much more respect for many of these individuals — most of them have given up their limbs for us — I’m just in awe of them. They work just as hard, maybe harder because they’re trying to prove a point.”
Point taken, Dr. Timmer. Point taken.