- The Enterprise
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So much has been a surprise to Don Balcom of Hollywood during the past 20 years.
He didn’t expect to be diagnosed with a disease that is slowly stealing his eyesight. He didn’t expect to be discharged from the Navy due to medical disability, upending his career plans.
Those were both difficult surprises.
But Balcom also didn’t expect to become enthralled with the sport of running. And when he began running, he didn’t expect to it to take him to international competition. Now Balcom, 39, dreams of participating in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Those were the good surprises.
“It would be a pretty awesome thing for St. Mary’s County,” said Christina Bishop, administrator of Paralympic Sport-Southern Maryland, which assists athletes like Balcom in finding grant funding, transportation, sponsors and coaching. Balcom also sits on the advisory board for Paralympic Sport-Southern Maryland.
Bishop said she believes that Balcom has the ability and drive to make it to Rio. “He’s so fast,” she said.
Sitting in his living room earlier this month, Balcom held his two hands together, forming a circle. He stretched his arms out and looked through the circle. “That’s about how much I can see. I have about 10 degrees of vision,” he said. A person with normal vision has approximately 160 degrees of vision, said Dr. Christine McKimmie, an optometrist in California.
Balcom is legally blind. He can’t drive. But, man ... can he run.
Balcom grew up in a small town in upstate New York. He was the middle of five boys in the family, and he was the most athletic of the bunch. “I played many sports. Soccer was my favorite,” he said. He also played tennis, basketball, ice hockey, football and volleyball.
He was never a star athlete, he said, but he was “better than average.” He was also never interested in running track. In fact, it was a sport that made no sense to him. He said he remembers playing soccer in high school and seeing the track athletes out doing their laps. “I remember thinking, ‘Those people are nuts. Why would you run just to run?’” he said.
After high school, Balcom attended Clarkson University, where he majored in mechanical engineering. His long-term plan was to join the Navy and make the military his career. Right on track, at the end of his sophomore year, he joined the U.S. Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, which set him course to become a nuclear propulsion officer on a Navy submarine. After graduating with his degree, he reported to Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida.
It was there that Balcom was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary, progressive disease that is causing him to gradually lose his eyesight. In Balcom’s case, it has resulted in the tunnel vision he described. “I could go completely blind,” he said. “It’s a very slow degeneration.”
Balcom was discharged from the Navy and left to figure out what to do next. He was 21. He found work as an engineer. He played adult soccer and coached and refereed youth soccer — “insert joke about the blind ref here,” he said.
When he was 31, his eyesight had deteriorated to the point he was declared legally blind. He couldn’t drive anymore. “That was the big switch,” Balcom said. That’s when his challenges seemed to mount.
He trips over things. People offer to shake his hand, and he doesn’t see it. Now married and with two young children — Austin, who will be 7, and Alaina, who will be 2 this fall — he trips over his children if they are outside of his peripheral vision, and has knocked his son over by accident. His son has taken to making the “beep, beep, beep” sound of a truck backing up when his father is near, to alert his dad to his presence.
The family moved to St. Mary’s County in 2009 and Balcom works in Solomons in a job connected to NAVAIR at Patuxent River Naval Air Station.
In the fall of 2011, Balcom was a dad with a young family, and he’d been concentrating mostly on work. He’d put on a few pounds, he said. One day, he watched on television the Ironman Triathlon World Championship held in Hawaii. He was inspired.
“That would be cool ... to run a triathlon,” he said he remembers thinking.
So, he started training. He started running on a treadmill at his home.
There are those, even those very close to Balcom, who question the wisdom of propelling yourself forward as fast as you can, when you can hardly see what is coming next. “I think he’s crazy,” his wife, Andrea, said. “I think it’s too dangerous. It just takes one fall to break something.”
His son has a different opinion. “I think it’s excellent,” Austin said.
Running clicked with Balcom. He got off the treadmill and started entering races, big races — the Hood to Coast Relay in Portland, Ore., the Navy-Air Force 5-Miler in Washington, D.C., and the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico, along with multiple local races. And he was placing high in those races right from the start. He has qualified to compete in the next Boston Marathon.
He loves the competition. He loves keeping track of the numbers and working to improve his times. “I kinda got hooked,” he said.
Some races will allow runners with disabilities to start early (with that early start tabulated into their final time). In some races, Balcom uses a guide — a person hired to run with him and serve as an extra pair of eyes, pointing out potential hazards on the ground and around them. It can be a challenge to find someone who is capable of keeping up and is willing to travel to some of Balcom’s far-flung races. For one of his races, he had a grant to pay for a guide and after sending out a request nationwide, only two potential guides responded.
The timing of Balcom’s entry into competitive sports was fortuitous for the Paralympic Sport Club-Southern Maryland. The club formed at the end of 2011, right about when Balcom saw that Ironman triathlon that so inspired him. Balcom is “raising awareness of the club’s existence and what kinds of things the club can provide for future athletes,” Bishop said. “He’s leading the way,” Bishop said, as Balcom learns what it takes to train for and compete at an international competition. The club is learning right along with him.
Balcom said 95 percent of his training is on a treadmill at his home. He gets up around 3 a.m. to train before work. He also runs in his neighborhood, where he’s mapped out a safe course, knowing where every step down in the sidewalk is, every possible impediment. “I tell you, a manhole cover can take you out pretty quick,” he said. “You eat the pavement a couple of times, you learn to move.”
He described one fall he took when he first started running in the neighborhood, where he skinned both knees and sliced the skin off his wrist down to the bone. He got up and kept running, he said.
While Paralympic Sport-Southern Maryland is looking for a local running coach who could also assist Balcom as a guide in races, Balcom has been working with a coach long distance for the last four months.
“We have talked on the phone, but most of the communication is through email,” Andrew Lemoncello of Flagstaff, Ariz., an assistant coach at McMillan Running Co. and a professional runner himself, wrote in an email. “I get reports from Don on how he’s doing in the workouts, and I can see his online training program to see what paces he’s been running.”
Lemoncello has been coaching for about 10 years and has coached a national champion and many athletes from around the world. But Balcom is his first athlete with a disability. “It’s something I would like to do more of as I have a disabled child of my own,” Lemoncello said.
As Lemoncello works to get Balcom ready for his next big race, the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October, he is focusing on getting Balcom in the best shape possible, he said.
Long term, Lemoncello is also working to get Balcom to peak at the right time, with an eye for the Paralympics in September 2016, a couple of weeks after the Olympic games in Rio. “He’s making great progress ... I can see him making huge advancements over the next few years ... I think he has a great chance of making it,” Lemoncello said.
At this point, Balcom isn’t sure which event he is aiming for at the Paralympics, but right now he is thinking the marathon. “I’m excited and nervous about what the next couple of years will bring,” he said.
About this series
This story is the last in a three-part series about several people in St. Mary’s County who are exerting themselves to reach for something out of the ordinary.
Part 1 — dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer
Part 2 — dreaming of winning the Federal Duck Stamp Contest
Part 3 — dreaming of representing the United States in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro
By the numbers
Don Balcom’s career highlights and personal bests
• 2013 Lower Potomac River Marathon – seventh
• 2013 Desert Challenge Games 1500 m – gold (T12)
• 2013 Desert Challenge Games 5000 m – gold (T12)
• 2013 Paralympic T&F National Championships 1500 m – gold (T12)
• 2014 Boston Marathon qualifier
(T12 is a Paralympic designation given to describe how visually impaired an athlete is; T12 indicates some vision.)
• 1,500 m 5 minutes, 1.26 seconds May 19, 2013
• 5,000 m 17 minutes, 58 seconds Dec. 8, 2012
• 5 mile 32 minutes, 26 seconds Sept. 16, 2012
• 10,000 m 39 minutes, 52 seconds Oct. 20, 2012
• Marathon 3 hours, 8 minutes, 42 seconds March 10, 2012
To learn more
For more information about Paralympic Sport-Southern Maryland and the club’s opportunities for both recreational and competitive events, see www.stmarysmd.com/recreate/paralympics.asp.
For more on how to get involved as a volunteer, participant or sponsor, contact Christina Bishop at 301-475-4200, ext. 1802. or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more about U.S. Paralympics, see www.usparalympics.org.