Questions for: Randy Pierce

January 25th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

What inspires a man without sight to Climb New Hampshire’s 48 highest peaks? The founder of 2020 Vision Quest tells his story.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Randy Pierce is a passionate New England Patriots fan (a former Fan of the Year, he’s in the Pro Football Hall of Fame); he is the subject of an Emmy-nominated HBO documentary; he is an avid dart-player, inspirational speaker, and he plans to climb all of New Hampshire’s 48 highest peaks by the year 2020. Randy Pierce is also blind.

An unknown neurological disorder began claiming Randy’s vision in 1989, and by 2001, he was completely blind. With the help of Ostend, his first guide dog, Randy learned to conquer the challenges of losing his sight; but in 2005, Ostend died and the disorder had attacked his balance, confining Randy to a wheelchair. With the help of a new dog, “The Mighty Quinn,” Randy worked his way into full mobility, and eventually began his hikes. We discussed his newest venture, 2020 Vision Quest.

How did you conceive of 2020 Vision Quest, and can you describe how you decided on the goal of the 48 mountain summits of New Hampshire? 

Having spent nearly two years in a wheelchair and managing my fairly recent arrival to total blindness, the ability to walk is something I respect in an entirely different fashion. When you cannot walk across your living room and five years later discover you can begin to summit more than metaphorical mountains, the overwhelming personal appreciation is tremendous. The fact that a hiking stick was a physical therapy tool in my return to walking reminded me of my time spent hiking mountains when I was younger and I began to explore the potential of 'the 48' as a goal which could raise awareness for some key concepts. The first and greatest challenge to achieving through adversity is, in my opinion, learning to believe in yourself, and then it’s learning to identify and resolve problems as you approach your goals. If you do this, you’ll find that the biggest limitations you have are the expectations the rest of the world has that you’re limited.

The name of our organization had a few separate and meaningful origins for me. I love the double entendre of that 20/20 vision being “perfect sight" in the world of eye health. The name also refers to the clarity of vision that’s so critical for defining our goals and purpose in life.  The year 2020 was also the initial reasonable time frame in which I thought I might succeed in climbing the 48 highest summits in New Hampshire. Good planning and Quinn’s exceptional abilities have helped us determine that we can succeed much sooner. But I think our project will have longer-term benefits than raising awareness of the summits we reach.

Tell us about the charitable goal of your hikes.

One motivation for creating 2020 Vision Quest was my desire to support two organizations that were essential in helping me rise to the challenge of becoming totally blind. Few people realize the incredible impact that age-related (macular degeneration) blindness will have upon blind services. As the baby boomers have reached the age of impact for the largest cause of blindness, services are being strained by the alarming growth of blind and visually impaired. The AFB (American Federation of the Blind) reports nearly 4.4 million blind and visually impaired in the United States today and more than 43 million Americans above the age of 40 are projected to have visual impairment by the year 2020! I believe in my approach to challenge but I honestly wonder how I would have fared without the support of both the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

Just a few years ago, you were confined to a wheelchair. Can you describe the motivation you needed and the physical therapy you had to undergo to get back on your feet? 

Without question I reached the most challenging point in my life when in 2005 I was enduring worsening health and was already confined to a wheelchair while just three years removed from becoming totally blind. My first guide dog, Ostend, collapsed and died and my feeling of despair was as high as I have ever known.

But I found some resolve in wanting to honor his last efforts to see me moving forward. The tremendous encouragement of a great group of friends similarly encouraged me I would have the support for my efforts. My primary care physician, Dr. Sean Fitzpatrick, joined me in searching out alternative opportunities to help my condition. A vastly experimental program under Dr. Peter Catalano utilized trans-tympanic injections to deliver a neural stimulus to my vestibular nerves. There were six separate procedures, each separated by several weeks in which I pursued more physical therapy. We made good progress, and eventually I was walking via a pair of Lofstrand crutches, which effectively gave me four legs on the ground for stability. It was slow going, but small steps forward can vastly increase both hope and motivation. The old adage that "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" had a lot of relevance to me.

Within a few months, I was able to replace the crutches with a hiking stick, and eventually had made enough progress to contact Guiding Eyes for the Blind, who helped me replace the cane with Quinn. His extra speed helped me build momentum, and my brain was able to relearn balance. But when I had the opportunity to undertake another balance system therapy, I stepped up immediately. The company WICAB produced a device called the "Brain Port" which effectively enhances the brain's connection to the ground. An electrode-laden device with a gyroscope was placed on my tongue to activate it, and I was able to strengthen an entirely separate balance system. I spent another full year working with the results before I realized I was now ready to allow Quinn to lead me up the rocky mountains of New Hampshire.

What can everyone take away from knowing the story of 2020 Vision Quest?

My motivation is simply the knowledge that every positive attempt forward is essential to improving a challenging situation. Sitting idle was unlikely to help, but believing that a reward was possible helped drive me through some of my most intense work.

If I had to state it clearly as a philosophy, it would be something like this:

While we can greatly influence much of what occurs in our lives, we do not have complete control over those things. We do, however, have complete control over the choices we make in response to those things, and I contend that the choices we make will have a far greater influence upon our lives than any challenge.