BY ALICE ERICKSON
Blind Faith is a 5.10 climb in Colorado where my brother-in-law Jim did the first ascent free solo in 1972. Years later, my husband and I climbed it, but I never really thought about its name until after recently spending an afternoon up at Devils Lake with our blind friend John Heim. Having never been on the Colorado climb, Jim was climbing blind – not knowing what was coming next, just having faith that he could accomplish his goal.
To me, I feel this is how my friend John goes through life. He continues to challenge himself, always having faith that he can accomplish something without the aid of visuals to key him into what is coming next.
John grew up in Green Bay and is, of course, a total Packers nerd – often wearing his green and white packer t-shirts and shorts. It does pay off in one way, as he is always color coordinated. John was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa.
He had the usual crazy active childhood and life was going pretty well. He graduated from UW-Stevens Point with double majors in math and computer science. But in the span of two college years, his life turned upside down. John went from being the team star on the intramural volleyball league – digging and spiking, to the following year, in which he describes the change as dropping off a cliff – he could no longer see the ball. By 22, he was legally blind, but he was also in denial.
He had run in college and now tried to continue – he would go out but continued to fall off curbs and come home injured. His family encouraged him to stop running. His “I’m not blind” mindset didn’t change until an instructor in the department of rehab took him out one day, letting him walk on his own but directing him. He pulled him up short, grabbed his arm and asked what was in front of him. It was an enormous hole that John had no perception of.
John got a cane, a yellow lab named Walker and later another yellow lab named McGee. That’s where our stories start. I met John when we both worked together as software developers at UW-Madison. I’m a runner, and somehow we talked about it and decided to give it a go. It was a process to work out. John was using this flimsy thing with two handles joined together to run. We’d each hold one and then run. That worked great until the day we were speeding down a hill and came to a corner. The flimsy thing broke, and all of a sudden, John was at the end of, crack the whip, with me chasing after him. From there, we moved to holding a cheap, but a durable rag. We ran through the heat, the rain, John’s bad jokes, the winter nights, snow and ice. John had an amazing ability to stay upright. It was me that had the issues! Running one evening, I hit some ice and was plastered on the ground in a fraction of a second. We are pretty compatible runners, but there are times I do get a bit irked with John. He knows our loop through the local park so well, that up the S curves he will sometimes lead and drag me along with him.
We were only running once a week, so one day John had the brilliant idea to take his cane to the park and try to run with it. He figured if he went early there would be other runners and someone would offer to help. Just as planned – sort of. Trying to run with the cane proved infinitely difficult. It got stuck in absolutely everything that had the slightest bit of unevenness. Finally, after he hit a crack, the cane jammed into his stomach. The next thing he knew, he was doing an arabesque on top of it. But as intended, a woman wandered over and asked if he needed help, and that resulted in another running relationship.
As I got more tied up with things, my husband Dave swapped with me to be John’s running partner. That’s when they took things up a notch. Not to mention, John now had a buddy to have a beer (I hate beer) with after their runs. They started doing more events – more Shamrock Shuffles, 50 furlongs and the 10-mile Black Earth run in the spring. Even with our screw-ups, John continued to have his blind faith. During one race, Dave and John were so deep in conversation, that their concentration was lost and John smashed into something hard enough for his sunglasses to fly off. He suffered no permanent damage and they finished the race.
John got even more serious and started running during the week on his lunch hour on the treadmill at the university gym. It’s about a half-mile walk from his job at the math department where he is the system administrator for their computers.
Along with running, John would also swim over at the UW gym and decided one year to race the Badger State Games. Coming up with the Rube Goldberg – a tennis ball on the extension of a snow rake – we took turns tapping John on his shoulder a stroke or two before the wall. He silver medaled in the 800 freestyle.
Then in 2015, Dave got John climbing through a program that partners Boulders Climbing Gym with Adaptive Adventures – a Midwest adaptive climbing program. Dave and I are both from a family of climbers, and if it takes, it bites you hard. And that is exactly what happened with John. He’s been climbing at Devils Lake and also the Mississippi Palisades. He describes it as ‘unbelievably awesome.’
That’s where I recently met up with John. He had been camping with the adaptive climbing group and had just finished climbing for the day. This had been his third trip that weekend up the unbelievably slippery quartzite CCC trail, and then off the trail to where they were climbing. On the way down, Dave led. John had his hand on Dave’s backpack and I followed trying to verbally direct what was coming next. I was sweating bullets watching all the looming obstacles, while John, very quickly (with no concern), made his way down the trail. It was impressive!
John claims there are not that many opportunities to challenge himself and so he will always jump at the chance. I just shake my head – here’s a guy that grills (as in brats on an outdoor grill), made a really cool sheepshead table with power tools (he beats us in sheepshead with his Braille deck of cards!), did the stonework for his wife’s garden and had read every single Pulitzer Prize book written. In work, he is top notch also, this year winning the UW-Madison Martha Casey award for excellence.
So, what’s next for John? With confidence, attitude and blind faith, there are no bounds.