CARSTAIRS – A former Carstairs-area resident who experienced the depths of despair firsthand upon learning he was slowly but surely losing his vision eventually found a new purpose and passion in life through sports.
Born at the Didsbury hospital and raised at the family farm along the Blind Line road between Carstairs and Cremona, Lowell Taylor graduated from Olds Koinonia in 2000, after which he went off to study at the University of Lethbridge.
“I wasn’t legally blind at that point,” Taylor told the Albertan earlier this month during a phone interview.
Diagnosed early on with a degenerative eye condition called retinitis pigmentosa – an eye disease in which the retina slowly dies – Taylor had worn glasses since childhood. The first thing to go, he explained, are the eye’s rod cells, or the photoreceptors within the retina that are used for movement as well as peripheral and night vision.
“For me, those were going right since birth.”
Rod cells can function in lower light better than the other type of photoreceptor in the eye known as cone cells. Responding candidly to a question about how retinitis pigmentosa impairs his vision, he described it as tunnel vision that becomes increasingly narrow in scope.
“In the daytime when it’s well lit, I have the 10 degrees of centre vision outside of the whole 180 degrees normal vision,” he said, referring to peripheral vision.
“It’s like looking through a very small hole. And that hole is shrinking all the time; eventually it will be gone.”
So, while the condition progressively got worse over the years, his situation changed dramatically for the worse as he completed his studies at the U of L. Although he graduated in 2004 with a degree in visual arts and 3D animation, his future career prospects suddenly fell into an irreversible tailspin upon learning his condition had further deteriorated substantially.
“I’d finished this new media degree,” he said. “But then my vision was getting a lot worse at that time. I was kind of trying to see my life ahead of me, and realizing that this is probably not the right career for a blind guy.”
Taking time to recalibrate
Struggling to adjust to his new reality, Taylor decided to recalibrate by returning to the family farm to consider other pursuits while his vision continued to deteriorate, eventually reaching the point where his licence was revoked.
“My vision got to the point where it was no longer safe for me to drive,” he said, adding that setback was a substantial blow to his morale at the time.
“That was a kind of a falling back. Carstairs was a safety net I suppose at that point; the love of family,” he said. “I called it my quarter-life crisis, where everything was falling apart – my dreams, my visions were all getting dark with my vision getting worse.”
During those difficult days when he endeavoured to keep depression at bay, Taylor said essentially two things carried him on – the community’s support as well as sports, which quickly became “a big part of my life.”
His first taste of exhilarating physical exertion came in the form of riding a stationary bicycle in the basement at his parents’ home while watching the TV series 24.
“I made a promise to myself,” he said. “I was out of shape, and I was kind of feeling depression and anxiety in not knowing what my future held. So, I started to bike in the basement.”
Discovering love of sport
One thing led to another, and before much longer, Taylor was running outdoors along rural roads and also learning to swim, which ultimately led him to his first major competition in 2005 at the Innisfail Triathlon.
“It was kind of the foray into finally finding something that could help me feel better,” he said, adding sports helped him re-establish a level of agency and self-determination.
So, he decided the external world around him would no longer dictate how he felt.
“The more that I moved and the healthier I got, the better I felt,” he said. “And the better I felt, the faster I was going.”
Additionally, he drew no shortage of motivation from the example set by his grandfather, Ola Danielson, who also overcame challenges with the condition and even managed to farm in the Carstairs area with his wife Loretta for a period during the 1990s.
“He was a big inspiration,” said Taylor. “He was very resilient, he didn’t let his blindness get in the way.”
But while sports, family and community had given him personal meaning, Taylor was still searching for a fulfilling professional career path. He for a period relocated to live with his sister in Sherwood Park. At the time, his then-girlfriend Julia also moved to Edmonton to pursue an education in speech therapy.
“There’s always a new obstacle”
During their time in Edmonton, Taylor continued entering higher-level competitions and even ran a triathlon with Julia before their wedding in Edmonton on July 28, 2007.
Along the way, he also discovered an interest for working at a distress line’s call centre and even started volunteering with Big Brothers and Sisters, which seem to have piqued his future interest in studying psychology.
“As I was getting healthier in body, I was getting healthier in emotions as well,” he said, adding that he opted to upgrade his courses as he felt the drive to become a psychologist setting in.
Now a registered psychologist, he has since 2017 also worked as a health and wellness coach.
Asked what has been among the most challenging hurdles to overcome, he said, “There’s always a new obstacle.”
As a child, struggling to make friends and being unable to play team sports was among the many roadblocks he faced. As he grew into adulthood, the main challenge was considering what career options might be suitable for someone who’s legally blind and cannot drive.
And later in life, the 42-year-old said ongoing impacts on the family can be difficult as well, such as not always being able to be the dad he wants to be, in terms of planning sports or even just tossing a ball around in the backyard.
“I was once able to read a lot easier,” he added. “But reading is getting harder. Even navigating around grocery shopping is getting harder. Every stage has its own challenges.”
Turning obstacles into opportunities
Yet those hurdles are where he found new meaning.
“The obstacle is the opportunity to learn,” he said. “So, I believe I am more gifted now in empathy in caring for others and seeing their struggles.”
About eight years ago, Taylor entered the competitive world of elite-level paracycling.
“And now, I travel the world for Team Canada because I’m blind,” he said. “So, the obstacle became the opportunity to compete for Canada in cycling.”
He has since travelled throughout Canada and all over the world, including places such as Lima, Peru, the U.S., and Europe. As Canada’s national champions in road cycling, Taylor said the team was selected to compete at three World Cups this year in Italy, Belgium, and Alabama, where they won bronze.
Aiming for 2024 Paralympic Games
Those events qualified them to compete at the World Championships, which were hosted this past August in Glasgow, Scotland. Taylor recounted a 28-kilometre time trial as well as 108-km road race he completed with pilot Ed Veal in Dumfries just outside of Glasgow.
“We were set to do quite well,” he said. “Unfortunately, in our road race we were part of the front pack and we got pushed to the side and hit the railing. So, it was our first crash in any of my races.”
Relieved to get back on their feet uninjured and their bike still functional, the paracycling duo got back up and picked up the chase throughout the rest of the race’s remaining seven laps; or roughly 90 kms, he said.
“We ended up 11th out of 28 teams, which was not our hope but it was still a good race,” he said.
Confident about the possibility of competing at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, he will be aspiring to accumulate enough points to qualify but won’t know one way or another until next spring.
“We feel pretty good; we are very strong, we’ve done very well, we’ve medalled in a World Cup. So, we have a very good shot,” he said.
“We just have to continue to perform at a high level. Right now, we’re banking on it; we’re planning on it,” he said. “That’s the big chase, trying to get to Paris for the Paralympic Games; it’s been the big dream.”
Relationships keystone to quality of life
Asked what he considers to be among his proudest achievements to date, he said, “I can’t answer this question without saying that the quality of my life is determined by the quality of my relationships.”
Even though he now lives in Lethbridge, his roots remain deeply entrenched in the Mountain View County region communities he grew up in and around like Carstairs, Cremona, Didsbury, Olds, and Innisfail.
“It really is about the relationships,” he said, referring to everyone from fellow racers and close friends to his wife and children.
“I’ve had great races and I’ve won medals and I have these big dreams,” he said. “But none of it matters if we don’t have solid relationships.”
Offering words of advice for others who either might be going through a similar situation or know someone who is, he said we all will face a challenge at some point.
“Find your meaning”
“As a psychologist, I work with first responders and individuals who are struggling. Life happens, and life can be hard,” he said. “I guess my message to people is that in the tragedy, find your meaning.”
The world does not necessarily need everybody to be fired up about the same thing, but it definitely needs individuals who are passionate about something dear to them, he said.
“People need to find their why, and when you know your why, you can deal with the how. For me, it’s about sports performance, relationships, community, experiences,” he said.
“Helping others as a psychologist and having experiences as a cyclist, those help me get through my hardest days and my realizing that I will go blind one day,” he said.
“But I’ll have the dividends of all of my trips, my experiences that will be with me in my blindness. And all my relationships will be there to support me. So, that’s my why,” he said.
“And people just need to find their why.”