The sightless carrier of the flame

Jun 24, 2012, 09:02 IST | Nimish Dubey

He cannot see. And yet his unconquerable spirit, aided by technology, has led him to being chosen as the carrier of the Olympic torch on its route to the London Olympic Games. We meet Simon Wheatcroft, runner extraordinaire

The Olympic torch has a special place in the history of the games. The flame represents the theft of fire from the Greek God, Zeus by Prometheus. These days, it is lit by the rays of the sun in the ancient Greek city of Olympia, the venue of the original games. It is then carried across countries and continents for weeks. Bearing the torch on its journey are a number of athletes, celebrities and distinguished personalities — names that would do any event proud.

Later this month, the torch will be carried by Simon Wheatcroft. Not many know of him, but he is perhaps one of the most exceptional people to have ever carried the Olympic torch. The 30 year-old cannot see and has not been able to do so for more than a dozen years now.

Running blind
For most people, the age of seventeen marks the beginning of the period of transition from childhood to adulthood. For Wheatcroft, it marked the age when he lost his vision to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. It has however, not deterred the thirty year old from becoming an ultramarathon runner. Ultramarathons are run over distances that exceed those of the traditional marathon (26.2 miles). He has clocked up hundreds of miles and remarkably, does most of his training alone.

“If you had asked me three years ago if training alone was possible while being blind, I would have said ‘no,’” he says. “Now that I do it and spent a lot of time learning to do it, I realise that a lot of things we think are impossible are not. It just takes one person to try it out.” But how does he know he will not crash into something with his next step? “I tackle it by telling myself I will always land that footfall correctly. The great thing is 99 per cent of the time I am right,” he says. “The rest? Well, it’s such a low failure rate that I don’t even think about it anymore.” It is this self-belief that has helped him through a number of races and made him an inspiration to society, ultimately leading him to become one of the torch bearers for the London Olympics.

Tech, the enabler
Helping Wheatcroft during his running are a number of gadgets. One of the most important of these is the iPhone. “I realised just how powerful this device could be for the blind. Not only did it help me with my running but also my daily life. For example I had VoiceOver, read out this very email to me,” he says.
But why the iPhone in particular? “What makes the iPhone stand out is its consistency. As a blind person I strive for consistency for across the board similarities. Apple is amazing at that — the accessibility features on the iPhone are present on the iPad, iMac, Macbook and even AppleTV,” explains Wheatcroft.

When it comes to running, a NordicTrack treadmill allows Wheatcroft to map a route through Google Maps and then have the incline automatically changed to match that route. “This basically allows me to train on routes from all over the world in the safety of my own home,” he explains. “As great as running outside is, it doesn’t offer the complete experience I require for training.”

When he is running outside, Simon turns to two apps on his iPhone — RunKeeper and Siri. “RunKeeper helps me on a run through its audio feedback. Just like a running GPS watch, it tracks time, distance, pace and a whole host of other data. What separates it, however, is that it reads aloud all this information at user-definable increments,” he explains.

This allows Simon to mark out places that are important for him on the route — turnings, bumps, uneven ground, and so on — and get advance notifications about them while running, so he knows exactly what is ahead. And it usually works. “There were a few accidents along the way, including running into posts that RunKeeper just couldn’t help me with,” he concedes. Over time, he built up his route in this way and learnt a 6-mile route.

Siri, the virtual assistant on the iPhone that responds to one’s voice commands, is Wheatcroft’s safety and convenience valve. “When I quickly need to ring my wife, I can just activate Siri and say ‘call my wife.’ This is much quicker than playing around with the interface,” he says. “The other way is to get Siri to read my messages while I’m out on a run. That comes in very handy and allows me to multi-task while running.”

He is also addicted to Twitter (although he has yet to find the perfect Twitter client), listens to music from radio station apps, plays games (that focus on audio) and listens to books on his iPhone and iPad. And he yearns for “a TV guide that will read aloud what is on any station and with the press of a button change TV channels for me too. I don’t want to mess with a remote control, I want full control of the television through the app.”

The Olympics and after
On June 26, Wheatcroft will run with the Olympic torch. If his past record is any indication, his run will be steady, and he will cover the distance allotted to him with minimum fuss and at a decent clip. His name will appear on the no winners’ list. Still, he will have achieved as much as any athlete in Olympic history.

Once he hands over the torch to the next runner, he will get back to running competitively. He is planning on entering the Centurion Grand Slam, a series of four hundred mile races, and intends to be not just the first blind person to complete them, but among the first people to do so too. That done, it will be time to “find something longer, something harder and most importantly something that will redefine my limitations.”

Limitations. It is just a word for Wheatcroft, whose definition he keeps changing with sheer will power, and the odd app. As he says, “Belief in yourself gets you a long way. Don’t achieve what someone believes you are capable of, achieve what you believe you are capable of.” On June 26, a blind man will carry the Olympic torch. And on Mount Olympus, the Gods will rise and applaud the man who will be carrying the flame Prometheus stole from them. A flame he cannot see, but which burns all the brighter because it is ennobled by his spirit.  

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