Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Of Pups and Cyclists

Sue Mooney and Ryder with a cyclist from the USA Pro Cycling ChallengeBy Sue Mooney 

Late August in Durango, Colo., means kids and teachers returning to school, and Guide Dog pups returning to GDB's Oregon campus to start their own version of school. It also saw the start of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, with professional cyclists from all over the world beginning a race here in Durango. Ryder, our current Guide Dog puppy, shares the name of an acclaimed Canadian cyclist, Ryder Hesjedal. He wasn't racing here, but many of his Garmin Sharp Barracuda team were. We went to many events celebrating the race, and I was struck by how much a Guide Dog puppy is like a professional cyclist. They are both part of a team when training and working. They must be focused, brave, and open to new experiences. They all must stay in shape, and each day is significant. Ryder and the cyclists were quite taken with each other, and we got some great pictures. The cyclists left on their race adventure at the beginning of the week; Ryder and his team left for Oregon on the puppy truck the following weekend, taking many of the same mountain roads as the cyclists. Godspeed, athletes and pups. What an inspiration you have been to us!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Alumni Spotlight: James Nealy and Silver

James Nealy and Silver
By Jim Price

James Nealey figured he had everything wired. He was a skilled military electrician working on US Army helicopters and their complex avionics and weapons systems. He was an enlisted man with one combat tour under his belt and another scheduled, and he was putting together his Warrant Officer application packet. He was happily married to a beautiful German girl with hopes of making a family. His plan entailed 20 years in the Army, retirement, then a great job doing the same kind of work in the civilian world.

Then three years ago, in just a few months, it all came crashing down. He lost his vision. He lost his job and most of his friends. He even lost his wife.

James, now 28, was stationed in Germany after serving in Iraq when he noticed he was starting to lose vision in his left eye. Several doctors and months later he was finally diagnosed with Leber's Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. He was telling his story recently at GDB's Oregon Campus. He was there to get his first Guide Dog, a yellow Lab named Silver. "It was a tough time. Except for my closest friends, who had seen me run into things, nobody believed me when I said I was losing my vision." And when they finally did, he was given a medical discharge.

"I went through six or seven months of depression," he said, shaking his head at the memory. "But then I decided I needed to get off the couch and make something out of my life."

The Veteran's Administration sent him to the Blind Veterans Rehabilitation Center in Palo Alto, Calif., where he learned orientation and mobility, living skills, computer skills and the like. And then he heard about the Wyakin Warriors Foundation back in his home state of Idaho. "They help disabled vets go to college," he said. "It's a great organization. I'm not the academic type at all but with their help I finished my first semester with a 3.8 grade point average." As he said that, he couldn't stop a huge smile from spreading across his face. He hopes to eventually earn an MBA and own his own business.

At a disabled veterans convention James met a few guys with guide dogs. "They told me how much more independence you can have, how liberating it is. It's an amazing feeling, traveling with a dog compared to a cane. And it's so much more social. Most people don't even want to approach you when you are traveling with a cane. Now people come up to me, want to meet Silver, say hi to him, ask me questions. There is no comparison."

At six foot, five inches tall, James frequently gets smacked in the head by tree branches but with Silver leading the way, that problem has gone away. "He leads me in and out of crowded sidewalks, around trees and other things. He's amazing. At first it was hard to learn to trust him. I have two Newfoundland dog  s at home and I love them but I wouldn't trust them with anything. Silver, on the other hand, is great. It's only been a week and a half and already I know I can depend on him. He's just not going to let me run into something.

"And he's got a great personality. They did a perfect job of matching us up. He walks as fast as I do. He wants to be playful when I do. He's very quick to learn and respond to any command I give him."

So his new plan is to spend the next year and a half at the College of Western Idaho, then  transfer to Boise State and eventually enroll in the MBA program there. The Wyakin Warriors Foundation promises tuition, books, room and board and plenty of encouragement with local and national mentors, as well as volunteer students at the school who help out if he needs it.

And what about that German wife? "She said she couldn't live with someone with a disability," he explained. "But that may not be the whole truth. I found out later she married my best friend." No matter. He said his new girlfriend, Jill, who worked at PetSmart and first fell in love with his dogs, is great. "She can't wait to meet Silver. And I can't wait to get him home and get on with my life."

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The long row from the 2008 NFB Conference to the London Paralympics

By Aerial Gilbert
GDB Outreach Manager (and accomplished rower!)

Eleni and Briggs

GDB alumna Eleni Englert of Vista, Calif., got her first introduction to rowing at the 2008 National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conference rowing workshop that was sponsored by Guide Dogs for the Blind. Her dad and cousin rowed in college, so Eleni was intrigued by the rowing workshop at the conference. At the time, Eleni was in 8th grade and already 6 feet tall (height is a real advantage in rowing). She had always been an athlete, competing in volleyball and basketball, but these sports had become progressively more difficult as her vision was diminishing. She took to rowing naturally, and when she competed at the rowing workshop, she blew everyone out of the water, including some athletes from the men's Paralympic Goal Ball team! I encouraged Eleni to contact a local rowing club in her home area if she wanted to pursue the sport. The first team she contacted was afraid to include a blind athlete, but she was met with open arms at ZLAC Rowing Club in San Diego where she rowed on the juniors program through high school. Her coach had told her that being a blind rower was a good thing, since she wouldn't be distracted looking outside the boat.

In 2009, Eleni and I ran into each other at the San Diego Crew Classic regatta where after hearing of her rowing success, I encouraged her to contact the coach for the US National Adaptive team. She met the time standards and was invited first to a development camp and then to selection camp where she was picked to represent the United States at the World Rowing Championships in New Zealand. She has now made the team for the past three years, rowing at World Championships in New Zealand and Slovania.

She got her first Guide Dog, Briggs, a little over a year ago, before they went to Slovenia. “I love having a Guide Dog,” Eleni said. “He’s amazing. I can do fine with a cane but with the dog I can go so much faster, we like walking fast. Briggs is always with me and can go everywhere. It was so cool to take him to Slovenia. He wore a USA bandana and was a great ambassador. People from all over the world were so excited about seeing him. Even if we didn’t speak the same language, Briggs gave us a connection. He’s also a great flyer, we had no problems on the plane. It was a twelve hour flight to Germany and he slept the entire time!”

This year, Eleni made the team that will be representing the United States at the Paralympics in London, which run from August 29 through September 9 at Dorney Lake in Eton. When asked what the sport of rowing means to her, Eleni responded: “Rowing has become a huge part of my life. I can row any boat I want and love the feeling of being on the water. I can’t imagine myself ever stopping, its too addictive. Even when the workouts are really hard and painful I can’t help but have fun.”

Eleni is currently with her team at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., where they train three times a day. This is what she has to say about her normal training regime when she is home: “I usually wake up early and swim. I do hard cardio in the morning and a light erg in the afternoon. I do two workouts a day and usually go to the beach and surf or swim.”

Eleni said that going to the Paralympics is very exciting and a lot of hard work. “Anyone can do it," she said. “If you find something you want to do, you have to just go for it and try.” Next fall Eleni and Briggs will be attending the University of Washington where she will continue her rowing career. Congratulations Eleni! Go Team USA!

Eleni (front) rowing in a four-man boat