Overcoming Can't

As a blind triathlete and engineer, world championship bronze medalist Patricia Walsh discusses how to turn potential energy into kinetic energy at Healthy County Boot Camp

Patricia Walsh knows about adversity. She knows what it’s like to be told she can’t do something, to believe that she can’t do something. For the first half of her life, she was told about all the things she couldn’t do. 
When she was just five years old, in 1986, Walsh developed a severe pediatric brain tumor that resulted in partial blindness. She lost most of the rest of her sight at the age of 14. “I can’t see my hand at the end of my arm,” Walsh writes on her website, blindambitionspeaking.com. “I have a six-degree tunnel of light, dark and motion. If you’re moving around, I’ll probably get you. If you’re standing still, I’ll miss you every time.” 

For years after losing her sight, Walsh suffered from low self-esteem and a poor sense of self-worth. Today, she ranks among the most elite runners and triathletes in the world. She earned the bronze medal in the Short Course World Championship in Beijing, China in 2011 and holds the world record for both male and female blind athletes in the Ironman, an event that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. 

Walsh was the closing keynote speaker at this year’s Healthy County Boot Camp, where she discussed how she went from being a scared child to growing up and becoming a motivational speaker, professional Microsoft engineer and record-setting athlete.

It all comes down to potential energy. 

“Potential energy in the physical world is mass times gravity times height. When you hold an object up, it has potential energy. It’s energy will be released when it falls,” Walsh said. “Potential energy in our self, in a person, is mass times gravity times hardship.”

She recalled what it was like to be five years old and diagnosed with a brain tumor. She spent six months alone in a hospital as her parents fought and eventually divorced. 

“I learned at the age of five that if I was going to make something of myself, I was going to have to do it myself,” she said. “I learned that I was going to have to take that hardship that I experienced, take that adversity that I experienced and turn it into potential energy. Turn it into energy that creates motion.”

It was a lesson that took a long time to learn. Growing up, Walsh said well-meaning friends and family “with the best of intentions” had discouraged her from actively pursuing her dreams and interests, believing that people with disabilities were unable to do many of the things Walsh wanted to do. When Walsh said she wanted to go to college, she was told college wasn’t for her and that she should come up with some other plan for adulthood. When Walsh said she wanted to run a marathon, friends and family told her that she was crazy, that it would be “an exercise in failure.” She needed to find activities and interests suitable for a blind person, they said.

So for a long time, Walsh said she felt powerless to follow her dreams. “My ambitions were stifled,” she said. “My hope for my own future was (bleak). ... Others were making decisions for me without allowing me the opportunity to exercise my own ambitions.”

But eventually, Walsh decided she would rather be the person that tried to do something and failed than be the person that never even tried. She was able to turn herself around one incremental victory at a time. It all started with the first time she ran a mile. 

“I had bruises from head to toe because I ran into everything,” she said. “I fell more times than I could count, but I was so happy.”

She began running farther and farther, entering half marathons. One incremental victory at a time, Walsh was able to turn her self-esteem around, and her goals and dreams started getting bigger and bigger. She stopped listening when others told her she couldn’t do something, and eventually, others stopped telling her she couldn’t do something. She had proven that she could.

All it had taken was that first step, that first victory, that first forward motion that had turned her potential energy into kinetic energy.

“I was so excited about how far my legs could take me,” she said. “Today, I have an army of supporters behind me. I have friends and family that come to my aid whenever I need it.”

Though she credits athletics for getting her started and growing her confidence, Walsh’s victories are not all physical. Many are intellectual. Though friends and family had once told her to forget about college, Walsh went anyway. After struggling for a while to find a field she was interested in, she earned an internship working in technology that opened the whole world up to her, she said.

“Technology, for those of us with disabilities, or maybe for all of us, is a leveler. It evens the playing field. What you can read online, I can also read online,” she said. “The introduction to technology was a major leap forward.” 

Walsh decided she wanted to go into engineering. After graduating, she got a job at Microsoft, becoming one of the company’s first blind engineers, though Walsh says she believes the company didn’t know she was blind until after she had been hired. 

Now, her goals aren’t just about her anymore. Walsh has one over-arching dream, which she calls her “escape velocity”: to be a pioneer for disabled athletes, someone who helps put disabled athletes on the same playing field as the most elite athletes in the world. She wants to help disabled athletes gain sponsorships, training opportunities and more elite competitions.

Walsh began training for ironmans and getting involved in national and international competitions. She was asked to be on the United States Paralympic team and has now competed in Canada, Beijing and New Zealand. “There is no greater honor than to represent your country,” she said.  

In her spare time, Walsh is a motivational speaker and non-profit consultant. Though she speaks on a variety of topics, Walsh said that no matter what audience she’s in front of, whether it’s elementary students or corporate executives, they all want to know one thing: how she keeps her drive. 

“The endeavors I have taken on have been overwhelming at times and its exhausting and I think we all feel that way because we have families and we have bills and we have full time jobs,” Walsh said.

So Walsh created a goal hierarchy to help herself and others connect their over-arching goals — their ‘escape velocities’ — to the every day, routine things that need to get done to achieve those goals.  For Walsh, the hierarchy connects the heart to the mind, the subconscious to the conscious and the day-to-day to the big picture. 

“Your subconscious is your emotional self and that is actually where your power, your inner strength comes from. Your conscious is the decisions we make every single day,” she said, adding that, by thinking of her goals as a hierarchy, “I can see how the day to day things I do add up to something that is meaningful to me.”

She encourages others to think about what it is that inspires them, what it is they want most. Something that is personal, that captures their emotions, that comes from the subconscious.

“That could be getting a promotion and taking your family on a vacation, that could be putting your kids through school. It doesn’t have to be anything that means anything to anyone but yourself, but you should have an emotional connection to it,” she said. 

If the goal hierarchy is a pyramid, the escape velocity is on top. Below that is the “upper trajectory,” the incremental achievements that must be reached on the way to the over-arching goal. These are the milestones that happen once a person gets started with the foundation of the goal hierarchy: the day-to-day task of turning potential energy into kinetic energy. 

“This is the hard step. This is where you start to make the tactical changes,” she said. “The hardest part of being healthy is to start being healthy. The hardest part of doing a workout routine is to start a workout routine. Once you’ve started, it’s pretty smooth sailing.”

The most successful way to achieve health goals, she said, is to enjoy the day-to-day and to not let yourself down or let yourself get down. “Find something that you enjoy doing. If you like to dance, dance,” she said. “Do not be deterred by temporary defeat and remember do not underestimate the impact that all of you have with your own goals and your own ambitions.”