Is It Still Paradise If You Can’t See It?
Getting Outside in Santa Barbara with Blind Fitness
If you’ve ever staggered out of tree pose after following a yoga instructor’s cue to attempt it with your eyes closed, you may have concluded it’s impossible for visually impaired people to pursue sports. Brianna Pettit wants to set you straight.
Pettit founded Blind Fitness in 2021 to provide a holistic, mind-body approach to fitness for people with impaired vision. “Vision loss can be very isolating,” said Pettit, who has a master’s in special education and provides orientation and mobility training to people with vision impairment. Noting that spending time outside got her through the monotony of the pandemic, Pettit said the goal of her nonprofit organization is to find ways for people with vision loss to enjoy the outdoors and the healing power of nature. To make it happen, they need volunteers.
I arrived at the Cabrillo Pavilion on a sunny but cool Saturday morning for the Blind Fitness monthly beach walk/run. Pettit led a brief training for new volunteers on how to serve as a guide for a blind athlete: We learned to always ask if the athlete would like help, find out which side they like to be guided on, and to offer our arm rather than a hand. Then we learned what it’s like to be guided. Pettit handed me a cane and a black mask to strap over my eyes, and then paired me with Brian Walters, an Antonio Banderas lookalike and veteran of the London Marathon. He tolerated my cold hand on his arm and patiently instructed me in how to use my cane (sweep, don’t tap) and walk down stairs using the cane to gauge the depth of the step. Then it was my turn to try my guiding skills with Brian: We practiced passing through narrow spaces single file and transitioning from one walking surface to another, such as from pavement to sand.
By the time the training was over, a sizable group of athletes and volunteers had gathered, along with some guide dogs, including Marvel the golden retriever. Pettit asked us all to form a circle and introduce ourselves, and then she paired athletes with guides based on preference for walking or running. Walters, who’s been guiding runners since 2015, got paired with an athlete who wanted to run. Fortunately for me, Joseph Colunga wanted to walk, and upon meeting me, he immediately asked if I would be his guide, without waiting for Pettit to pair us.
Blind Fitness board member Tania Isaac led us in pairs warmup stretches, which were a great icebreaker as athletes and guides laughingly figured out how to stretch together and keep our balance. Then Colunga and I set off along Cabrillo Boulevard toward Stearns Wharf. As Colunga told me about the dizzying array of activities he is involved in — singing, gaming, art, volunteering at the Braille Institute — I navigated us around slower walkers and described what I was seeing: people working out on the fitness equipment at the edges of Cabrillo Ball Park, Army Corps of Engineers equipment busily scooping up sand. Colunga, who has been blind since birth, didn’t mind my mentioning colors when I described our surroundings. Did it bother me, he asked, to know he is on the autism spectrum? No.
When I informed Colunga that we were coming up to a large group from World Dance for Humanity dancing in the grassy median to our left, he excitedly told me that he had danced with them before. Next thing I knew, a woman named Sheila approached, greeted Colunga by name, and pulled us in to do a “soul train” to Michael Jackson’s “Shake Your Body.”
Although our dancing detour took us off the pace a bit, Colunga and I powered through to the wharf, taking a brief break at the dolphin fountain before heading back to the starting point, where Pettit had set out water and snacks. I peeled us some tangerines and got to meet Colunga’s mom, Teresa. When I asked for feedback, Colunga graciously said I had done well as a guide.
Two weeks later, I arrived at the corner of Mason Street and Helena Avenue on a tourist-filled afternoon to participate in a new Blind Fitness activity: the surrey ride. Colunga and I were happy to see each other again (yes, people with vision loss use that expression) and got assigned to a surrey along with Travis Spier and his fiancée, Jamie McDuffie.
On the outbound leg, McDuffie and I, the two “sightlings” (her word), sat in front; I steered and controlled the brake. Spier and Colunga pedaled furiously as McDuffie and I set a torrid pace, trying to keep up with vehicle traffic and ascend some slight inclines as we made our way from the surrey rental shop to the waterfront bike path, where we eased up a bit. McDuffie joked that we had been going at a Tour de France pace while others were out for a leisurely ride.
McDuffie and I described the sailboats on the water and the giraffes in their enclosure at the zoo but did less well warning Spier and Colunga when we were slowing down or coming to a stop. They forgave us for our shortcomings, and we all sang (“Grooving on a Sunday Afternoon,” “Wheels on the Bus”), with Colunga doing a solo in his clear baritone of a spiritual he learned at the Santa Barbara Ringshout Project.
McDuffie told us about her former career as a teacher and how she and Spier met (“a blind blind date”), and Spier joked about his career being in the garbage (he manages the County’s Resource Recovery Division, which used to be known unglamorously as Solid Waste). Spier and Colunga traded phone tips and talked about the games they like to play.
The whole group took a snack and rest break at the Bird Refuge, then Pettit and a volunteer (Colunga’s uncle, Brendan Dix) got the surreys turned around for the return trip. McDuffie took over steering duties and Spier called shotgun, so I pedaled in back with Colunga.
At the beach walk/run, Walters had told me that guiding was about giving the athlete confidence. I don’t know if I accomplished that in my outings with Blind Fitness. But I got out of the fluorescent lighting of the gym, learned some new skills, shared the enjoyment of our beautiful waterfront, and was embraced by a welcoming community.
411: Blind Fitness (blindfitness.org) sponsors a monthly beach walk/run and occasional surrey rides, and is putting on an adaptive surf clinic on June 22 at Santa Claus Lane. Other activities include surfing, triathlons, cycling, hiking, running, outrigger canoeing, kayaking, yoga, stand-up paddle boarding, swimming, rollerblading/skating, and rock climbing, and they encourage people to “inquire if there is something you would like to do that is not listed here.” Athletes, volunteers, and donations are welcome.
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