Blind Triathlete Michael Somsan Fulfills a Lifelong Vision with Kona IRONMAN Finish

‘I had to do something with my life.’

Somsan spent the next year at Brooke Army Medical Center, splitting time between the operating room—13 surgeries in all—and Ward 42, an intensive care unit, trying to come to terms with his fate as best he could.

First was anger:  He threw bedpans at nurses, ripped out his IV line, went into panicked rage.

Then grief: “If you could, I’d have let you euthanize me,” he said. “I couldn’t stand it.”

Then denial: This blindness is temporary. They can fix this.

“As I get older, I realize that everybody has their own issues and fears, [and] how you gauge success in your life is how you overcome them."

Even as a commissioned officer, Somsan found no comforts in Ward 42. He often lay strapped to his bed, he says, and separated from other patients by only a curtain. “You share your pain with everybody else. All you can hear is pain. It was like hell.”

Into this hell came Somsan’s mother. He only knew she’d made the trip from Hawaii when he heard her sobbing at the foot of his bed.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got to show my mom that I can get through this,’” he says. “A lot of my strength came from the love of my family and friends. There are some really special people who rallied around me, and for those reasons, I was very fortunate.”

To be sure, he comes from a long line of champions. His parents were Laotian refugees, leaving everything behind and settling on The Big Island. They spoke no English but worked six jobs between them to support three children, all of whom would graduate college and serve as officers in the U.S. Army. Before them, Somsan’s grandmother was a nurse honored for her battlefield bravery.

“They gave me the spirit to be a better person,” Somsan says. “And with my daughters, I start to think about what kind of example I’m setting for them. If I whine and complain, that’s going to give them the liberty to do the same. I want to focus on how to move forward. And so I did.”

For starters, he had to learn to navigate a world without seeing anything in it, beginning by getting out of bed and walking down a hallway at the Veterans Affairs rehabilitation center in Tucson, Ariz. So he would grab a cane and do it, tap-by-tap, step-by-step.

He had to find a new profession; there is no demand for blind generals in the Army. So he would go to law school and become an advocate for veterans and the indigent.

He had to find a new calling, which brought him back to the footsteps of Scott Tinley. He would be an Ironman.

“If you become disabled, it doesn’t mean your life is over,” Somsan says. “As I get older, I realize that everybody has their own issues and fears, [and] how you gauge success in your life is how you overcome them. If you can overcome them, I guarantee you that somewhere down the line, you’ll meet someone else who needs your help. You’ll get through it, and then you’ll help other people get through it, too.”

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