Running blind, with a little help


Pam Teunissen

Leyser Romero (left) and Tony Teunissen (right) at a race in Holland

Mieke Vanderkolk

Cars drove by 152nd in a rush to get to school or work. Most of the drivers didn’t notice the pair of people running on the path, but Instructor Shanna Meyer did. She first noticed the two runners’ strange arm positioning, as she got nearer she realized why. “When we got closer, I saw that he had a ‘blind runner’ vest on and I noticed they had their hands tied together, hence the strange arm positioning. It was so touching and heart-warming to see! It was such a true act of trust and faith in someone else!” Meyer said. She had spotted Tony Teunissen along with his running guide.

Tony Teunissen is 72 years old and has a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a rare eye disease that only affects 1 in every 4000 US citizens. This is a hereditary disease that attacks the retina of the eye forcing the retina cells to break down over time causing vision loss and sometimes, complete blindness. RP is slow developing. Teunissen did not lose his vision completely until about 50.  “I have gone from partial sight to total blindness now,” Teunissen said. Similar to most eye diseases, RP does not yet have a cure.

Totally blind, yet still running.

Blindness has taken a lot from Teunissen. Teunissen has not seen any of his family, friends, or loved ones in over two decades. Yet, he still hangs onto their memory. “I can’t see my children or my grandchildren, my wife or anybody anymore. Although I do have memories of what they look like because I didn’t lose my vision completely until I was about 50,” Teunissen said. Blindness also took a lot of everyday things from Teunissen. “Going to a store alone, a lot of people go in, you buy what you want, and if you’re blind you can’t do that, you [have] to have help,” Teunissen said. Things as simple as driving and shopping turn into impossible tasks once you lose your vision completely.

Teunissen was not willing to let RP win every battle, though. For example, there was no way he would allow RP to rob him of his passion to run. Teunissen has been running since his 7th grade gym class. “I started running in gym class in school in 7th grade, and then I went out for track and I’ve been running since then.” Teunissen has been running for over 50 years!

For many years Teunissen could not run outdoors, as he did not have a guide. Instead he relied on treadmills and other workout machines, a safe, but boring alternative. “I moved up north for 23 years and I didn’t have a guide to run with so I ran on my own for about four or five years and then I couldn’t run on my own anymore so I just worked out on machines: treadmill and bike,” Teunissen said. When he moved back here he continued his search and found Leyser Romero, the guide that helps keep Teunissen in action. Romero and Teunissen met around threeyears ago at their church. Teunissen was in a men’s group with Romero’s husband. Both Romero and Teunissen prayed to find a running partner, and soon enough they found each other.

Even as a long-time runner, being blind presents many challenges when running along busy roads and differing terrain. Romero and Teunissen take careful precautions every run to ensure Teunissen’s safety. Teunissen wears a rope connected to Romero to keep him safe. “I have to be alert with cars, people biking, running or walking,” Romero said. After around three years of running Romero has perfected these methods, and communicates everything she can, “I also have to tell him if we are going down or up, left or right. I also like to tell him where we are,” Romero said.

Running with a blind person can be nerve wracking for both parties. In the beginning, Romero wasn’t sure how to be a good running partner for Teunissen. “When we first started running together I was really nervous, but he taught me how to do it,” Romero said. Hundreds of runs later, both Romero and Teunissen feel at ease when running.

Physical activity has been thoroughly researched by scientists across the globe, and most have come to the same conclusion: regular physical activity is beneficial to a person’s physical and mental health. “It’s really helped my self worth and self esteem, running, it’s just meant a lot to me in my life,” Teunissen said. In a world where blind people can be seen as incapable, self worth and self esteem is very important.

Aside from his eye condition, Teunissen’s life of running has kept him in tip top shape. Even with low blood pressure and low pulse rate, he continues to push on, “I have very low blood pressure, I have very low pulse rate, I am in pretty excellent condition for my age,” Teunissen said.

Tony Teunissen can be seen as inspirational to all of us, and a symbol of perseverance and overcoming challenges. His strength, even throughout losing his sight, is certainly something to be admired.