By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Charlie Mitchell first noticed something was happening to his vision during his freshman year of high school.
An athlete since he was a kid, Charlie started to find sports a little harder, whether he was playing golf, baseball or hockey. He could hardly see the golf ball and, in the outfield, pop flies might as well have been surprise attacks from dive bombers.
At the time, Charlie didn’t think it was a big deal.
“I never thought enough of it to get it checked out at that point,” Charlie said.
Charlie is now legally blind – his vision having deteriorated as a result of a genetic condition known as Retinitis pigmentosa – but his career as an athlete has never been better. As of this year, Charlie is one of six new players to join the USA National Blind Hockey Team.
For the first time in years, Charlie and his wife Katie Mitchell have something they thought was lost: hope.
“It was just really helpful to snap me out of that negative mindset and to start questioning what my boundaries are with the visual impairment and just assuming that I can’t do things,” Charlie said.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Charlie moved to Indiana to attend the University of Notre Dame, where he met Katie freshman year. After his time at Notre Dame, Charlie went to law school at George Washington University in D.C. from 2012 to 2015. The couple now live in Potomac Yard with their two daughters.
It was in 2012 that he really started to struggle, Charlie said.
“It was actually my first year of law school that I started having a really hard time, especially at night,” Charlie said. “It got to the point where I just couldn’t drive at night.”
Charlie got pulled over one night while driving. Around the same time, Katie said she started to notice other warning signs.
The couple knew things were serious after a friendly racquetball competition turned frightening.
“One night we were playing racquetball, and I’m pretty competitive. I was destroying him, and he was like, ‘Katie, I can’t see the ball’ and I was like, ‘Yeah right,’” Katie said. “I went to toss him the ball … and I threw it just an inch to the left and he didn’t even flinch.”
Katie took Charlie to the emergency room, fearing his vision loss was due to a brain tumor or something life threatening, Katie said. The couple quickly realized that wasn’t the case and began seeing eye doctors.
Eventually, Charlie went to a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who dropped the news at Charlie’s feet: He had a degenerative genetic condition.
“After he worked me up and they did all kinds of crazy tests, he’s like, ‘I think you have a genetic disease and you’re going to progressively lose your vision,’” Charlie said. “And he just kind of dropped it on me without any preparation, and I was kind of in shock for the rest of the day.”
Charlie had a million questions, he said. Was he going to be able to continue his work at the law firm? How fast would he lose his vision?
Charlie’s vision had already started progressively fading. He stopped driving in 2013 and started taking the Metro, but blind spots and decreasing detailed vision made even that difficult. Going through Metro stations, Charlie would constantly bump into people, he said.
In the years after his diagnosis, Charlie struggled to adapt to his condition and a new way of life. He started to recede into himself, he said, pulling away from Katie and his coworkers at the law firm. He started to tell himself certain things were just too difficult, Charlie said.
“We have a happy hour every month and I just stopped going because I didn’t feel comfortable,” Charlie said. “‘I’m gonna go in there and I’m not gonna recognize anyone and I’m gonna be making a fool out of myself.’ I was in that kind of negative mindset.”
“More and more he kind of faded away and was throwing himself into his work and making that his thing. We call them the Dark Days,” Katie said. “… We’d go out and he’d kind of get frustrated or he wouldn’t even tell me he was frustrated. But it was clear that he wasn’t enjoying what we were doing.”
Eventually, Charlie’s vision deteriorated to the point where he had to turn to others for help. He started working with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired and, in April, went down to Richmond for a three month-long training session where he learned how to use assistive technology, text to speech software and a white cane.
Charlie started reaching out to other attorneys in the DMV with visual impairments to learn how they adapted, he said.
Then, in December 2018, Charlie learned of a blind hockey team in Arlington through a coworker, and everything changed, he said.
“People hear blind hockey and they think it’s crazy and I kind of thought the same thing, but she connected me with the team, and I went out and gave it a try,” Charlie said. “… I’ve been hooked on it ever since.”
Having played hockey up until college, it took time for Charlie to adjust to playing the sport in a new way.
In blind hockey, everything from the equipment to the rules have been adjusted to meet the conditions of those with visual impairments. The net is a foot shorter, in order to even the playing field for goalies, who are, by the rules, totally blind. The puck is larger and full of ball bearings so that players can track it by sound.
“One of the biggest adaptations for me is just developing the ability to track the puck audibly rather than visually,” Charlie said. “It took me several months before I could hear the puck sliding and be able to pick it up on my stick without missing it or skating past it.”
The most major rule difference is that when an offensive player enters the offensive zone on the other team’s side, they have to complete at least one pass before taking a shot.
“The ref carries a sound device in his hand and when that pass is completed from offensive player to offensive player in the offensive zone, they will sound the buzzer so all players on the ice, including the goalie, know the pass was good and now it’s about to be coming,” Michael Svac, coach for the USA National Blind Hockey Team, said.
Between his involvement in local blind hockey teams and his time down in Richmond, Charlie’s morale is on the mend, along with his relationship with Katie.
“The three months away [in Richmond] and then blind hockey, I feel like I got my husband back this year,” Katie said. “It’s almost become a blessing in a way – not that I would wish this on anybody – but it’s given us this totally different perspective and made us really thankful for all the little things.”
Seeing Charlie padded up and back out on the ice still brings a tear to her eye, Katie said.
This year, Charlie’s time on the ice has given him something he never dreamed of, even when he was playing sighted hockey: a spot on the USA National Team.
While playing for the D.C. blind hockey team, Charlie travelled to Tampa, Florida in April for an annual disabled ice hockey festival, where he managed to secure a place in the preliminary tryouts for the national team.
In July, Charlie went to a training camp in Utica, New York, the hub of the national team, where the coaches selected the final team lineup. Charlie gave the team strategic and adaptive value, Svac said.
“Charlie gave us a unique ability because I was impressed at camp with his ability to play both offense and defense,” Svac said. “… He has tremendous speed when he gets control of the puck, so it allows him to, one, have a little more vision than others on defense and he also has the ability to be able to skate the puck up ice as opposed to just throwing the puck.”
Although blind hockey has a 40-year history in Canada, it is a relatively new para-sport in the U.S. The sport is growing, with teams in development or established in most major U.S. cities. The national blind hockey program is still limited in terms of resources and funding, but the end goal is to grow the game to the point where it joins the Paralympics in 2026, Svac said.
Just last year, Charlie thought he’d never play hockey again, and now he’s looking to head to the Paralympics. Where he once saw limitations, Charlie now sees possibilities, he said.
“The big difference is if something would have come along a year ago, my default position would have been to say, ‘I can’t do that because of my vision,’” Charlie said. “Now, I’m much more of the mindset of, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a shot.’ I might have to do it a different way – I might have to figure things out – but I’m not just gonna assume I can’t do something because of my vision.”
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