Blind ambition drives McMullen to succeed
Others may be faster, but none in today's Xterra is more determined
MAKENA, Maui » He is not among the contenders for tomorrow's off-road Nissan Xterra World Championships. In fact, he is merely hopeful of completing a grueling course featuring a 1,500-meter ocean swim, a 40- kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run.
"I may not beat anybody," said Bobby McMullen, "but I'll beat the odds."
And long odds they are. McMullen, a 43-year-old resident of Redding, Calif., happily admits that he's lucky to be alive, let alone competing in an event as challenging as an Xterra.
McMullen is a blind athlete who also is a double-transplant recipient for both his kidney and pancreas as a result of a condition known as proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Without going into all the medical details, it's a result of Type-I diabetes first detected when he was 12 years old and resulted in his blindness at age 29.
"I was attending law school at the time, and I started having problems seeing the blackboard," McMullen recalls.
He sought medical attention and was told that his visual problems were "a bit more serious than eyestrain." A specialist eventually diagnosed the condition.
"It's a condition that can rear up its ugly head for a diabetic," McMullen said. "The doctor told me I would be totally blind within a month, and he was right."
Well, not entirely. Although he can't see anything from his left eye, he has 20/1,200 correctable vision from his right eye.
"It's like trying to see out of a roll of toilet paper covered with Vaseline. I can see shapes, and that's about it," he said. "When my mom explains it to her friends, she says it must be like a really bad Monet painting."
The same diabetic condition has resulted in multiple transplants and a toe amputation that, coupled with his numerous ski injuries, have left McMullen a less-than-ideal candidate to be competing in triathlons and other physically challenging events.
"I don't really run anymore," McMullen said. "I just kind of shuffle along."
Yet he has managed to compete in several Paralympic competitions and recently decided to compete in Xterra events.
He negotiates the course with the help of a guide, in this case Mark Shawn of Sacramento. McMullen trains with his girlfriend, Therese Conner, a certified nurse who also will be competing in tomorrow's event.
"If I get through this course without falling, it will be the first time I haven't in this type of event," McMullen said. "But as long as the bike is working mechanically, I'll just get back on and keep going."
It's that spirit that makes McMullen a favorite among ultra-endurance athletes and event organizers.
So while established stars, such as defending champions Eneko Llanos of Spain and Jamie Whitmore of California, compete for $25,000 in first-place money in the men's and women's divisions out of a purse of $130,000, McMullen will be competing as a division of one.
"You know, the blind, double-transplant division," he said with a laugh.
"Why do I do this?" McMullen added, echoing a question he's constantly asked. "I guess I'm a product of my upbringing. My parents always told me that if you get knocked down seven times, you just get up eight."
Xterra notes: The event begins at 9 a.m. at the entrance of the Maui Prince Hotel in Makena. Top performers will require anywhere from 2 to 3 hours to complete the course. ... Other leading contenders in the men's division are Conrad Stoltz of South Africa and Olivier Marceau of France. Among the top women's challengers are Melanie McQuaid of Canada and Renata Bucher of Switzerland. ... The 10th edition of the event will be aired by CBS on Super Bowl Sunday. Competitors qualified for the World Championships via their finishes in a tour that included 14 stops in locations such as South Africa, Italy, Austria, Brazil, Japan, Saipan and Germany.