Before he was old enough to vote, St. Paul Highland Park neighborhood resident Louie McGee had competed in a triathlon, started a nonprofit organization, won a presidential award and appeared on the cover of a national publication.
That’s just a small sample of what the Cretin-Derham Hall senior has accomplished— and he has done it all while living with blindness.
McGee, 18, spent the summer and fall preparing for his next big adventure. He headed to Louisville, Kentucky, where on October 14 he competed in a full Ironman Triathlon, a grueling event that includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, done in that order. He successfully completed the event.
There aren’t any known databases of blind Ironman athletes, but it’s probably safe to say it’s a small group. As far as McGee can tell, only 15-20 blind athletes have ever conquered an Ironman and there’s “about a 99 percent chance I’m the youngest,” he said.
McGee was inspired to take on the challenge, in part, after reading a book about Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. Just as Weihenmayer inspired him, McGee wants to motivate other blind athletes to stretch their limits.
“I’m taking on this challenge to encourage other kids with blindness to find their own adventure,” he said. “I spend my life focusing on possibility rather than disability.”
McGee has lived up to that can-do philosophy since he was diagnosed at age five with Stargardt disease, similar to macular degeneration, which results in loss of vision from the center out. In the months and years that followed the diagnosis, he did a lot of traveling with his family, made connections with other people living with blindness, and leaned on the support of family and friends.
He also got involved. From 2010-13, he was the youth chair of the Twin Cities Vision Walk for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. He has raised more than $100,000 for the cause and has spoken to countless young people as part of his service with the foundation.
During the past five years, he has been featured in numerous local and national publications, including Time Magazine for Kids, and has earned a trophy case full of honors and awards, such as the 2013 Presidential Award for Service from Barack Obama.
As a sophomore in high school, McGee started a nonprofit foundation, known as Louie’s Vision, which offers everything from donations of tandem bikes to golf and skiing lessons for kids with blindness.
Through it all, McGee has been an ordinary teenager who enjoys swimming, running, skiing and other activities. He competed in his first triathlon last year, and for the past six months has been training for the next level of endurance sports.
McGee’s parents, Greg and Annie, weren’t thrilled when he first brought up the idea of competing in the Ironman. After all, he was busy with his senior year in high school, not to mention the considerable time and cost involved in such an undertaking.
“Our response was a pretty strong ‘No,’” Greg recalled. He floated the idea of perhaps considering a half-Ironman and was caught off-guard by his son’s response.
“He said, ‘Doing half of something isn’t very inspirational.’ We thought he was onto something,” said Greg, who added that both he and Annie are “super-proud” of their son. At the Ironman event, McGee competed in the physically challenged class. He and a guide, Woodbury resident Milan Tomaska, were tethered together for the swim and run, and rode together on a tandem bike.
McGee has long been an accomplished swimmer, but not a particularly avid biker or runner. Before he started training, his longest run was about 7 miles and he hadn’t gone more than 30 miles on a bike, he said.“After training for a few months, I was like, ‘Uh-oh. What have I gotten myself into?’” McGee joked.
But the months of training paid off. As he headed into the Ironman, he was running more than 20 miles at a time and logging 100 miles on the bike. After a recent run of 20 miles, he felt strong enough to “tack on another mile,” he said.
As for the cycling part, McGee said that’s “more of a mind game” because the biggest challenge is to keep mentally strong while sitting on the bike for hours.
“It’s kind of boring to sit there for that long,” he said. “The nice thing is I’m on a tandem, so I can talk to my guide the whole time.”
McGee said growing up with blindness has taught him a lot about service to others. “I often rely on others for help, and the people around me have to be open to providing that help,” he said. “That network of positive energy allows for the best to be brought out in people. A good leader cannot rise alone and that, I think, is where my strength lies.”
As for the future, McGee said he looks forward to finishing his last year of high school and making the transition to college. He’s undecided on a major, but he’s contemplating psychology and perhaps going on to law school.
Whatever his future holds, he intends to keep working on behalf of blind people.
“I’ll use my Ironman experience as a platform to speak and show others with blindness that so much is possible,” he said. “Even if we don’t find a cure for blindness and I lose more of my vision, I know I’ll continue to have the opportunity to do more great things and help other kids like me get the most out of life.”
This article is reprinted with permission from the Villager newspaper, St. Paul.