Paralympic athlete with local ties defies odds

Paralympic athlete with local ties defies odds

Kyle Coon, who grew up in Ortega Forest, represented the United States in the recent Tokyo 2020 Games, completing the Para Triathlon. Alongside his guide, Andy Potts, Coon swam .47 miles, biked 12.4 miles, and ran 3.1 miles.

“My first @paralympics were certainly an experience. The result wasn’t indicative of my capabilities but we learned so much and @teamusa came away with 3 golds and 2 silvers,” Coon posted on social media.

Coon was born in Chicago in November 1991. At 10 months of age, he was diagnosed with cancer in both eyes, a condition known as bilateral sporadic retinoblastoma. At that time, he was the youngest of two with an older sister named Cassandra. Eight months later, his younger sister Kelsey was born.

For nearly seven years after his diagnosis, Coon went through cancer treatment from Pennsylvania to Illinois to Florida. His parents chose for their son the best treatments available to preserve vision by combatting tumors in the eyes. But those tumors had been dropping seeds. The only way to save his life was to remove his eyes. Shortly before his fifth birthday, Coon lost his left eye. By seven years old, Coon had lost his right eye. His youngest sister, Caitlin, has never known her brother to have sight.

When Coon was two years old and in the midst of treatment, his retired Marine father, Steven, took a job transfer related to warehouse management with Bubba Burger; and the family of five moved to Jacksonville. Kyle attended Fishweir Elementary in their visual impairment program and always remained active despite his vision loss. He was a Boy Scout. He rode a tandem bike with his dad. He liked to rock climb. He skied and wrestled. And he loved basketball. “Being from Chicago, he was a huge Michael Jordan fan,” his mother, Ann Marie, said.

The Coons called Ortega United Methodist their church home. There, the young family met several supportive friends. Among them were Gayle Runion and her mom, Annette Hemingway. They watched Coon grow up in Jacksonville. They were also instrumental in setting up for him a family trip out west to see the mountains before he lost his sight completely. “We were trying to fill him with visual experiences,” Ann Marie said. But the Coons were under financial hardship at that time, understandable when faced with a long, expensive childhood illness. Runion and Hemingway stepped up to help before the boy’s second major surgery. “[He] had the surgery that took his sight but not his spirit. Remarkable young man!” Runion said of Coon.

Through his father’s membership in the Rotary Club of Jacksonville, Coon was introduced in 1999 to Erik Weihenmayer, a world-class blind athlete. Weihenmayer became a role model for the young boy who had recently gone totally blind and was filled with questions related to how he could still go outside and play with his friends. Over the years, Coon would learn to do oh so much more than that.

In 2006, Coon hiked the Ankascocha Trail into Machu Picchu. In 2007, he summited Mt. Kilimanjaro. In 2013, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Central Florida. In 2016, Coon’s family moved to the mountains of Colorado while he trained as an endurance athlete to compete in marathons and triathlons.

Potts and Coon after the swim portion of the race
Potts and Coon after the swim portion of the race

In 2018, he completed Race Across America as a tandem cyclist, racing from California to Maryland in a week. Later that year, he became the first totally blind person to complete an IRONMAN-branded triathlon in under 11 hours. In 2019, he moved to the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. From there, he did some training in Kona, Hawaii prior to competing in Tokyo in the Paralympic Triathlon.

In addition to being a well-rounded athlete and a Paralympian, Coon is a published author. Earlier this year, he released his first book, an autobiography entitled Discovering a Life without Limits published by Walnut Street. It tells of how cancer took his sight, blindness gave him vision, and the mountains let him live. In his book, Coon acknowledges the doctors and nurses at Wolfson Children’s Hospital for the role they played in his story of triumph.

Coon is also a public speaker. He addresses audiences around the world about the importance of having vision in life, pursuing dreams, and overcoming obstacles.

To learn even more about him, visit www.KyleCoon.com.

By Mary Wanser
Resident Community News

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