Brian Switzer has always loved sports.
First, he played baseball. “But then the ball got too difficult to see,” he said.
Then in middle school he played soccer and basketball. He had to give up both sports as his vision progressively worsened, the result of a condition known as Usher Syndrome Type 2 that he was born with. The genetic disorder affects the inner ear and auditory nerves and is accompanied by loss of eyesight, starting with one’s peripheral vision and eventually leading to the central vision.
While his hearing has largely been unaffected since birth – he wears two Bluetooth hearing aids – his vision continued to decline until he became fully blind at the age of 24, one year after he graduated from Stonehill College with a dual degree in economics and philosophy.
Admittedly, it was a “tough transition,” he said, that forced him to relearn simple things like cooking, cleaning, and using a computer. “I had to learn how to do them in a different way using different senses and technology. It was a big transition which is part of the reason I like Heroes so much because they help support people moving from active duty to civilian life. I imagine that is a huge transition for someone to go through.”
Switzer’s connection to Heroes In Transition is through his wife Emily’s sister Kaitlin Whitecross and her husband Jeff, an Army veteran. The couple have attended a number of HIT events over the years including our Fall Couples Retreat in 2018.
“Obviously as a veteran himself, Jeff really enjoys being involved with Heroes In Transition and the sense of community he gets out of it,” said Brian, who lives in Sharon with Emily, his guide dog Intrigue, and their new puppy Kolton.
After seeing how Heroes has positively impacted both Jeff and Kaitlin’s lives, Brian decided he wanted to do something to give back to our organization. Kaitlin and Jeff had mentioned the Ruck4HIT, a grueling relay race that involved the last sport Brian had picked up prior to losing his sight – running.
“In high school, I joined the track team,” he said. “What little vision I had left, I found I could still run.”
Through most of college – Brian also holds a master’s degree in public policy from Suffolk University – and after, he continued to run. “I think running gives you a sense of accomplishment,” he said. “You’re always competing against yourself. You’re always improving. It gives you a challenge. Every day you can run faster and run a little harder. I love that you can continue to build and motivate yourself.”
Running has led Brian to faraway places like Genoa, Italy, where he ran a half marathon with Marco Steffan, a friend who also has Usher Syndrome.
His first marathon was in Alaska for the Equinox Marathon, considered one of the most difficult in the world which Brian experienced firsthand. “There’s a lot of elevation changes and you’re climbing really high up,” he explained. “You go over the Ester Dome and back. And also the weather, it was snowing during the race when we ran.”
He has since completed the Boston Marathon twice and the New York City Marathon once.
Last year, he crossed the Ruck4HIT off his bucket list when he ran with Team Major Cluster Ruck. For Brian, it “was one of the most difficult races I’ve ever done. Carrying the rucksack definitely adds to the challenge of running. Running with a 30-pound backpack is really difficult,” he said. “And obviously you’re running through the night and it gets really cold when you’re running by the water at 2 am.”
Despite those challenges, Brian jumped at the chance when asked to do it for the second straight year. “I believe in Heroes In Transition’s mission,” he said. “I really want to continue supporting the veterans. I think Heroes does amazing work and this is really well worth it.”
Brian, who teaches access technology at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, hopes that one day, more people with disabilities will do the Ruck4HIT. “That would be incredible,” he said.
This year, Brian and his team set out from their base camp outside of Laura’s Home Cookin’ in Mashpee, shortly after midnight on Friday morning. They set a goal of running 220 miles collectively. They far surpassed that, logging a total of 350 miles in 36 hours; Brian ran over 27.7 miles, joined by two guides, his uncle Michael Switzer and John Lesperance who both ran with him last year.
Running that many miles is a significant challenge for anyone, let alone someone who is blind. “You know most people can get up and go for a run whenever they want,” he said. “For someone like me, it’s a little more difficult. I need to find volunteers or I need to run with my guide dog.”
To most, Brian serves as an inspiration, proof of what one can do regardless of the obstacles in their way. “I think of myself as someone who is just living his own life,” he said, before adding, “I do like that people with disabilities enjoy watching me run. It’s definitely encouraged me to keep on running to make sure people hear my story. Hopefully, it helps someone somewhere decide to start running or find a new challenge for themselves.”
When his wife was asked what she thought of Brian’s achievements, she said, “I am so proud of him. I get emotional. I don’t think he realizes how amazing it is. The fact that people who are sighted and have their hearing don’t accomplish the same things as him, it’s just phenomenal. I don’t think people realize how much work and effort goes into what Brian does. I get a huge sense of pride and am in awe of his accomplishments to be honest.”
To learn more about Brian and to keep up with his upcoming races, like his Facebook page here.