Vision Quest

John (2nd from Left) and his original 2006 Team

Hope you are as inspired by John Chavez as I am. OC Makapo Aquatics Project is an amazing non profit organization that helps visually impaired athletes.   If you are in the Newport Beach area this Saturday, there will be an open house from 10-3 at Newport Aquatics Center.

For more information, directions or just to donate, visit their Facebook Page


Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go– T.S. Eliot

Early on a Saturday morning, with a slight chill in the air and the sky a smooth sheet of steel, John Chavez huddles with his teammates on a sandy beachhead of upper Newport Bay. At an hour when most of us are contemplating that first cup of coffee, John listens intently to his coach, Kirsten Hermsted Williams, detail the next few weeks of training. A murmur ripples through the men and women of team Makapo when she throws in the fact that they are only four weeks away from the 18-mile Queen Lili’uokalani Canoe Race in Kona, Hawaii. There is little fanfare afterward. It’s business as usual and John helps hoist a six-person canoe into the water and paddles it out to sea. For the next several hours, it’s his mission to “feel the water”, as Kirsten instructs, to feel the surge of the canoe with each stroke . . . even though he can’t actually see the ocean he is paddling into, or the canoe or the paddles for that matter. Neither can most of his team, but that’s exactly how he envisioned it. John is the inspiration behind the OC Makapo Aquatics Project. Makapo is a combination of two words Maka (eyes) Po (dark). It is the Hawaiian word for blind.

“Billy told me I was crazy,” John says, a burst of laughter recalling the moment he first conveyed his idea to put a blind team in the 2006 Kona race. “Billy” just happens to be Billy Whitford, Executive Director at Newport Aquatics Center and a world-class steersman. While he may have been skeptical at the beginning, it wasn’t long before John got him to see the vision, too. Through word of mouth, they cobbled together a 5-man crew with the competitive racing equivalent of spit and duct tape, and landed in Kona with little technique and a sparse four months of training. Appropriately enough, John called that first team “The Blind-Siders” and there were only two goals that year–to finish the race and not to Huli (The Hawaiian term for flipping the canoe, which John had done with a sighted team the year before).

Well, with Billy at the helm, they finished the race under their own steam. There were only two people left on the beach when the arrived. It didn’t matter. It was enough to make John’s vision a reality—he’d become part of the first blind outrigger team to ever compete.

And boy, did they have heart. It was something that caught Kirsten when she first heard them the following year on a local Kona radio station. “I was driving; I remember it so clearly,” she recalls as we follow the practice canoes, riding the choppy surf beyond the Newport breakwater. “I actually pulled over to just sit and listen because I was so taken in by what they were doing.”

On race day, she was on the finish line. After the last team came in she noticed one more canoe way out in the distance, surrounded by a team of jet skis. “I’m like, oh my God, it’s those blind guys.”

“Those blind guys” were the newly renamed “Makapo”, and they were a good half an hour off shore when the announcer told the beach crowd they were coming in. This time the crowd waited. And waited. And when team Makapo finally did cross the finish line, it was to a swell of cheers and cries of support. “I was bawling,” she says, and as Kirsten describes it, one can’t help but a break out in a severe case of goose bumps.

To meet John, you don’t automatically tap him for such overt Chariots of Fire-style heroics, but you quickly realize that there’s not much he lets stop him. “If I set my mind to it, I’m going to try,” is his philosophy. And he’s tried a lot since cardiac arrest left him without his sight in 1984.  At 51, the former water polo player and lifeguard has tried skydiving and been on pilgrimages, he’s in amazing shape, is a partner is a busy medical supply company, lives on his own and goes practically anywhere he wants with the help of OC Transit. He’s well known at his regular market, gym and jazz club haunts, and his favorite personal shoppers keep him looking spiffy for the road. That’s not to say there have been adjustments along the way, a lot of trial and error–a few cooking incidences that have gone frightfully awry, and a now trademark pairs of tinted wraparound glasses that came from one too many run-ins with errant tree limbs.

Over the years, he’s certainly improved his rowing technique. “It’s the first time in twelve years that I have skin on my thumbs,” he announces proudly. But as a self-proclaimed “huli” champion, he would welcome a few more races without one.

His demeanor is happy, his attitude upbeat and he’s easy to laugh. There’s none of that down-on-his-luck tortured hero complex that plays so well on the big screen. Nor is there any of the bigger-than-life quality that we tend to think is required to accomplish life-changing goals. There is, by his own admission, a naïveté, which he considers an advantage. “When you’re naïve,” he says, “you don’t put limitations on yourself.”

Along with the naïveté there is a sense of inner strength that is comprised in part by his faith and his family, and in part by quite simply what my grandmother would have called “pluck.” At the same time he seems fueled by what his journey has taught him about human nature. “People, even strangers, are friendly, they’re kind, they’re generous,” he says. “That’s been the most encouraging–seeing the average person is basically a good person and wants to help.”

His journey, of course, shifted dramatically after his cardiac arrest, when everything in the then 24-year-old’s life was unceremoniously turned upside down.

A graduate of San Diego State University, he had turned down a job offer from Ford Aerospace in order to travel to the South Pacific when he broke his ankle in a scooter accident. During the routine surgery that followed, his heart began to miss beats and he went into cardiac arrest. Between repeated Lidocaine injections and attempts to revive him, the lack of oxygen resulted in a coma, the loss of his sight and the arduous task having to learn everything over again.

John recalls his recovery with vivid detail that is [frankly] amazing given his state at the time and the years that have passed. He describes his coma like feeling “like I was in a small sleeping bag and couldn’t get out,” and the realization that he would never see again as some of the darkest days he’s ever experienced.  “I don’t know when I stopped crying . . . days probably. It was as if my life had ended.”

There were other challenges, too, like learning to walk again, to eat and get dressed–so many challenges, the list could go on and on. At first that was where his energy went, but eventually the reality became apparent, and one night in the hospital he turned to God and said he couldn’t handle it any more. “This warmth came over me,” he remembers, swearing he was fully conscious. “I thought, ‘I’m dying. I must have really ticked-off God!’”

Along with the warmth, came a voice that told him not to worry about his sight. “It was crystal clear. Mind you, I’m panicking. I can manufacture a lot of stuff, but ‘don’t worry about your sight’ would not have come from me.”

Divine intervention or not, it was one of Oprah’s famous “Ah-ha” moments, where disbelief meets acceptance, but by no means equals surrender. “Folding is not an option,” He says, and to this day he continues to tell that to kids he counsels. “There are always options.”

His coaches were known to drop by the hospital and encourage him to get back into the water. He specifically focused on advice they used to give him to get him moving in the pool. His high school water polo coach, for example, had a saying posted to his wall: Pain is the price. Anything good isn’t cheap, and anything cheap isn’t good. He’s always remembered it.

In the end, he credits his support system for getting him through. “I don’t know how people who don’t have that support do it. I thank God for the people who came.”

Post hospital, John heeded his coach’s advice and headed back into the water, finding what had been there all along and was still waiting for him: peace. He relied on the Braille Institute and Coastline College’s Acquired Brain Injury program for support and to regain occupational skills. Along with his sight, he lost some of his tactile memory and it prevents him from reading Braille. It also presents a particular challenge in this day of touch screen technology. He manages by leaving himself messages, using his answering machine as a calendar to keep his appointments.

He’s learned to rely on his wits, his ability to walk into a situation and allow people to see him and not the white cane that he carries. He’s not afraid to ask for help, and he’s quite comfortable to pop in on prospective customers to his medical supply business. “They’re not expecting to meet a blind guy,” he says with what might be a hint of slyness. If catching people off-guard provides a little entertainment, he doesn’t admit it, but result is usually positive. They rarely turn him away.

But with all he has going in his busy life these days, its easy to see that his home is on the water with his team and supporting his vision.  With Kirsten, and his friend and fellow blind paddler, R.J. DeRama at the helm with him, he houses O.C. Makapo Aquatics Project out of the Newport Aquatics Center. They rely on grants and donations to keep it going and it’s out of sheer passion that it continues to grow. They have expanded to three full crews heading to Kona this year–two adult teams and a youth team, with some sighted members (family and friends) added to the mix. They also now have outreach programs and a Los Angeles club coming to Marina del Rey. And they are not finishing last anymore.

To Kirsten, it’s about breaking down barriers. “These people are changing lives every single day. They are changing how they see themselves. They’re changing how the community sees blind people.”

For John, it’s about keeping the faith. He’s been asked if he would take his sight back if offered, and his answer has been “I don’t know.” Most people couldn’t conceive of that answer, but maybe John knows a something we don’t. Even if most of his teammates can’t actually see where they are paddling, John has vision enough to imagine there’s no limit to how far they can go.


About virginiapooler

Who me? I'm a UN Ambassador, Nanny, Accountant, FBI Agent, sheep dog .... oh, I mean Producer type and mystery writer..
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2 Responses to Vision Quest

  1. Kirsten Williams says:

    Perfect!! You described John’s spirit perfectly. Still working on finding a good picture. Thank You. Kirsten

  2. Candy Kosol says:

    John has been nothing short of an inspiration to us! He has the biggest heart and smile! We are so grateful to have him as a friend! Thank you for writing such a touching story about him!

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