Blinded by the Light
Originally published in Swim. 20 (5), 18-20. (Sports Publications).
This article is reproduced with permission. Any further use requires permission from the copyright holder.
Seven-time U.S. Paralympian Trischa Zorn, a visually-impaired Masters swimmer from Indy SwimFit, credits swimming for many o f the skills that are now part of her life, such as dedication, determination, discipline and time management.
Trischa Zorn is full of surprises.
Last summer, Zorn, a visually-impaired Masters swimmer from the Indy SwimFit Masters club, surprised many people by swimming in the USMS One-Mile Open Water Championship at the Eagle Creek Reservoir in Indianapolis.
Legally blind swimmers rarely participate in open water swims, but that was beside the point. The popular, ebony-eyed swimmer, born without irises, had another big surprise. Zorn showed up with a light blue-green iris in her right eye.
Later in the year, the six-time U.S. Paralympian would reveal another major surprise-she was coming out of retirement to train for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece.
Zorn, who recently turned 40, is no stranger to success. She almost qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team in the 200 meter backstroke, finishing only hundredths of a second behind Linda Jezek, Sue Walsh and Libby Kinkead at the Trials.
"I swam for the Mission Viejo Nadadores Swim Team from the age of 10 to 18," said Zorn. "Swimming under coaches like Bev Montrella, Pat Burch, Larry Liebowitz, Terry Stoddard and Mark Schubert was a very valuable experience." Mission Viejo was the dominant swimming club in the United States at the time.
"The program had a very competitive and intense atmosphere that challenged all swimmers to push themselves to the ultimate level. The experience taught me several life skills that have crossed over to my academic and professional career, such as discipline, dedication, determination and, most importantly, time management. We pushed each other in workouts, and it was nice swimming with other athletes who had the same goals and desires."
Zorn was a four-time NCAA Academic All-American while attending Nebraska on an academic scholarship, and she was the first visually impaired athlete to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship. Having won 54 medals-including 41 gold, nine silver and four bronze-she is the most decorated athlete for any sport in the history of the Paralympic movement. She has also held multiple world records in her disability class in backstroke, breaststroke, individual medley and relay events.
Blinded by the Light
Zorn was born with aniridia, a congenital, genetic eye condition that is typically bilateral. The condition is caused by a dysfunction in the PAX6 gene, the gene responsible for eye development, which causes the eye to stop developing prematurely.
Because the iris of a fully developed eye functions by opening and closing like the aperture of a camera, individuals born without irises do not have the physical capacity to focus and control the amount of light entering the eyes.
The pupils remain wide open, no matter how bright the lighting conditions. In effect, this condition is similar to the feeling of walking out of a dark movie theatre into blinding sunlight-although the eyes do not adjust to the change in lighting conditions.
The only treatment for aniridia is a surgery involving a synthetic iris implant, which reduces the amount of light entering the eyes.
"I learned about the artificial iris procedure on the local news," said Zorn, who received her implants from internationally recognized ophthalmic surgeon, Dr. Francis W. Price Jr.
"They were reporting the first artificial implant that Dr. Price performed. After hearing about the procedure, I called Dr. Price's office to make an appointment to see if I would qualify as a candidate for the FDA study and procedure."
She qualified, and received her first synthetic iris and lens, which came from Holland, in April 2003. She received her second implant in August 2003.
"Typically, if both eyes are going to have artificial implants, the time period between surgeries is six months," said Zorn. "However, my surgeries were four months apart due to my school schedule and training."
The procedure takes between two-and-a-half to three hours in length, and the recovery can actually be up to a year! However, Zorn was out of the water only six weeks for each surgery. According to Zorn, there wasn't too much pain-only some swelling and bruising of the eye.
Although the procedure effectively reduced the area of exposed pupil, the whole experience has been an eye-opener for Zorn. Before the surgery, she could only see objects that were a few feet in front of her. Although her vision has improved from 20/1100 to 20/850, it does not change her classification for Paralympics competition. The surgery's main purpose was to help cut down glare from light coming into the eyes, but the synthetic irises gave the eyes a natural appearance.
"People who knew me really saw a significant difference right away," said Zorn. "Being able to see one eye with an iris and one eye without an iris was very interesting. We were able to see the transformation of what the final results were going to look like. People who had not seen me in a while and didn't know that I had the surgery noticed something different, but couldn't figure it out until I told them what I had done."
Many visually impaired competitive swimmers are accompanied by an assistant who carries a long pole with a tennis ball attached on the end of the pole. This apparatus is called a "tapper" or "bonker"--and it is used to gently tap the swimmer during the approach to the wall. Even though Zorn could only see objects a few feet in front of her, she has done most of her swimming without assistance.
"I usually don't have anyone tap me on the head," said Zorn, "but there have been a few times that I had this assistance due to cloudy water, poor lighting or conditions in which it was difficult to see the wall."
Out of Retirement
Zorn retired from swimming after the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney. She originally had no plans to attend the Paralympics in Athens, and entered law school at Indiana University School of Law, Indianapolis, in the fall of 2001. Consequently, she did very little swimming because of her academic schedule.
"In the fall of 2002, I decided to start swimming again," said Zorn--"not for competition, but for stress relief and to have another outlet outside of school."
About nine months later, after participating in the One-Mile Open Water Championship "as a workout," she found herself in Edmonton, Canada, at the Canadian National Championships for the Disabled, where she qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials.
"The Edmonton meet was the motivation and the inspiration for me to make the commitment to train full time, and to make public that I was coming out of retirement to train for Athens," said Zorn. "I realized in Edmonton how much I really did miss the challenge and the competition of swimming."
Enjoying the Moment
The decision to come out of retirement and participate in one final Paralympic Games has given Zorn time to reflect on her competitive swimming experience. As she reaches the end of an incredibly fulfilling Paralympic experience, she looks back to the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials with an enlightened perspective.
"At the time of the meet, it was disappointing not to make the team," said Zorn. "After the Trials, I had time to reflect on my experience. I realized that I did the best I could, and I built my swimming future from that experience. As I grew older, I became more aware that swimming is just one part of the equation in my life. Each time I get in the water to race, it's a new experience. I come away from each race with something positive."
"It is not so much anymore about winning medals or doing a best time every time I get in the water," added Zorn. "My focus is to have fun while swimming my races and to enjoy the moment. This new attitude has been very beneficial for me during the Trials and, hopefully, will continue through Athens."
Athens will be Zorn's final victory lap in the Paralympics. After she returns home from Athens, swimming will still be a big part of her life, but the priorities will shift toward professional goals.
"I am interested in several areas of law right now," said Zorn. "Having taught school for eight years, juvenile law is very interesting to me. I am very passionate about this area of study. On the other hand, my sports background has given me an interest in the sports/entertainment area, such as trademark and copyright law. I still have another year in school, so I have some time left to decide what I finally would like to practice."
Zorn's plans also include focusing on Masters swimming, but she also anticipates the freedom she will gain by dropping the heavy commitment to swimming.
"One of my goals is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and continue swimming with the great group of people involved with Indy SwimFit. I also hope to give back to the sport of swimming, either through coaching or mentoring other swimmers, be it age-groupers or Masters swimmers."
The future may be uncertain, but one thing's for sure: with the positive traits she has developed through swimming-dedication, determination and discipline-it will be no surprise to see Trischa Zorn rise to the top.