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

While disabled athletes race with the same standards, IRONMAN reserves entry for a select few. The process includes a lengthy application in which the athlete tells his story and shares his history as a triathlete.

IRONMAN officials did not respond to an interview request for this story, but Somsan believes he was selected because “I grew up in Hawaii and left as a sighted person to go serve my country, and now I’m coming back to Hawaii as a disabled vet. The combination of those things probably made it compelling to them. And to go home, to race before your family and friends, to represent the disabled and veteran communities is very special.” 

It doesn’t hurt, either, that he’s completed two previous Ironman races, one with a division win.

Despite his experience in the sport, Somsan knew Kona would be his biggest challenge— both physically and mentally.

“The hardest part,” he says, “is really not letting your fear and doubts get the best of you. By the time you get to the race, your body will do what it’s supposed to do. But it doesn’t always connect to your brain.” 

For example, even though he’s a strong swimmer, he still feels anxious in the chaos of the open water—part swim, part mosh pit as 2,500 athletes jockey for early position. The swim is the one time in the race when Somsan can’t talk to Bernardo, even though they’re tethered together; the sense of hearing he relies on is useless under water. He describes it as “sensory deprivation while people are trying to clobber you.”

More often though, people are cheering him.

When the pair raced Oceanside, they left spectators in disbelief. Bernardo said he heard wonderstruck children ask their parents, “can he really not see?”

“And then they’d learn that anything is possible,” Bernardo says. “I see how much he instills inspiration. Even people in the race, we’d pass them and he’d inspire them through their difficult moments. People can’t believe what they’re watching, and then they’re lifted up.”

Somsan laughs a little at that: “If I happen to inspire someone, that’s great. I mean, I want to be faster than you—but also support you.”

(No wonder that, in 2015, the United States Sports Academy gave Somsan its Babe Didrikson Zaharias Courage Award “for his continuing efforts to take on impossible challenges and make them possible.”)

Ironically, the person who Somsan has inspired the most is the man he needs the most.

“What I’ve taken away from this has made me a better person, husband, athlete and employee,” Bernardo says. “Michael wants to enjoy and live in the moment. He cherishes every opportunity he has to go be active, even if he’s suffering through it, because he thinks about all the people who can’t do it at all.

“In a lot of ways, Michael can see so much better than I can.”

In return, Bernardo has given Somsan unprecedented stability: This is the first time Somsan trained and raced with the same partner for an entire season. Few athletes can guide a disabled athlete while also completing the rigors of the Ironman themselves.

“I appreciate that I have Dom to go through this with me,” Somsan says. “If he doesn’t go forward, I don’t go forward. It’s as simple as that. We have to trust and appreciate one another, and get through the struggles together. We have to believe in each other, even on the harshest days. I have no idea what to expect at Kona, but I have to deal with it. And there’s a certain peace in being part of something bigger than yourself.”

‘Anything is possible.’

Famously, a massive banyan tree greets athletes approaching the final chute on Ali’i Drive. It’s Kona’s version of Boylston Street, or of the Champs-Élysées. As they ran past the majestic tree about 100 yards from the finish, Bernardo announced the landmark to Somsan.

They had made it.

From the start line 140.6 miles away, yes, but also from a parking lot, from a hospital bed, from a hell that Somsan can never forget.

Waiting at the finish line were Somsan’s parents, watching him race for the first time, and his brother and sister, who made the trip from Singapore. And there he was, a man who’s been forever changed by his experiences—often seemingly unbearable, but ultimately proving the IRONMAN mantra: Anything is possible.

“If they found a way to restore my sight, I don’t think I’d do it,” Somsan says. “I feel like I’m a better person now. I’m content. I’ve found peace. It’s all about perspective. I just had a flashback to my mom in the hallway of the hospital 21 years ago. I was frail and weak and scared. And now I’m competing with 2,500 of the best athletes in the world. Put that in perspective.

“Your only limitations are what you place on yourself. If you want to be something, go for it. Don’t worry about failing. Don’t worry about embarrassing yourself. The only thing you should worry about is never going after your dreams.”

Danny Woodward is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va.

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