Kyle Coon lost his sight at the age of six after a battle with Retinoblastoma—cancer of the eye. However, not having sight has not stopped him from pursuing his vision. Since then he has become a competitive rock climber, downhill skier, runner, and triathlete.
After summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro at the age of 15, Kyle knew he needed to live a life filled with adventure. After getting his college degree and trying the working world for a bit, he decided to pursue his dream of becoming an endurance athlete, competing in numerous marathons and triathlons.
In 2018, he was a member of the first team of tandem cyclists with all blind or visually impaired stokers to complete Race Across America—the world’s toughest bicycle race—racing from Oceanside, Calif to Annapolis, Md in seven days 15 hours. Later in 2018, at Ironman Arizona, Kyle became the first totally blind person to complete an Ironman branded Triathlon (2.4 mi swim, 112 mi bike, 26.2 mi run) in under 11 hours. He continues to push himself physically and mentally as he now pursues his goal of representing the USA at the 2020 Paralympics in the sport of Triathlon.
Code: NOBARRIERS to donate $1.00 to No Barriers with each purchase
Learn more about Kyle: https://kylecoon.com/
Watch Erik and Kyle on Oprah
Kyle: It was a struggle to try to get on the podium. And it was just a matter of, man, can I hang with these guys? And then it's just a matter of creeping up the standings one spot at a time and pushing yourself day in and day out. Because it's not one training session or one race that puts you over the top. It's the day in day out grind of training and taking care of yourself.
Erik: It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life. To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving in to the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way and not unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves and the summit exists a map. That map, that way forward, this what we call No Barriers.
Dave: Today we meet Kyle Coon who lost his sight at the age of six, after a battle with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. However, not having sight has not stopped him from pursuing vision. He's become a competitive rock climber, downhill skier, runner, and triathlete. After graduating from the University of Central Florida, he became an endurance athlete competing in marathons and triathlons. In 2018, he was a member of the first team of tandem cyclist with all blind and visually impaired stokers, the person on the back of a tandem bike, to complete Race Across America, the world's toughest bicycle race. Racing from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland in seven days, 15 hours. Later in 2018, he became the first blind athlete to complete an Ironman in under 11 hours. And now he continues to push himself physically and mentally as he pursues his goal representing the USA at the 2020 Paralympics in the sport of triathlon. Enjoy the conversation.
Dave: Erik, welcome to today's podcast. Kyle, welcome to the show. Erik, I'm really excited to talk with Kyle. I've known Kyle for a long time because we went on a trip together almost 15 years ago. But Erik, you, I understand, I've known Kyle since almost the day he was born. Is that right?
Erik: Yeah. Kyle. So I did meet you before I climbed Everest, right?
Erik: You and I were talking. I was 29. You were in kindergarten.
Erik: Yeah, so that was a couple of years away from Everest.
Kyle: Yeah. Yeah. I think we met right at the beginning of 1999. So man, it's crazy how time flies. And yeah, I had just gone blind a couple months before. Yeah, no, it was-
Erik: You lost your eyesight from cancer, blastoma, if I remember right?
Kyle: Yep. It was retinoblastoma. So I was diagnosed when I was 10 months old, and had my left eye removed when I was five. And then lost my right eye just before I turned seven.
Erik: Yeah. And look, I mean, I know that we all have a revisionist history. So your dad's a Marine, my dad's a Marine. So they started talking. My dad, like so many people when they retire, migrated down to Florida. And he said, "You got to meet this kid." And I remember you were only in kindergarten. So it wasn't like you were a big conversationalist. And we were talking and you were asking me questions. And I felt like at that time you almost had a little bit of like you were shell shocked. I imagine at that age, it's impossible to process what had happened to you. You know what I mean? But you were really curious and you were asking me, how do you do this? How do you bike? How do you climb mountains? How do you swim? I mean, just you were full of questions
Kyle: As a little kid, all I wanted to do is I just kept telling my doctors, "Hey, can you just make me better so I can go outside and play with my friends." That's all I cared about. Meeting you, I hear about all these crazy things you're doing. You're jumping out of airplanes. You're hanging from your fingertips on vertical pieces of rock. I didn't even know people did that stuff, let alone blind people. And it was mind boggling to me. And I remember you just tell me, "Dude, you just got to try it." And you kind of just challenged me. I think I nodded or shook my head, and you were like, "Hey Kyle, I got to let you in on a little secret. I can't see you shake your head."
Erik: Yeah, nod your head. Shake your head. So Dave, you catching this? I'm taking all the credit for Kyle's success in life.
Dave: I know. Actually, yeah. I was thinking, geez, Kyle, it's all because of Erik.
Erik: Kyle, give him like 10% credit. I'll take 90% credit.
Dave: I know you guys have known each other, so I'll just jump in here. I'm really curious about these early years, Kyle, where you meet someone like Erik, and now you're 29, and we'll talk about this amazing journey you've been on. You're calling us from the Olympic Training Center where you're training for the Olympics right now. When you think about those young years, obviously Erik was a big influence, who else in your life sort of inspired you to have and pursue this life of adventure and challenge yourself?
Kyle: Honestly, it had to do a lot with my family. As Erik said, my dad had been a Marine. My mom-
Erik: Always a Marine.
Kyle: Yeah, always a Marine. And my mom grew up in a family where no excuses were to be had. They wanted to have a tight-knit family unit. And they did not want me to grow up any differently than my three sisters. So they they looked around and they were like, you know what? We can have this family adventures. So we started going on camping trips, and rock climbing trips, and hiking trips. And my sisters and I got into competitive rock climbing all together.
Kyle: So it was this thing where my parents were like, just because you can't see, we're not going to let you slide. We expect all A's in school. We expect you to give it everything you've got in whatever you choose to pursue. Because when you grow up, we were not going to be there to hold your hand when you're 29 and living on your own. So we expect you to learn how to do all this stuff on your own and advocate for yourself as well. So my parents really pushed me. My sisters, you guys have siblings so you guys know. Anyone with siblings out there knows that it's just that sibling rivalry and comradery at the same time. My sisters gave me no slack whatsoever. So that was a huge motivator for me as well.
Dave: So to be clear, it wasn't just Erik. Just to be clear.
Erik: Yeah, exactly.
Kyle: No, no.
Erik: But do you think that's part of the secret ingredient of being a well adjusted person, maybe who's blind is having that family structure of a dad who's a Marine. I was just thinking about this. My dad being a Marine. Yeah, they're not going to baby you. They're going to say get out there and sweep the driveway and sweep up the leaves. And you're not going to sit in your room and stew.
Kyle: Yeah. I think a family structure is critical. And that family structure doesn't necessarily have to be biological mom, biological dad. It could be any tight knit unit. You just need a constant influence in your life. You need people to challenge you, to hold you accountable. Whether that is mom, dad, brothers, and sisters, whether that's a really close family friend. But I do think, Erik, I mean, you just celebrated 20 years of summiting Everest. And it took a massive organization and team around you and your perseverance to get there. And I think my success has largely been because of the team that I've put around myself, which really includes just such a strong family unit.
Erik: One last thing. And then Dave, I know you have a million questions. But then I remember after I met you that first time, your dad worked for a company called Bubba Burgers. And he sent me this big giant pile of frozen Bubba Burgers. Man, they were so good and greasy, man. My stove caught on fire one time cooking them. And I used to wear my Bubba Burger t-shirt around. And I'd be climbing in the Boulder Gym. And everybody's got t-shirts like sprouts and carrots. And I'm wearing Bubba Burger. I loved it. I love my Bubba Burger t-shirt. So I need a new one. Tell your dad.
Dave: You've done so many things in your life. But at an early age, tell us about sort of that early trip to Machu Picchu. And then I think you went to the Grand Canyon too. Is that right, Kyle?
Kyle: Actually, I did not go to the Grand Canyon. I did Kilimanjaro.
Dave: Kilimanjaro, exactly.
Erik: And for everyone's reference, that was a full blind team of teenagers to Machu Picchu.
Dave: So tell us about that adventure and what it meant to you, Kyle.
Kyle: Yeah. So Erik, I'm not sure if it was you or your dad that had reached out to me. And you guys said said, "Hey, we're putting together this expedition called Leading the Way, and we're partnering blind and sighted students, teenagers from across the country. And we're going to hike a harder variation of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. And we think you would be a great candidate to be part of it."
Kyle: And I had known a handful of blind kids my age, but I didn't really know anyone that was as crazy as I was. So I just thought it sounded like an awesome adventure. I was a history nut. I had studied a little bit about the Incas. And I was like, "Yeah." And the chance to get to hike and camp with Erik and some of his Everest teammates and all that, I was like, yeah, this sounds like a really cool opportunity. I found lifelong friends from that trip. I mean, a lot of us still stay in touch to this day. And that trip was in 2006. I think we made it to Machu Picchu in mid June of 2006. And so, I mean, it's 15 years almost to the day or week that we were on that trip. So it was such a special thing.
Kyle: And then I remember a handful of us were sitting on the train, going back from Machu Picchu to Cusco. And we were like, man, we don't want to stop. We're doing something cool here. We're just a bunch of half blind and sighted teenagers hiking along a trail, but this is pretty cool. We're having fun. And we're also showing people that, look, if you put together a strong team around anybody, you can accomplish more than you ever thought was possible.
Kyle: And so, Dave, I remember we approached you, and we we're like, "Hey, would you guys consider organizing a second trip for our team?" And you went back to, at the time, it was Global Explorers. And you were like, "Let's do it." And then very next year we found ourselves on top of Kilimanjaro. And then it just snowballed from there, with the expansion of No Barriers, and just so many incredible trips.
Dave: Yeah, and I think that it's really interesting to think for me, for Erik, for you, these pivotal transformational experiences that involve sort of epic adventures at a pretty young age can really shape our lives, right? They can have a big impact on who we are and who we become.
Erik: It gave you a taste for adventure, it sounds like. And it seems like triathlon, I mean, not directly sprung from that, but definitely that taste of adventure led you forward to saying, okay, what else is out there for me? So how did you move from the mountains into this competitive racer and world champion, by the way. We'll talk about that.
Kyle: Not quite world champion. But I'll-
Erik: Well, all right. National champion. National champion.
Kyle: We're getting there, we're getting there. But no. Yeah. So like you said, I got this adventure itch and this adventure bug. And went on from Kilimanjaro to just loving the outdoors, spending as much time in the outdoors as I could. Climbing in the Pacific Northwest, climbing fourteeners in Colorado. And eventually I had to go to college and get one of the piece of paper that you have to get to survive in the world these days called a degree.
Kyle: At that time, I was living in Orlando, Florida. There's not really a lot of mountains in Orlando, Florida. I don't know if you guys know that. There wasn't a ton of outdoor, or at least the mountainous adventures that I had gotten used to. And I was really struggling with not being as gainfully employed as I would have liked. I was that classic millennial that was, when I first came out of college, I'm going to apply for every job CEO and above. And so then I just started climbing way down the corporate ladder after that because it obviously didn't work.
Kyle: So I was really struggling. I was gaining weight. I was drinking a lot of alcohol at the time. So I just woke up one day. I was like, I got to make a change. And so I was like, well, I guess the only thing I could do at this point, I have no money, but I guess I got two feet. Maybe I can run. So I went online, and I found someone that partnered blind and sighted runners. And reached out to a few people. One person responded. Well, beggars can't be choosers so I connected with him. He had never met a blind person, but had just randomly signed up for this website because he thought it sounded cool.
Kyle: And he happened to be a triathlete. And we ran together a few times. And he started talking to me about triathlon and this thing called Ironman. And it kind of lit a fire in me, or really, it put an itch in the back of my mind. And then just watching him over the course of a year doing a couple of Ironmans and stuff. Really I had this desire to challenge myself again. And he was like, "Dude, I think you could do this triathlon thing." And so we managed to get my tandem. He taught me how to swim. And I just started jumping into triathlons left and right.
Kyle: And eventually made my way to doing an Ironman. And then decided, man, I want to do this even more. And it was just the combination of putting swim, bike, and run together was so fulfilling and such a challenge. It really reminded me so much of all the things that I had done in the mountains. And I could apply all the systems that I had developed from rock climbing and snow climbing and skiing and all these other things. I could apply all those same techniques to triathlon and do it at a competitive level.
Kyle: So a couple of years ago, I got a call from USA Triathlon. And they were like, "Hey, we've seen you've been doing some pretty awesome stuff, at least in the half Ironman and Ironman fields. Well, blind and visually impaired men are now going to be in the Paralympics in 2020. Would you consider switching into sprint triathlon and competing against international fields. And we're opening up a spot at the Olympic Training Center for more residents. Would you consider coming and joining?" And I said, "How soon do you want me there?"
Erik: I'm already at your doorstep.
Dave: Yeah. And you're calling us from the Olympic Training Center. I totally want to hear about what it's like to train for Olympic events. But just for our listeners who aren't familiar with any of these techniques, what techniques do you have to run, bike, swim in a race?
Kyle: Yeah. So during a triathlon, I'm required to use the same guide throughout the race. So what we do is-
Erik: Do you know like a cowboy, where you can just go, "New horse, new horse-"
Kyle: I wish.
Erik: ... when somebody falls?
Kyle: I wish, I wish.
Erik: All right. Same guide. Okay.
Kyle: Yep. Same guide. So it's super important to find a guide that is, number one, stronger and faster than you are. Because as you're both racing all out, they have to be able to communicate with you throughout the race. So for the swim, we swim in open water. So that means a lake or the ocean or a river, or something like that. So in the swim, actually what we do is we take a bungee cord, and this is a technique that I and a lot of other people use, we take a bungee cord and we actually tie it around. I tie it around my upper left thigh. And then my guide ties it around his upper right thigh. And we swim side by side, and I can feel the tension of that tether pulling basically at my hip. And then as we come to a certain turn buoys, my guide will tap my left shoulder twice to let me know that there's a left-hand turn, or he'll reach over and he'll tap my right shoulder twice to let me know that there's a right hand turn.
Kyle: And we practice a lot because when you're in the water, your ears are filled with water. You're going all out. You can't hear someone trying to yell at you. So it's super important to develop that tactile communication in the water. And then we come out of the water, we run to our bikes, strip off the wetsuit, throw on the helmet, bike shoes, all that, all your bike gear. And I actually ride a custom built time trial tandem bike. And so guide is up in front piloting, making sure we're staying upright, and I'm in the back just throwing down as much power as I can. And then we come off the bike. I run with, we call it, a waist tether so it's around my waist and around my guides waist. And then were separated by about 50 centimeters by this little strap. And yeah, we run side by side. And at times I'm allowed to grab onto my guide's elbow for little sections called leading zones where it might be tight, or we have to pass somebody, or something along those lines.
Dave: And so now you you're sitting in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in one of the dormitories there. Tell us what the regimen is for an aspiring Olympic athlete. What does your day look like?
Kyle: Man, it's one very busy day. I'll go ahead and tell you that, I train seven days a week. And I'd say I average about 20 to 25 hours of total training time per week. Then throw on top of that, we have soft tissue specialists here at the training center that we go, and we visit to stay on top of injury prevention. Making sure that we get massages, dry needling, electrical stimulation, all the above to make sure that our bodies are performing as optimally as they can. And then we wind up working with our nutritionists and our dieticians a lot as well. It's a full-time gig. But I love the regimen. I love the schedule. I love pushing my body and my mind to find that edge of performance, and to find how far I can push myself, and see where that line is, and see if I could push it a little further.
Dave: So Kyle, I'm really interested going back to this Olympic thing. So hear you are training, and you're getting ready. But the Olympics is, what, eight weeks away. Is this a COVID product that this is so late to determine whether you get into the Olympics or not? Or is this just the way it always is for Olympians? You're literally weeks away, and you don't know if you're going to make it or not.
Kyle: This is pretty normal. So it really depends on the sport. So for us at USA Triathlon, there are certain performance metrics that are laid out. And you have to hit those performance metrics in races. And then we have certain races that are automatic qualifying events and all that. And so for USA Paratriathlon, our biggest qualifying event is our Continental Championships, which will take place June 27th in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. So that's our biggest qualifying event. So USA Triathlon will look at that race in particular to determine they're going to take to Tokyo. So just gearing up for that. Just a few weeks away.
Erik: I remember your old reports. So for everyone who's listening, you send out these amazing stories about all your races. And I remember in the beginning it was like, "Hey, I'm just getting into this thing. And I want to hang with the best." And you were getting beaten basically. And then as I read the reports, you're getting better and better. You're starting to place second. And then in Japan, or no, actually then I think it was before Japan, you started winning. I think you even got a world record or something. So yeah, talk about the evolution of how things have progressed for you.
Kyle: Yeah. So I mean, I started triathlon six years ago. And at that point, it was just a matter of, I just want to finish a race.
Erik: Right. That's your goal, just to finish.
Kyle: Yeah. And then a couple years after that, I was able to go on to become only the ninth blind or visually impaired triathlete ever to go under 12 hours for a full distance Ironman. And then a year later, I set a goal of becoming the first totally blind triathlete to go under 11 hours for an Ironman triathlon. And then I made the switch over to-
Erik: Well, then you made that, right? You got that, right?
Kyle: Yeah. And I did. I squeaked under it. So as of right now, I'm still the only totally blind person to finish a official Ironman 140.6 in under 11 hours. But I hope that record doesn't stand for long because I want to see the sport grow and progress. But then switching over to to the Paralympic side of things. Yeah. I mean, I was going up against guys that have been racing and doing this full time for years. And it was a struggle to try to get on the podium. And it was just a matter of, man, can I hang with these guys? And then it's just a matter of creeping up the standings one spot at a time, and pushing yourself day in and day out.
Kyle: Because it's not one training session or one race that puts you over the top. It's the day in day out grind of training and taking care of yourself. And coming back from major injuries and all that. So yeah. Before this year, I had placed as low as fourth and as high as second, but I was always just missing out on that top step of the podium. And then this past March, I went down to an invitational race that USA Triathlon put on, and was able to run clear of the rest of the field, and got the first win of my career down in Sarasota, Florida.
Kyle: And then in mid May this year, went over to Yokohama, Japan for the first major international race of the season. And went up against just a stacked field. And just had an incredible race going head to head with one of my compatriots from Spain. We were literally steps away from each other for the entire race. I came out of the water one second ahead of him. He came off the bike one second ahead of me. We went out onto the run together, and we literally ran shoulder to shoulder for, I would say, 4,500 meters. And I was able to out kick him in probably that last 500 meters to the finish line to win by just nine seconds. It's a big, first international win of my career. And yeah.
Erik: So I know I'm the first person who's ever asked you this, but how did that feel? I mean, that must've been crazy. Or are you like, you can't even believe it maybe?
Kyle: I'm still wondering if it actually happened. Because, look, everyone wants to win. Everyone wants to stand on top of the podium. But being able to win in the fashion that I did, that's what's making me pinch myself.
Erik: So even though you won that race, so now you still have to qualify, or are you qualified now?
Kyle: Nope. Still have to qualify. So I joke that it takes PhD in literature, economics, mathematics, and engineering to figure out the qualification for USA Paratriathlon. But no, essentially, if I win my race coming up in Wisconsin, we're pretty confident that I'll be selected to represent the US in Tokyo. But we're pretty stoked and excited.
Dave: That's just such an amazing thing to be able to say, one race away from being able to represent the US in Tokyo. Kyle, it's just extraordinary.
Erik: My hands are sweating for him.
Dave: I know. It's extraordinary what an athlete you become. I'd love to make sure we cover the fact that you've got another exciting thing happening, which is that you are releasing your first book. Tell us about the book.
Kyle: It's called Discovering a Life Without Limits: How Cancer Took My Sight, Blindness Gave Me Vision, and the Mountains Let Me Live. And it focuses on my years growing up as a kid, learning to navigate blindness, and then really discovering how I could push the limits of what I thought was possible. How could I find the limits of my potential and push beyond them? Basically how could I live my own version of a no barriers mindset? I hope that if and when people read my book that it encourages them and inspires them to reach beyond and go discover their own life without limits.
Erik: Yeah. And I know your story is unfolding. It's going to be a long time before your story is finished.
Dave: You still got a lot of years before you're as old as Erik.
Erik: Ouch, Dave [crosstalk 00:30:17].
Dave: So you got a lot of time.
Erik: No reason for a jab.
Kyle: I will say, Erik, you look just the same as the day I met you.
Erik: Thank you. Yeah. Me too. Yeah. The same for you.
Kyle: Dave, you look a little-
Erik: Actually, your head's a lot bigger than it was in kindergarten.
Kyle: That it is. Dave, I will say you look a little younger though.
Dave: Oh thank you.
Kyle: Are you staying in shape a little bit?
Dave: Yeah, yeah.
Kyle: Awesome. Awesome.
Dave: I've aged well.
Erik: And Kyle, all kidding aside, I'm so proud to have watched you grow up and take on all these adventures in this no barriers life, and do all the things with your life and living so fully. Great relationships, great adventure, great competition, great family. It brings tears to my eyes to just be a little part of your life. So crush it in the Paralympics, I know you're going to do great.
Dave: Yeah, good luck, Kyle. We look forward to seeing you in the Olympics.
Kyle: Absolutely. No. And hey, truly from the bottom of my heart, thank you guys just for being a part of my life. Anyone out there listening to this podcast, if you go to my publisher's website, walnutstreetpublishing.com, and you decide that you want to purchase my book, Discovering a Life Without Limits. If you plug in the code, no barriers, so all caps, no barriers, we'll donate $1 per book back to No Barriers. So if you want to go on and buy one book, we'll donate a dollar. If you decide that you want to go and you want to buy five books, we donate $5.
Erik: Or 100 books. Don't forget 100 books.
Dave: Buy them for all your friends, buy them for your company. We need to distribute these. And Kyle, that's such a generous offer. Thank you so much. I'm certainly going to go online and pick up my copy and pick up some copies for friends as well. It's just been so fun to reconnect with you. Where can our listeners go just to learn more about your story?
Kyle: Absolutely. So if you want to learn more about me, definitely visit my website, kylecoon.com. K-Y-L-E-C-O-O-N.com. You can check out all of my race reports under my adventures, that Erik mentioned earlier. But also please give me a follow on social media. I'm primarily active on Instagram and Facebook. So Instagram, you can find me @eyeronkyle. That's at E-Y-E-R-O-N-K-Y-L-E. So think of eye on Kyle. But kind of a little play on words there.
Erik: Good play on words. I like it.
Dave: Nice. That's pretty cool. I love it.
Kyle: Eyeronkyle. E-Y-E-R-O-N-K-Y-L-E. And then on Facebook, you can find me facebook.com/kylecoonsspeaks.
Dave: And as always, we'll put those links into our show notes so you can grab them there if you didn't have time to take note of them. But Kyle, just so fun to catch up with you. Good luck with the next few weeks here. And we hope to see you in the Olympics.
Erik: We're going to be rooting you on.
Kyle: Well, thank you guys so much. Really appreciate it.
Erik: Well, thanks, Dave. That was great. And no barriers to everyone.
We would like to thank our generous sponsors that make our No Barriers podcast possible. Wells Fargo, Prudential, CoBank, Aero Electronics, and Winnebago. Thank you so much for your support. It means everything to us. The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Shaffer, sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman. and marketing support by Heather Zoccali, Stevie DiNardo, Erica Howey, and Alex Schaffer. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan Band for our intro song Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at nobarrierspodcasts.com. (singing)