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Cyclist sees beyond blindness with ride across Arizona
When Mike Armstrong completely lost his eyesight to non-diabetic retinopathy at the age of 27, it didn't seem life could get much worse.
He could no longer work in the career he had chosen, and his fiancee left him because she didn't “want to take care of a blind guy.”
“It was very depressing. I lost my fiancee, my job, my life as I knew it. I had a good career … and that went away because I was no longer able to do that job.”
Armstrong, a longtime drummer, said it was his bandmates who cheered him up with music.
“They just really choked me up” when they performed “Let It Be” by the Beatles and “Changes” by Ozzy Osbourne at his home studio, he said.
“I just started crying, and I made up my mind right there I was not going to let this destroy me, and I didn't. I immediately went out and got help.”
He contacted the Foundation for Blind Children (FBC), an Arizona-based nonprofit organization that creates opportunities for visually impaired individuals of all ages.
“When I lost my eyesight, the Foundation for Blind Children was one of the organizations that really made a difference in my adapting to blindness.
“Within three weeks of being blind, I was enrolled in a program, and within another two months I was actually living on site. I went through their entire program. Everything from mobility training to how to do basic household (tasks) — cleaning, cooking.”
He also learned how to operate a computer using the Braille system.
Sixteen years later, Armstrong has accomplished more than many who still have the luxury of eyesight. On Friday he finished a four-day, 376-mile tandem bicycle ride across Arizona. The journey began at the New Mexico border and ended at the California border just across the Colorado River from Yuma on Interstate 8.
He had previously hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim, set a world record for reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa with seven other blind hikers and become the first blind man to hike the 807-mile Arizona Trail, which spans the state north from the border with Mexico to the Utah state line.
He is also the owner and operator of the Blind Tiger Martial Arts Academy, located in the Phoenix area, and holds several black belts in various forms of martial arts.
And Armstrong never gave up on his passion for music. His band is currently in talks with a record label about getting signed.
Grateful to FBC for giving him the skills he needed to live a fruitful and fulfilling life, Armstrong wanted to give back.
That is what inspired the 42-year-old to make the bicycle trek across Arizona that became known as the Blind Ride. His intentions are to increase awareness about FBC and to raise $25,000 for the organization.
“The foundation does amazing works all throughout Arizona. Our big goal with this particular ride was to raise money for their Braille program.”
He began planning the Blind Ride about one year ago when he finished hiking the Arizona Trail.
“I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, and I really just always loved biking,” Armstrong said, adding he had previously “had a chance to ride a few tandem bikes. It was something I really wanted to get more involved in, so I planned this adventure and started training for it.”
Armstrong enlisted the help of three men to make the journey. The captain of the tandem bike providing the eyes for Armstrong was Scott “Scoob” Schmidt. They were accompanied by avid bicyclist Gene Longwell, who rode his bicycle alongside Armstrong and Schmidt.
“Really, it is just a privilege to ride with these guys,” Longwell said.
The fourth member of the group was Ben Cane, the logistics engineer who drove a van with food, water and gear behind the three bicyclists all throughout Arizona. Cane, a student of Armstrong's at his martial arts school, had accompanied him to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
While all the men were thrilled to have completed the Blind Ride on Friday, Schmidt had even more of a reason to celebrate. During the ride on the final day, he received a phone call informing him his daughter was going into labor with his first grandchild.
“I am going to be a grandpa,” he said joyfully. “It is kind of fitting that I just rode across Arizona and I am going to have a baby born all on one day.”
Armstrong was grateful to his teammates.
“I want to give a serious thank you to my team. These guys were awesome. Their positive and comical approach to life made the ride a blast. Also a special thank you to the Foundation for Blind Children for changing my perspective on blindness and enriching the lives of so many visually impaired and blind in Arizona.”
For more information about FBC, visit www.seeitourway.org. To follow Armstrong during his future adventures or to help him meet his goal of raising $25,000 for the FBC, visit http://blindmotivation.com.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.