Over the past four years, ASU alumnus Tanner Robinson hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro and the Grand Canyon, and on Sept. 29, he swam in the 1.5-mile Alcatraz Invitational. Robinson is also blind.
Robinson, who graduated from ASU with a sociology degree in December 2012, is involved with the Foundation for Blind Children, a Phoenix-based nonprofit organization that aims to help improve the lives of blind people.
“Adversity is a really powerful force, and I think it’s a great character building force for sure,” he said.
Marc Ashton, FBC’s CEO, said in an email that the purpose of these challenges is to prove that vision loss is a diagnosis, not a disability.
“These extreme adventures prove to any and everyone that you (can) do anything when you put your mind to it,” Ashton said. “These challenges help create opportunity.”
Ashton said the organization, which started in 1952, has a purpose of helping children and families of any age to succeed.
“We want anyone with a visual impairment to not be defined by their disability, not be confined to a certain set of standards,” he said.
In 2009, a group of 25 people, including Robinson and seven other people with visual impairments, set out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
Together, the team raised $200,000 for FBC programs. It took the group six days to climb up and two days to come down, but every single member completed the hike, Robinson said.
“That’s where everything changed for me,” he said.
The next feat for Robinson came in 2010, when the FBC coordinated a Grand Canyon hiking trip. Robinson said his group took 16 or 17 hours to complete the 24-mile hike.
That trip was much harder than hiking Kilimanjaro, because the hike from start to finish was crammed into a single day, Robinson said.
Robinson said he started exchanging emails with others at FBC about swimming Alcatraz in March of 2013. That’s when they found the Alcatraz Invitational and decided to take the plunge.
“I was fully committed about halfway through my training,” he said. “At that point, I started sending out fundraising letters and trying to get people to contribute actual money and support to our individual team.”
Robinson said he raised $2,000, and the entire team raised about $32,000.
“That’s all going toward a program FBC’s trying to put together, or consolidate from other programs, called Blind Teens to Work,” he said.
The new program, he said, will help teens prepare for college, learn to live independently and find out what a work situation is like in order for them to live successfully.
Two other swimmers with visual impairments raced with him, flanked by guides.
The other swimmers were 19-year-old Katie Cuppy and 17-year-old Max Ashton. They were the first blind participants in the Invitational’s history, Robinson said.
“When you’re out there, you just keep pushing and pushing,” he said. “The nice thing about being blind, though, is that you don’t know where the finish line is.”
Robinson completed the race in one hour and seven minutes.
He said he was both excited and nervous leading up to the event.
“If you’re not a little afraid or nervous, you’re not taking it seriously, I don’t think,” he said.
Over the past three or four months, Robinson said he worked with three coaches, all of them volunteering their time to teach him.
“They made a special effort to come down towards my side of town,” he said.
John Elvis Taska, the ASU Triathlon Club co-head coach, helped Robinson develop his swimming skills. Taska also swam the “Escape from Alcatraz” earlier this year.
“After my first session with Tanner, I knew he was going to make it,” he said. “He didn’t have the best form or fitness, but he had the most ironclad will I had ever seen in a growing swimmer.”
Taska said he worked with Robinson almost every evening for three weeks until he had to leave for a triathlon in Oregon.
“Tanner is such an incredible individual (and) his attitude is always realistic yet positive,” he said. “The way that he can overcome obstacles in his life is inspirational. I see Tanner continuing to accomplish remarkable feats throughout his future and continuing to be a role model.”
Communications junior Kayra Zsiga, who’s on ASU’s swim team, took over coaching Robinson in early September. She said they practiced every night Monday through Friday.
“My goal was to get him in the shape that he wanted to be and get him ready to swim a mile and a half,” she said.
Taska and Zsiga said teaching form and technique was sometimes difficult, but Robinson’s persistence and will to succeed kept him improving.
“He was so willing to learn, and he really put the effort into making his stroke right,” Zsiga said.
Along with weekday practices at LA Fitness, Robinson trained in Lake Pleasant one or two weekends out of the month to accustom himself with open water and currents.
After training, he was able to swim a mile in an hour and half, longer than the time it took him to complete the 1.5-mile invitational.
Robinson was born prematurely, and because of an excess of oxygen given to him in his early months, developed retinopathy of prematurity.
Before he turned 21, he could see colors and even facial features, but after a series of surgeries, he can now only see contrast, such as shadows and light.
“I feel lucky to have what I have and try to work with it the best that I can,” he said.
Robinson works in the Secretary of State’s office, dealing with elections. He started as an intern there in January 2013 and was hired in June.
Future challenges Robinson is thinking about may include tandem biking from Mexico to Canada, he said.
“It’s just an idea, but it’s always good to start talking like something like that early,” he said.
Robinson said the challenges have changed him and given him confidence.
“It certainly empowers me to try and be and do things that are better than I already was and participate in something greater than myself,” he said. “These challenges always remind me of the powerful role we can have in the community if we want to.”
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