Bodybuilder Pat Leahy’s lack of sight doesn’t affect his vision

June 6, 2013

Patrick Leahy participates in The Organization of Competitive Bodybuilding’s Atlantic Super Show in Richmond. Leahy was born with Leber congenital amaurosis, a degenerative disease that affects the retinas. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

It is an early-May morning, and showtime looms. Fans are packed into a high school auditorium in Richmond for one of the largest bodybuilding contests in the region. Judges await the routines of a hundred muscle-laden competitors, who at this moment fill a maze of rooms backstage making jittery small talk or studying themselves in full-length mirrors placed against every spare wall. Each competitor has a different last-minute ritual: doing push-ups, pumping dumbbells, pulling tension bands. All wear bikini bottoms and sport spray tans that dye every pore a John Boehner orange.

Pat Leahy is waiting with his fellow competitors, but he ignores the mirrors. They won’t help him. Leahy has been blind since birth. As he stands in the middle of this holding pen of skin-popping flesh, he can see almost none of it. The slight peripheral vision he once had has deteriorated so that he has difficulty seeing objects even a foot away.

A muscle-ripped Adonis, obsessed with tone and definition, Leahy has worked for months with trainer and longtime friend Kevin Smith to sculpt his body into perfection — a perfection he has created for others to judge, as he can’t fully judge it himself.

Bodybuilding may seem an odd pursuit for someone without sight. It is perhaps the most visual of competitive sports. It is not about how you pass or shoot or swim or jump. It is about how you look. But when you can’t look, how do you compete? And why do you compete?

Leahy has heard the questions before and has asked them of himself. The how question is easier to answer. He competes by driving himself, training relentlessly, and relying on coaches and friends and family to provide feedback that will challenge him and help him improve. As Leahy prepared for the Richmond contest last month, Smith described his opponents to him. “These guys are 10, 20 pounds bigger than you,” Smith says. “You have to be crisp in all your poses to impress.”

Leahy listens intently. He may be blind, but he has come here to be seen. He has also come here to win.

Bright lights shower the contestants as they walk onstage. Barefoot and gleaming with oil, Leahy stands alongside his peers, each responding in unison to a judge’s commands and, in concert, slowly turning so all 10 judges get a glimpse from every angle.

“Front double biceps,” booms a judge. “Please rotate a quarter-turn. Side chest.” The contestants follow orders. “Please rotate a quarter-turn. Hands on thighs, hips most muscular.”

Leahy powers through with a strained smile, remembering what he was told worked well in the gym. Shrug the shoulders, and the lats pop. Tighten glutes, and the legs come to life. From the audience come frenzied shouts of encouragement.

“RIP IT!” “SIT DOWN INTO IT!” “GET BIG!” “GO CAVE MAN!”

Within a few minutes, the competition is over and Leahy retreats to his dressing room. He has given his maximum effort and feels exhausted. Now the results are out of his hands. Other people are judging him. As they have his entire life. And, as always, he’s confident he has won over the doubters.

Gallery

Pat Leahy as a child

Pat Leahy was born Dec. 17, 1973. His mother sensed something wasn’t quite right with the way Pat, at 6 months old, came up on a spoon during feedings. After a few visits with doctors, Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a degenerative disease that affects the retinas, was diagnosed. Simply put, Pat possessed the slightest peripheral vision. He could vaguely make out images and light. Doctors were amazed that he could also make out colors. Now 39, Leahy possesses a tiny bit of sight that is slowly weakening.

His mother, Kay, remembers a 6-year-old Pat railing about his blindness. “I am so angry. I am so mad at God for making me this way.”

“I don’t blame you,” Kay answered. “But you can’t give up. You have to find out what you can do.”

Bill Leahy, a chatty but sensitive boy five years older than Pat, at first reluctantly and then enthusiastically embraced being a mentor to his gung-ho and curious little brother.

“Pat would turn to me and say, ‘I want to learn to hit a Wiffle ball.’ It was hard and took a lot of tries, but we figured things out. With all the sports, we found a way to do them.”

The Leahy brothers’ Timonium neighborhood was full of kids. In backyard football, Pat earned the reputation for being a bull rusher. Players on defense learned the hard way when Pat bowled them over wearing his hard plastic helmet.

He fielded grounders in baseball by hearing the ball coming at him in the grass and could even make a decent throw to first base. But he finally realized that he never would be a major league pitcher, because he couldn’t see the catcher’s signals behind home plate. So he found other sports. From age 6, he excelled on the neighborhood swim team.

His parents preached responsibility and independence. Pat was expected to wash dishes and take out the garbage. He mowed the lawn, taking off his shoes to check for the high grass missed after the first go-round.

Kay, now a retired nurse, and Bill Sr., a furniture distributor, had to decide between sending Pat to a school for the blind or a regular elementary school. They chose the latter, believing that Pat should be mainstreamed.

Leahy’s mother never stopped worrying about him, particularly about how he would learn to interact with people.

“A person has to announce himself to a blind person when entering a room. They don’t know who has come in,” Kay said. “Pat wasn’t extending himself, he stayed back and didn’t put himself out there. So when he was around 7 or 8, we had a conversation. ‘I know this isn’t fair,’ I said. ‘But you have to make the other person comfortable.’ ”

Leahy learned to be the most sociable person in the room. Now a confident adult, he has empathy for his blind peers, especially children, and what they face each day.

“Technology has made things easier for people with disabilities,” he says. “The iPhone 5 is amazing. Texts come with voice activation. But being blind is still profoundly isolating. Until you gain social confidence, instead of making those texts to two or three friends to go out, you are probably going to pick a solitary pursuit, like listening to the Orioles game in your basement.”

During his tween years Leahy became painfully aware of his lack of mobility and his otherness. Most kids were roaming the neighborhood independently or visiting the mall and fast-food joints while he stayed at home, spending more and more time listening to games on the radio or playing rotisserie baseball.

As they did with sports, the Leahys took on Pat’s hobby as a family, becoming full-time statisticians and reading aloud the box scores in the mornings and evenings. (That obsession with stats helps explain why Leahy serves as the commissioner of the Capitol Hill Fantasy Football League and manages two of his own fantasy MLB teams each season.)

As a kid, Pat wanted to be like the other boys. He pushed his brother to include him in the most risky of endeavors. Such as the night of the massive neighborhood game of flashlight tag in back yards full of trees, bushes and fences. Pat somehow talked Bill into letting him play unencumbered. The experiment didn’t last long. Within minutes, Pat had collided with another boy, bloodying the boy’s cheek and smashing his own glasses.

Bill, a former pro lacrosse player, remembers other adventures, as well: “Pat came to me and said, ‘I want to learn to drive a car.’ And we got him to the public school parking lot in the evening, when no one was around, and he learned.” Pat sat behind the wheel of an automatic and was directed by his brother to drive slowly and complete simple turns in the empty lot.

“It was my honor to figure it out with him,” Bill says. “My brother educated me. There is a way to do everything.”

Desperate to blend in as a teenager, Pat tried pretending to not be blind. He refused to use a cane at school and took to wearing big, clunky glasses.

“I never let him wallow. I told him, ‘You’re blind, not dead. Come on, let’s go, let’s party.’ Before you knew it, he was BBMOC, ‘Big Blind Man on Campus.’ Then he ran for Millersville University Student Senate president and won.”

Corbett Rowcliffe, Leahy’s college roommate

He learned to play the drums and joined his junior high marching band. One summer, he worked as a fry cook at the pool and became a whiz at flipping burgers and grilling hot dogs. His father had encouraged him to practice on the backyard grill, and by judging the aroma and the amount of time the meat spent on the grill, Pat became skilled at cooking to temperature. Within a couple of weeks on the snack shack job, Pat says, customers remarked that he made the best burger.

Much to his mother’s consternation, Pat also took up gymnastics.

Kay Leahy sums up the experience of watching her son compete in his new pursuit: Floor routine? Fine. Rings? Good. Vault? Terrifying.

Leahy knew he had to run and pick up enough speed to vault the pommel horse. His coach taught him to put large swatches of white tape in strategic places so Pat could feel where to begin his leap. Still, he had some bad falls. Both parents were there when he ran chest-first into the horse.

“Mom took to hiding in the bathroom during the horse, flushing toilets and running the faucets to drown out the groans,” Leahy remembers, laughing. “She would say to herself, ‘What has Pat done now? Did he land in the stands?’ ” His mother rejoiced when he switched to wrestling.

At Calvert Hall College High School, Leahy played sports and joined the marching band, but he felt like a failure socially. Invitations to parties were few. Most nights and weekends, he stayed at home with his family. Leahy and his parents hoped college could be the place he would blossom. But his parents weren’t quite sure if he would thrive on his own.

Leahy headed for Millersville University of Pennsylvania on an academic scholarship and planned to wrestle in the school’s nationally recognized Division I program. He found himself rooming with Corbett Rowcliffe, a cocky sophomore tennis player and relentless fun-seeker.

“I never let him wallow,” Rowcliffe says. “I told him, ‘You’re blind, not dead. Come on, let’s go, let’s party.’ Before you knew it, he was BBMOC, ‘Big Blind Man on Campus.’ Then he ran for Millersville University Student Senate president and won.”

The taste of politics and an interest in government prompted Leahy to move to Washington in 1997, where he would begin his professional life on Capitol Hill working as a staffer for members including Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) and Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.). Watts, a former star quarterback at Oklahoma University, remembers him well.

“Pat sat right outside of my office door,” Watts says. “We were attracted to his boldness. He wasn’t someone that would run away from a challenge.”

Looking for more challenges and a way to be directly involved with issues that affect disabled people, Leahy eventually moved to his current job as senior adviser at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, working with state and local governments to improve election conditions for all people.

Gallery

Pat Leahy competes in the Atlantic Super Show

Even as Leahy’s professional career took off, his remaining vision continued to wither. Throughout his life, Leahy could always make out a vibrant blue sky, a garish green bumper sticker or bright red. But one day in his 28th year, as he reached into his clothes closet, he realized he could no longer see color.

“Gone,” Leahy says. “For a person who didn’t have a lot to start with, that ain’t good.”

Barring a miracle cure, Leahy’s eyes would never improve. He asked doctors for exercises or vitamins that could strengthen his eyesight, but nothing helped. When he realized he could do nothing about his vision, he decided to focus on improving the rest of his body. He slimmed down by eating well and fell into a regular regimen of weight lifting.

The staff at Washington Sports Club on Capitol Hill soon came to know Leahy as the die-hard who sweated out two-hour-plus workouts five days a week while his guide dog, Galahad, chilled in a back room. Dressed in a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with “Blind Lifter,” Leahy appeared so often it almost seemed as if he were on staff.

“I have been a trainer going on 30 years now, “ says WSC personal trainer Owen Brown. “I have never met someone so dedicated to working out, so interested in the finest details of how to do an exercise or how to handle a piece of equipment than Pat.”

As with his previous forays into sports, Leahy used working out to deal with his disability. “I can’t control my blindness,” he says. “One way I can improve myself, though, is through physical fitness. If I had perfect sight, I don’t think I would be so into fitness or working out like I am. I’d probably be a guy playing softball once every three weeks. I am not so sure I would be so motivated.”

Leahy is also extremely competitive, and bodybuilding, unlike many other physical activities, allows him to compete on relatively equal terms against opponents who are not blind. Not being able to see his own muscles doesn’t stop him.

“I have a feeling of what a bodybuilder looks like,” he says.

Another reason Leahy began to focus on bodybuilding is that he wanted all the physical effort to have a more meaningful payoff. Working with filmmaker Janar Stewart, he began creating a documentary called “Blind Lifter” to inspire children with disabilities to compete in sports. (According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, disabled children are 56 percent less likely to engage in school-based athletics.)

“One day while doing my one-millionth squat, it hit me. There has to be some sort of goal connected to weight lifting. As a goal-oriented person, I needed an end result. Bodybuilding, fitness, proper diet lead to competition. Then I had to tie it all together by using bodybuilding to do the documentary to help disabled kids. With bodybuilding, I have a hunch I can inspire folks. It’s kind of a cool byproduct.”

Stephen Replogle, a friend and former co-worker, says it took a while for this softer, more reflective side of Leahy to emerge. “It used to be sports and weight lifting all-time,” he says. “But then he started talking about his disability for the first time. You realized just how sensitive a man he is.”


Leahy heads to with his guide dog, Galahad, in downtown Washington. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Since the beginning of the year, Leahy has been preparing for this Richmond contest, the Organization of Competitive Bodybuilding’s Atlantic Super Show. He obsessed about his diet, consuming zero fat, carbs or sugar, and eating only egg whites, fish and lean meat. His workouts grew longer and more centered on his routine. He lost 20 pounds and became edgy, impatient and a bit self-consumed. His parents were concerned about his diet, his health and his future in the sport. Leahy worried that they were so displeased they wouldn’t even attend the event, his second competition.

But as the day at the OCB progresses, Leahy exudes calm. His parents are in the audience. There is only one event left, the solo posing segment. It is one of the highlights of the day’s competition and is open to all contestants. Each individual has the stage to himself to let the judges view the results of all of those hours of work and sacrifice.

Leahy can only imagine what they see.

Holding a thin, white cane, he strides to the stage accompanied by Kevin Smith. The audience goes silent. After four months of hard-core weight and dance training, Leahy has one minute and five seconds to prove himself.

He lets go of Smith’s arm and walks to the center mat. The song “Stars” by Miggs begins to play, and Leahy launches into his routine. Unlike his opponents, Leahy is incorporating gymnastics into his performance. He begins with a deftly executed roundoff, and the audience erupts when Leahy playfully nods his head. In between a cartwheel and a handstand pirouette, Leahy strikes a side chest pose and a “front most muscular” — akin to a python about to pounce. He walks on his hands, then finishes by nailing “the crab most muscular,” a classic bodybuilding pose that accentuates the muscles from leg to chest.

The judges rise to applaud, and the entire audience follows in a standing ovation.

Leahy hears it all.

When the awards are announced, Leahy will also hear his name called as the winner in the best poser category. The trophy joins the two he wins in other categories that day.

Afterward in the lobby, new fans salute Leahy. He proudly hugs his mother, dad and dog. The “Blind Lifter” film crew is close by.

Stewart, the filmmaker, believes “Blind Lifter” won’t have any trouble capturing people’s imaginations.

“His life really has you asking, ‘What would happen if we lost our own sight? How would we function?’ I used to think turning blind would put me at my wit’s end. But after meeting Pat, I know now I could handle it,” Stewart says. “His life isn’t a miracle. We all can come up with different ways to work around problems.”

Joe Englert is a full-time restaurateur and part-time writer who lives in Washington. To comment on this story, e-mail wpmagazine@washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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