Blind Ambition

February 8, 2014

Amy Duchene

“Even though I’m older and blind, I really want to see where I stand. I enjoy competition." 

“Even though I’m older and blind, I really want to see where I stand. I enjoy competition." 
~Brandon Tucker

Photos by Lindsey Brou

Brandon Tucker has 76 percent hearing loss in one ear, 78 percent loss in the other and is 99 percent blind. But that hasn’t stopped him from registering for the 2014 Open. 

Tucker, 39, has Usher syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that leads to hearing and vision loss. The disability, however, has failed to slow him down in life. He was already a successful entrepreneur—owning both an automobile detailing company and a retail store in his native Louisiana—when he encountered CrossFit for the first time.

“Last year, my brother and brother-in-law had recently started (CrossFit) and convinced me to give it a shot,” he said. “At first I was skeptical, but I tried it and it killed me and had me hooked at the same time.”

Tucker was diagnosed with Ushers Syndrome Type 2 at age 8. Doctors said his hearing would diminish by about one decibel every decade and he’d most likely be completely blind at 21. Today, he communicates with relative ease thanks to hearing aids and speech therapy. His vision, however, is almost completely gone.

“I haven’t been able to see well for about 20 years, but in the last 10 years is when I really noticed a difference,” Tucker said. “It has gotten progressively worse, and at this point, I can really only see lights and shadows.”

“Going through it, though, I never really felt like it held me back,” he continued. “I always had such a good support network through my family, friends, wife and kids that I never saw it that way. In a weird way, it actually made me more competitive. My family has always been competitive so I knew I would have to be a little bit better on my game than others who could see. I saw it as more of an exciting challenge than something that would hold me back.”

Athletics have always played a profound role in Tucker’s life. When he was younger and still had vision, he studied kinesiology and worked as an athletic trainer. He was also an avid powerlifter and golfer. However, as his vision worsened, he gave up those sports.

Years later, after starting a family and succeeding in business, Tucker felt listless. 

CrossFit got him back in the game. His coach Amber Leonard—of Geaux CrossFit in Baton Rouge, La.—helped Tucker manage handstand push-ups, kipping pull-ups and other movements where his impairments could be problematic.

“Working with Brandon, basically, I had to be very descriptive,” Leonard explained. “I had to paint a picture. Because he has not been blind since birth, he does have some sense of body awareness so I would just talk him through the movement. I would have him imagine it, and I would also use my body by having him put his hands on certain parts of my body so he could feel the movement and what my body was doing and then have him try to replicate that on his own.

“For example, whenever he was on the kipping pull-up, having him put one hand on my chest, one hand on my lower back, feeling everything stay tight, the forward and back motion, cueing the pulling motion, and then when it came to the hip extension I cued him to think as if he was jumping on a box, so his knees would come up, he would shoot his feet down, and finally he would feel the sensation as if he was performing the pull-up.”

These creative strategies became an integral part of his athletic development.  

“She really is the best trainer,” Tucker said. “She helps me so much through the way she words things, giving me detailed descriptions and helping to put me through the motions.”

Box jumps were another challenge Leonard helped Tucker to manage.

“As far as box jumps go, he does still have the ability to see contrast between light and dark so we have black boxes at the gym. I would have him stand in front of the box, feel the perimeter of it, feel the height of it, and then with the contrast of our concrete floors, he was able to determine where the box was, so we transitioned from tuck jumps into the tuck jump landing on top of the box. Now, I’ll just stand beside him to let him know where he’s at, because sometimes he will jump far right or far left, so then he centers himself and he’ll keep going.”

For Leonard, meeting Tucker was a godsend. He has pushed her as a coach, providing her with invaluable experience. 

“Hands down, the best thing about training Brandon is not only have I enjoyed working with him, but as a coach he’s done so much for me personally,” she said. “As a CrossFit coach you never know who is coming through the door. You never know what kind of thing you’re going to be dealing with, but I can say that now I am not scared about it at all. If I can work with a man who can’t see or hear, then I’m pretty sure I can work with anyone.”

“He’s also been a huge inspiration to not only me but every single member of my gym,” Leonard continued. “When they come in and they see him jumping on a box, flipping upside down and doing handstand push-ups, you kind of just run out of excuses for yourself. He’s probably one of the bravest people I’ve ever met because if you asked me to close my eyes and jump in the air, I’d probably be pretty nervous about where I’d fall.”  

One year into his training, Tucker has learned to do box jumps, modified wall-ball shots, kipping pull-ups and ring dips. They have also worked on Olympic lifting and overhead squats. His current max back squat is 365 lb.

“He had so much ambition and was eager to do more, so we kept challenging him,” Leonard said. “He would listen to the CrossFit Games and could barely make out an outline enough to want to try what he could barely see. He wanted so badly to do everything that everyone else was doing.”

That’s when she had an idea.

“I actually brought competing in the Open to his attention. Whenever we had been working together, he was just really able to pick up on all of these movements so I was like, well hell; he’s not doing too badly,” she said. “He is doing better than some people who have full hearing, full eyesight and he’s just so hungry he enjoys it. It’s his hobby. He talks about it to his friends and I thought, ‘What better thing for him to do than be part of an even bigger community and participate in the Open.’”

Going into the 2014 Open, Tucker is excited. However, he doesn’t want to make a statement. He just wants to compete. His goal is to be a serious Masters competitor in 2015.

“People tell me my times on the workouts show that I need to give this a try,” he said. “Even though I’m older and blind, I really want to see where I stand. I enjoy competition. I know there isn’t a division specifically for people like me, but I hope to be even better in a year, and get to compete at the Masters level and do the best that I can. This year, I’m sure I’ll be humbled pretty quickly, but I also know it will be fun. I’ve always loved to compete.”

He’s not looking forward to Olympic lifts or double-unders, but overall he feels prepared. 

While many look at Tucker as the inspiration, Tucker looks at the CrossFit community as his inspiration.

“Brandon is competing in the Open because he wants to be challenged beyond his wildest dreams, and has found a community that supports him and loves seeing him succeed,” Leonard said. “Sight is something that most of us take for granted, but Brandon won't let it stop him. … We've never been so proud of someone’s simple ambition to live a life more fully.”