Seeing isn't always believing. So says a team of eight blind mountain climbers in the Valley.
To prove their point, the group scaled unimaginable heights last June -- even for those with vision. The eight hikers, with the aid of 17 volunteer sighted guides, set out to climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa last June in an effort to help raise money for the Foundation for Blind Children and bring awareness to the plight of the visually impaired.
That achievment will be honored Monday when the Tempe Sports Authority hosts the 17th annual Courage Awards at the Marriott Buttes Resort in Tempe. Team Kilimanjoro will be honored along with golfer D.J. Gregory and Paralympic gold medalist Cheri Blauwet.
The Courage Awards celebrate athletes who have overcome significant obstacles, physical challenges or injuries. Proceeds from the event are used to fund youth-oriented non-profit organizations and scholarship programs at Arizona colleges. Tickets for the event, which includes a cocktail reception and silent auction, are available by calling (480) 940-8666.
"These athletes exhibit a courageous spirit which serves as an inspiration to all of us," said Dee Robbins, president of the Tempe Sports Authority Foundation.
Team Kilimanjaro included Tom Hicks, Adam Messler, Cindy Wilhelmi, Mike Armstrong, Soon Flynn, A.J. Hovet, Tanner Robinson and Max Ashton -- a 13-year-old boy from northeast Phoenix who became the youngest blind climber to scale 19,340-foot Kilimanjaro when the group reached the summit on June 29.
Some hikers rang bells to signal their blind partners while other guides used trekking poles attached to their backpacks for their partner to hold onto. The group trained for 14 months, beginning with smaller mountains in the Phoenix area and ending with a freezing climb of Mount Humphreys in Flagstaff.
Gregory, who was born 10 weeks premature with cerebral palsy, underdeveloped lungs and entangled legs, was told he would never walk. But after several surgeries, he learned to walk with a cane and later took up the game of golf -- using one arm to swing the club and the other to balance on his cane.
Last year the PGA Tour allowed Gregory to walk every tournament, shadowing a different player and writing a blog about his experience. He walked 44 tournaments in 45 weeks, across 3,256 holes and 988 miles. Because his toes overlap, Gregory had to put seven or eight Band-Aids on his feet to minimize the blisters and impact from all of the walking.
“I’m going to fall; it’s just the way it is,” Gregory said. “I’m going to do it. So you know what? You get back up and you learn from your mistakes and you don’t do it again.”
Blauwet, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a farming accident as a child in Iowa, has overcome that tragedy and now owns medals from the 2000 and 2004 Paralympic Games and eight marathon titles to her credit in the wheelchair division.
She was nominated for the 2003 Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year, for ESPY awards in 2004 and 2005 for Best Athlete with a Disability, and for the 2005 Laureus World Sport Award within the category “World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability.”
Blauwet, the captain of the wheelchair track and road racing team while at the University of Arizona, won a silver medal and three bronze medals at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia, and added gold and two more bronze medals in 2004 at the Athens Olympics. She has also won the New York City Marathon in 2003 and 2004, the Los Angeles Marathon in 2003, '04, '05 and '08, and the Boston Marathon in 2004 and 2005.