Riding across the United States on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail presents a major challenge to any man, woman or child who tries it.
But imagine attempting such a trek without the ability to see. That’s just what 45-year-old Shawn Cheshire is doing right now, and she passed through Houston on Wednesday of last week while riding on the portion of the trail that spans Missouri on Highway 17.
Along with her support team, Cheshire left Florence, Ore., on May 17 and expects to reach Virginia Beach, Va., sometime in late July. When she gets to the Atlantic coast, she’ll be the first blind woman to ride a bicycle across the U.S.
“It’s a personal challenge, Cheshire said, “and it’s a chance to do something that society as a whole says blind people can’t do. It’s going to help break down some of those social ‘norms’ and limitations that are put on people.”
A Texas native who now resides in Camillus, N.Y., Cheshire is the founder of “Choosing to See,” a national organization designed to provide encouragement, assistance and opportunities to people who are blind or visually impaired. She joined the U.S. Army in 1994 and served for eight years as a helicopter armament systems mechanic. She then became an EMT-Paramedic, and in 2009 she slipped during a snowstorm while treating a patient in an ambulance and sustained a traumatic brain injury that caused a total loss of her vision.
Cheshire has since become an elite athlete, and has competed for Team USA in both summer and winter sports, being the first visually impaired female athlete to compete for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski team. She began cycling in 2012 and has raced with the U.S. National Paralympic Cycling Team in 20 national and 20 international races.
Cheshire is accompanied on the lengthy bike ride by her best friend Jesse Crandall, an assistant professor of chemistry at University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn. The two have been skiing, running and adventuring together since 2012.
Acting as Cheshire’s “eyes,” Crandall rides ahead of her with a Bluetooth speaker connected to his seat post playing music for her to follow via “echo location.” They both have two-way radios inside their helmets as well.
“It’s very tiring because I’m so mentally ‘on’ every day,” Cheshire said. “And every day has posed a different challenge, from weather, wind, terrain and other things.”
Cheshire also won a gold medal in indoor rowing at the 2014 Invictus Games in London, and is an accomplished golfer who is a member of the United States Blind Golfers Association and has been involved in fundraiser tournaments for injured military conducted by Disable Sports USA.
“It’s just muscle memory,” she said.
The bicycle trek began with one other participant who was hurt in Wyoming and had to drop out: Steve Martin, a retired Arizona state trooper who is also a U.S. Army veteran and bilateral below-knee amputee due to injuries sustained in an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2008.
A documentary chronicling Cheshire’s amazing ride is being produced that is expected to be viewable next spring on a yet-to-be-determined streaming format. Her journey can be followed online at shawncheshire.org or choosingtosee.org.
“It’s one day at a time and I’m totally aware of the risks,” Cheshire said. “Once we’re done, no one will be able to say a blind person can’t do this. Then hopefully that will open the door to a bunch of greatness for a lot of people.”