Blind mountain biker raises awareness, surmounts challenges

By Ashika Raval – Staff Writer
UNC Asheville kicks off its second annual Disability Awareness Week with keynote speaker Bobby McMullen, an extreme athlete who remains competitive after being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.
Even after years of dialysis, two double transplants, heart surgery, cancer, multiple broken bones and most significantly the loss of his vision, McMullen is the epitome of extreme sports. He competes in both mountain biking and skiing competitions. He is a tenacious adrenaline junkie who goes into every competition giving his 100 percent and is undeterred by his disabilities.
McMullen learned to ski with a guide and within a year he qualified for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. He spent seven years as a member of the U.S. Team, was a two-time U.S. Disabled Overall Downhill champion and earned his spot on the Nagano Paralympic ski team.  In 1997 his kidneys began to fail and he had his first double transplant. After he recovered, he competed in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano, Japan, taking fifth place in the Alpine downhill ski competition.  Then in 2003 he had his second kidney transplant.
Throughout his ski career, McMullen depended on cycling to keep in shape and as a means of conditioning. For both skiing and biking he used a guide-follow method, where a guide would either ski or bike in front of him yelling out directions such as ‘strong right’ ‘straight straight’ to help keep him on the trail.
“Old-fashioned yelling and screaming is the best method because I depend on the peripheral noise the trail makes, my tires make on rocks and water, the shifting of a bike or the wind blowing. A lot of those things that you take for granted on a visual focus are levels of communication for me and when I lose them or hear my guide go in a certain direction I know whether they are going right or left,” McMullen said.
According to McMullen, he began competitively mountain biking and competed in 23 downhill races the year following his second transplant. Since 2004, McMullen has raced in at least 25 downhill, cross-country, and 8- and 12-hour mountain bike events each year. He not only competed in disabled teams, but competes in many able-bodied competitions as well.
With extreme sports most people can never really plan what will happen next, but with McMullen he really has no way of telling what the path will be like. Whether he will fall on sharp rocks on the side of the trail or break another bone is unpredictable, according to McMullen.
“If you think what I’m doing is a little nutty, I mean, that’s just my passion and I talk quite passionately that it’s about the bike, but it’s the passion I have and passion is such a big part of who we are and identifying who we are and allowing ourselves to be who we are. I think that a life without passion is a life without direction,” McMullen said.
It’s hard sometimes to stay motivated when society still doesn’t accept him, McMullen said.
“You have no idea what it’s like to live in my shoes. You’ll see me here and go ‘Oh, he’s kinda funny and he’s not that good looking, but oh, his story is kinda cute.’ You don’t walk in our shoes. When you see people with a cane, dog or wheelchair you’ll go ‘Wow I bet they do amazing things, that disabled person,’” McMullen said.
Society struggles with accepting and working with people with differences, whether that be racial, physical or emotional differences. People are always trying to assume things about people with disabilities, either by completely disregarding them or by labeling them off, according to McMullen.
“You’ll already label them as that blind guy, that person that walks with a funny twitch or can’t speak right. You have no idea what it takes for someone to go to work 9 to 5 and is visually impaired or that’s hearing impaired. You don’t have any clue of the battles it takes for them to get there,” McMullen said.
Throughout each obstacle McMullen has faced, he was never sure what was going to happen next. During the winter of 2012 he asked his wife to marry him, they both felt pretty good about life at that moment and almost felt like everything bad that has happened to him was finally over, according to McMullen.
“A couple of weeks after I asked her to marry me, I was biking and realized that I couldn’t even bike up my driveway and I had a terrible heart rate. Next thing I know I’m having open heart surgery on Valentine’s day and a few weeks after that my doctor says, ‘Bobby, you got melanoma cancer,’” McMullen said. “We want to say this sh***y thing just happened so now nothing else will happen because that’s all behind me. There are no scales in life. If it’s going to happen, man, just take it on the chin. It’s your decision on how you’re going to proceed and I do my best to make what’s going on in my life not everybody else’s.”
McMullen said he doesn’t want to be a burden to other people, but at the same time he is who he is and won’t stop living his life because of his disability or for the acceptance of other people.
“Those people that know and love me know who I am,” McMullen said. They understand this is who I was long before anything ever changed in my life. People can judge, judge all you want. Do I care what people think about me? No.”
McMullen said he has a responsibility to family and friends to live the life he was given.
“I have been given two double organ transplants. You don’t think I wake up every morning putting both feet on the ground and say I am here thanks to somebody else, and I have a responsibility to live every moment of my life, whether it’s in front of you or if I’m hanging out with my friends to give the best of me,” McMullen said.
McMullen said he believes that even though people with disabilities may have to rely on others to help them, it is up to them to advocate for themselves. Without self-advocating change cannot happen.
“I want to bring a different level of awareness to people with disabilities, as individuals and a group. I want to show that we are strong and empowered and are a quality part of the workforce and a quality part of life. And I mean that about any disability, whether that is an emotional disability, a mental or physical. We are a part of life; a big part of life. We are a huge part of the population, but a forgotten part at times,” McMullen said.
UNCA hosted its second annual Disability Awareness Week Oct. 28 through Nov. 1, highlighting McMullen’s achievements.
“I will not be leveraged. I will not allow my disability to leverage me,” McMullen said.