Skating Blind, Breaking Barriers

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Anyone who has ever skated a pool, skatepark or rolled down a hill had to overcome the fear of dropping in. Putting the tail end of your skateboard at the edge of a transition with both feet on the board and taking that leap of faith to free fall forward is terrifying. When things go wrong, the experience can be potentially painful and demoralizing. But dropping in is also a rite of passage that skateboarders must endure to push their limits.

Now try it in the dark.

Enter Tommy Carroll, a 20-year-old skateboarder who was born with cancer of the retina. He lost his eyes and his sight at the age of 2 and has lived since with prosthetic eyes. Because he lost his sight at such a young age, he has no memory of being able to see. While some might perceive being blind as a limitation, Carroll takes it in stride. He has a long history of overcoming challenges because, "I've been fortunate enough to have parents who didn't baby me from the start," Carroll said.

The short film "BRAVE" tells Carroll's story and shows the Northwestern University student skateboarding at his local skatepark and pushing through the streets of suburban Chicago. "BRAVE" director Arthur Neumeier hopes the movie captivates and inspires its audience by showing Carroll's determination to skate and not allowing his disability to keep him from something he loves.

"We met Tommy at his place, and we did not know what to expect," said Neumeier. "When we saw him doing his thing in a crowded skatepark, we were blown away. It's very unique. If you didn't know he was blind, you wouldn't have known him from the other skaters."

Patrick Fraser

Tommy Carroll, left, sits down for a post-session chat with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.

Facing Challenges

Everyone has an Achilles' heel, be it physical or mental. Everyone faces challenges that cause feelings of anxiety and powerlessness. Carroll has seen and felt these challenges for his entire life and had to decide whether his personal hurdles would keep him from doing something he loved. For Carroll, the answer was a resounding no.

Carroll began skateboarding at the age of 10. The sport had everything he was looking for because he could do it independently of others and didn't have to coordinate schedules and practice times as he would with team sports. With skateboarding, Carroll could just pick up his board and go. Carroll recalled the day he got his first skateboard, while shopping with his father.  "I don't think my mom was that supportive, but luckily I was with my dad," he said.

For those who can see, skateboarding -- which demands concentration, coordination and agility -- is physically challenging enough. Without sight, it seems impossible. But Carroll learned the same as every other kid, by skating with his friends and using his imagination. 

"I had a really good friend in elementary school who also skated, and we would skate around and play skateboarding video games," Carroll said. "I knew which buttons to push to do the tricks in the video game. Then I would be like, 'What is that trick actually?' My friend would pick up one of our boards and flip it around and show me. So I just figured out all those things through asking people," Carroll said.

Like every kid, Carroll experienced the harsh realities of childhood. Some doubted his abilities, and some kids were downright mean. "There are a lot of people who have this very cripplingly limited image of what blind people can do," he said. "That's still frustrating today. But at a younger age, when you're in middle school, people are looking to capitalize on differences, like, 'Oh he can't see, so let's not hang out with him.'"

Carroll left the childhood feelings of isolation and pain on the halfpipe, harnessing that negativity and channeling it into skateboarding.

"I went through a lot of frustration. With skateboarding, I was like, 'I can do this. I can do this better than you,'" he said. "Even though it's not the nicest attitude to have, thinking that way was a confidence booster and it taught me to deal with some of the aggressive and angry thoughts that I had. Somehow I could relax when I was carving a bowl."

Learning To Fall

Carroll has been figuring out his place in the world without sight for years. He learned how to navigate the terrain of a skatepark the way he learned other things in his life. "Learning to skate is analogous to how I learned my college campus, how I learned my high school campus, how I learned where I work in the summer. I learn one part of the place at a time," said Carroll, who walks a skatepark section by section before riding, noting the texture, the incline, the distances between each obstacle and how tall the walls are. Once he's confident, he'll push through the park on his board building his lines one piece at a time.

"Once I figure out one part of the park, I find another close element that I haven't touched yet that I can incorporate into the line," he said. "I'll feel that out, and I might just ride that by itself, and then I'll try to connect my lines. Once I've connected all the segments at the park, I can skate really long lines and just chill on it."

Skateboarding taught Carroll courage, tenacity and the will to keep trying -- even if he fell.

"Falling is part of the sport; it's a good skill," he said. "If you're playing baseball, you're going to learn to bat, you're going to learn to field, you're going to learn to throw, and falling is one of those things in skateboarding. You're going to learn to ollie, to drop in, to revert, and you learn to fall." 

Meeting The Master

Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk met Carroll in 2012. Hawk saw a YouTube clip of Carroll skateboarding and wanted to interview him for the Ride Channel. Hawk said he was amazed at Carroll's approach to the sport and his perseverance. "He truly loved skating and the people involved, and he wasn't afraid to take hard slams in pursuit of learning new things," Hawk said. "I think he is a shining example of overcoming challenges and following your passion."

From the outside looking in, Carroll is changing preconceived ideas that people have about the limitations of the blind. But Carroll said he's really just busy living.

"I'm studying for an economics test, planning a summer trip to Uganda, planning out my training for the Chicago marathon in November and trying to establish Northwestern University's first-ever school-sanctioned skateboarding club," he said.

When Carroll recalls his first drop-in, he remembers thinking, "That's cool. I've mastered my center of gravity." He felt he had triumphed over physics.

"Skateboarding in general is battling physics," Carroll said. "Every time you learn something new, you gain this new mastery over your body, you learn your spatial awareness and your sense of control relative to the natural forces that are around us."

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