Michael Stone, who has been racing triathlons for over 17 years, came face to face with the fact that he was losing his sight in 2003 when he was diagnosed as being legally blind. Stone suffers from a condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic, degenerative disease that causes color blindness, night blindness, and eventually, the loss of most vision except for some light awareness.
While Stone had been thinking of racing off-road, after that diagnosis, XTERRA seemed as though it was no longer an option.
“The first year I did Ironman was the first year I was diagnosed,” said Stone. “I was 35 and I took a wrong turn on the Ironman course because I couldn’t see.”
And yet, despite the stark and harsh nature of losing one’s sight, Stone is the first to say that his journey wasn’t lonely because of the people who encouraged him and stuck by his side along the way. One of those people was XTERRA Hall of Famer Jamie Whitmore, who in 2008 was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her sciatic nerve that cost her the use of most of her left leg, including her hamstring and glute muscle.
“I still remember when Jamie called and said, ‘Hey, you know that nagging hamstring injury I have? It’s cancer,’” remembers Stone. “Jamie pushed me to keep an open mind and she’s the one who told me I should try to ride a bike. I lived in Boulder and couldn’t even run on the trails here because I couldn’t see. Yet, when she told me that, I decided that I needed to give it a shot.”
As a result of that encouragement from Whitmore, Stone decided to lean on the people who could help him reach his goals.
“My guide Kimberly Baldwin is way ahead of me,” says Stone. “She’s a strong XTERRA athlete and she gives me verbal cues so I can get through. It can’t just be, ‘Watch out for this rock or tree.’ It has to be ‘Stay left or stay right.’ My guide’s advice has to be very precise and specific.’”
Stone took on XTERRA Beaver Creek in 2009 with Baldwin’s help and he has been hooked on racing off-road ever since. That same year, after taking on Beaver Creek, he raced at both the XTERRA USA Championship in Utah and the XTERRA World Championship in Maui.
Racing off-road was a way towards freedom for Stone, who often felt restricted in his normal life. But in 2015, his disease caught up to him.
“I was already legally blind but utilized my peripheral sight to assist in staying straight and following my guide,” said Stone, 49. “But at the 2015 XTERRA Beaver Creek race, I was bumping into things on the left that I didn’t typically bump into. It was really disheartening.”
It was the first clue that Stone had now lost the peripheral sight he had been using. Yet, like all the athletes in XTERRA’s Physically Challenged (PC) division, Stone doesn’t believe he deserves any special consideration. He just wants a chance to take a seat at the table – or in this case, a bib number in the race.
“I believe that water seeks its own level,” said Stone. “Everyone is dealing with something. No one gets through this life unscathed. You just play the cards you’re given.”
For Stone, XTERRA is a way to find normalcy in a world that wants to label people as either healthy or damaged.
“The more that people move into the identity of being someone with a disability the less of a person they feel they are,” said Stone. “I’ve been a musician my whole life. Just because I have a disability doesn’t make me less of a musician. I’ve just discovered new instruments to play. It’s the same thing with sports. How far can I take this? What are my limitations? I still don’t know what this means.”
Currently, Stone is the owner of Colorado Multisport, Boulder’s top triathlon retail and service provider. He has a guide on the trails but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s still kicking ass on the dirt. Additionally, he’s helping those with disabilities shred on the trails as well.
“Today, a deaf woman I’m training did her first triathlon,” said Stone. “We have completely different experiences, but we both understand that we have to adapt.”
Stone also says that while no one wants to let go of anything they came into this world with, losses come with certain gifts.
“I get to see people inside out now,” says Stone. “It’s no secret that we learn from our challenges. Our successes in life teach us very little, but our obstacles teach us an incredible amount. You’re allowed to have bad moments, of course, but it’s what you do next that matters.”
Earlier this week Stone pre-rode the XTERRA Beaver Creek course, and the first thing he noticed was the difference in his sight between this year and last year.
“It’s better than going to an eye doctor,” said Stone, with his usual wry sense of humor. “And yet, I need to live with this. How can I meet this challenge head-on and try to be responsible to other athletes on the course at the same time?"
Like many physically challenged athletes, Stone was aware of his diagnosis before it was official. Now, he terms his degenerative change in vision as a “living loss” because of its progressive nature. He knows that whatever he enjoys today could be gone tomorrow.
“I was struggling with my sight before I knew why,” said Stone. “As a result, I was terrified of sports growing up because while I was waiting for the ball, I got hit in the face.”
Because of this, as a teen, Stone focused on music. It wasn’t until he was older that he jumped into a 10K road race. He did well and then extended himself into Olympic distance triathlons, and finally towards endurance events.
Stone remembers when XTERRA legend Conrad Stoltz gave him some words of wisdom, which in trademark Stoltz tradition, was to be a badass, no matter what.
“Stoltz used to tell me that speed was my friend, and I told him that speed was my enemy,” remembers Stone. “But that was just a product of my own experience. As an adult, people would refer to me as a triathlete and I would only see the boy who was afraid of the baseball and who couldn’t see the soccer ball across the field. I did quit when I was a kid because I was scared. No one took me by the hand and said, ’We’ll figure this out.’ And this is what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to take people by the hand and say, ‘Together, we can get through this.’”
Today, Stone understands that Stoltz’s words are the way to go. At this point in his life, he isn’t willing to stay comfortable in order to feel safe. Instead, Stone wants to experience all that life has to offer.
“The other option I have is to put my ass on the couch. For sure it’s a safer place to be, but is it a better place to be?”
The result of having one’s heart broken open by loss is that Stone’s natural state is one of empathy.
“It’s true,” said Stone. “I take things on now. I feel people’s pain. But empathy doesn’t always have to be the struggles. I also feel people’s joy. That’s become my new nature and that’s exactly how I deal with my loss. I just take it on. And that happens all day long. It can be beautiful and it can hurt but it’s a gift either way.”