FROM STUMBLING BLOCKS INTO STEPPING STONES: Charlie Plaskon, at left, shown here tethered to his guide during the running portion of an Ironman competition, told students at The Bridge Academy last week that his blindness has not kept him from accomplishing numerous feats, athletic and otherwise.
Charlie Plaskon breaks records all the time. But for this legally blind, 69-year-old triathlete, finishing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile marathon that make up an Ironman competition, in 12 hours and 41 minutes — the record for a blind individual — isn’t about the numbers.
“I give my medals away,” Mr. Plaskon said Friday during a talk to students at The Bridge Academy in Lawrenceville. “It’s just acknowledgment for what I did that particular day,” he added, holding up one of his many medals. “I enjoy them, but I don’t relish them.”
What is most important, he told the students, who have dyslexia and other language-based disabilities, is not letting those disabilities get in the way of what they want to achieve. “I’m here to motivate you to make a difference,” he said. “You don’t even know what you’re capable of.”
Mr. Plaskon was on hand to talk to the students, who range in age from eight to 18, and to ride with them the following day in Bike for Bridge, a charity bike ride to benefit the 10-year-old school. He got acquainted with the school through its art teacher, Sarah Bernotas, whose father has been Mr. Plaskon’s friend since childhood. “Uncle Charlie” clearly has an affection for the Bridge Academy, which he has visited in the past.
“I hope I inspired them,” he said this week during a telephone interview. “They inspire me. Because I don’t have eyes, people lend me their eyes. I have a different kind of vision. For each person to do as much as they can with what they’ve got, that’s my message. If there’s a stumbling block, they fashion it into a stepping stone.”
It was actual stepping stones, in fact, around which Mr. Plaskon focused his talk last week. He asked the students to tell him how many stones there were between the Bridge Academy’s main building and the adjacent Adath Israel synagogue, where the talk was held. Though it is a short walk they make regularly, none of the Bridge students came close to the right number.
“You take your sight for granted,” said Mr. Plaskon, who has learned to make a mental note of steps he takes and ground he covers. “Do you know what a gift that is? You have eyes and you’re not using them as much as you possibly could.”
The students were rapt as Mr. Plaskon relayed his unusual story. Born in 1943 with a condition called Stargardt macular degeneration, which in children today can be helped by laser treatments, he struggled with his sight from birth. “My vision kept declining,” he said. “The world was getting increasingly darker.”
It was Mr. Plaskon’s first grade teacher who told his parents that something was wrong. They took him to an eye doctor. “I was in the next room after the examination, and I heard the doctor say to my father, ‘Never let your son leave the house. The world is much too dangerous for him.’ I was barely six-years-old! I had a lot of dreams,” he recalled. “I wanted to be a fireman, a cowboy. How was I going to achieve them?” Mr. Plaskon’s father came out of the doctor’s office, took his son by the shoulders and said, “Don’t listen to what the doctor says.” It was a turning point for him.
With the help of encouraging teachers as well as his supportive family, Mr. Plaskon earned a bachelor’s degree from Newark State College, a master’s degree from the University of Maryland at College Park, and a second master’s from Hofstra University on Long Island. After 32 years, he retired from his job teaching industrial arts at a Long Island middle school, and retired to Florida. He has three children and four grandchildren.
Running was a challenge Mr. Plaskon tackled after retirement. Soon, he was taking part in half-marathons and full marathons. Those led to triathlons, adding swimming and biking to the challenge. Mr. Plaskon participates with the help of (much younger) partners who are tethered to him throughout the competitions. Since 2003, he has completed several half Ironman and full Ironman events including the World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October 2007.
As part of his presentation at The Bridge Academy, Mr. Plaskon demonstrated how he changes his attire for each portion of the race. He put on his goggles, pulled on his swim cap, showed where he stows his “nutrition” for fuel during the day-long competitions. Removing his jacket, he unwittingly showed off his muscular frame.
Mr. Plaskon ran in the recent Boston Marathon, his sixth, aided by two guides. At his talk, he didn’t talk about the race, during which two bombs were set off, killing three spectators and wounding several others. But he recalled his experience this week.
“We were on schedule and were coming in well under the anticipated time,” he said. “Right around the 24-mile marker, the word came back that there was an explosion in a medical tent. We thought it was maybe an oxygen tank or something. A group of police urged us to leave, but we had just run 25.5 miles and we weren’t about to stop. We ran all the way down to Boylston Street and had a pinch left to go when one of my guides said there were helicopters, police cars, members of the bomb squad with weapons. We knew it was over.”
The three were running “… over fences, under barriers, a mass of humanity,” Mr. Plaskon said of their exit from the scene. “We forgot about shivering and being thirsty. Cramps set in because the police would stop us. Nobody knew what was going on. But we survived.”
The experience did not dampen Mr. Plaskon’s enthusiasm for competitions. Two weeks ago, he did a 112-mile bike ride with veterans from the Pentagon to Gettysburg. This week, he will do a fundraiser for Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in Washington D.C. “I do this all over the place,” he said. “That’s why I have to stay so fit.”
The Bike for Bridge race last Saturday was shorter, but no less rewarding than the other events on Mr. Plaskon’s agenda. “It’s the experiences at things like this that are tremendous,” he said. “The people I met Saturday morning were wonderful. Two or three gentlemen said, ‘My son was in the audience at your talk yesterday and I had to come and meet you.’ This is a collection of people who have challenges. I’ve been challenged every day of my life. If I can make it, so can they. There was great participation, bringing attention to a school that is very special because they’re saving kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks.”
Bridge School principal Sue Morris said more than 30 riders of all ages took part in the race. Having Mr. Plaskon on hand for two days “means a tremendous amount,” she said. “The kids were amazed at the things he’s been able to accomplish, and they were inspired that he doesn’t take no for an answer, that he just pushes through and finds a way to accomplish things,” she said. “He does not use his blindness as an excuse. We explain to our kids, you do not use your disability as an excuse. They need to be able to accommodate for it and push through.”
Mr. Plaskon is considering a return to teaching, and working on a book. “I hope to launch my message in as large a way possible,” he said. “I’m here, I’m 70, I’m old, and I’m blind, but if I can encourage people to do things they never thought were possible, what could be better than that?”