For the last three years, Cheshire resident Todd Sweet has stood at the finish line of the Gaylord Gauntlet 5K trail and obstacle run.
Sweet, who is partially blind, served as a volunteer for the regular and adaptive athletes who took on the challenge, cheering on those who completed the Wallingford race. He also laced up his running shoes and overcame 21 of the 23 obstacles in the June 22 race before crossing the finish line himself.
“I don’t mind a good challenge,” admitted Sweet. “That’s what it was.”
In 2005, Sweet noticed his eyesight was worsening when he had trouble reading street signs and making out details of things. One year later, he went to Yale New Haven Hospital, where he was diagnosed with macular eye disease and optic nerve head drusen. The two diseases impact his sight.
Sweet currently has no central vision and is required to wear sunglasses due to his sensitivity to light.
“It’s kind of like you threw on a pair of those readers and walked around,” explained Sweet. “You can tell that’s a tree or a house, but there’s not a lot of detail.”
Sweet had to give up his drivers license and could no longer work as a land surveyor. He began to think about the things he would no longer be able to do and his loss of freedom until he connected with Achilles International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping those with disabilities participate in running events. He spoke with one of the members of Achilles, who recommended Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford.
“It’s amazing how welcoming they are, how nice they all are,” Sweet said, of the Gaylord staff. “That’s what you need. Depending on what your disability is, speaking for myself, when you lose something like (eyesight) and you don’t drive anymore, your freedom, your independence is all taken away, you’re wondering – what are you going to do for the rest of your life?”
Gaylord helped Sweet think not of the things he couldn’t do, but can do. Since connecting with Gaylord, Sweet began playing blind hockey and participates in adaptive kayaking and bicycling. He currently plays with the Hartford Braillers, a blind hockey club. Two years ago, he went water skiing.
“That place is a lifesaver,” he said, of Gaylord. “It just reintroduces you to your life and says, ‘You know what? You’re not going to be stuck in your home, lying on a couch,’ … There’s things you can do you weren’t even doing before.”
Katie Joly, sports association program manager at Gaylord, said Sweet has a “great energy” and a “vibrancy for life.” She said Sweet has taken opportunity of everything Gaylord has to offer.
“We’re here to show people you can live your life, you can get out there and do the things you want to do,” she said. “It may be using different equipment or using different techniques, but the opportunity is there.”
Sweet was able to run with a friend who had been running the Gauntlet for the past few years.
This year’s Gauntlet had two obstacles Sweet could not overcome, the first of which was a wall with small ledges to traverse. The second had a series of posts with varying heights and distances in the ground on which the runners traveled.
Sweet wasn’t going to let his ego get the best of him.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to navigate that,” Sweet recalled. “You get to something and you realize there’s a limitation.”
When he crossed the finish line, Sweet felt what he imagined all the other runners he watched had experienced.
Joly said seeing adaptive athletes who have used Gaylord’s services complete the 5K is a meaningful experience.
“That just gives us a lot of pride,” she said. “It’s exciting to see someone do that. I feel really excited and happy when any of our participants are able to be successful and overcome those challenges they may have faced.”
This year was the first of many that Sweet plans to participate in the obstacle course. Next year, he plans to volunteer his time alongside running.
“I think I’m going to try and do that,” he said. “I definitely want to do this every year.”
For more information on Gaylord and its sports association, visit www.gaylord.org and www.gaylord.org/sports.