AUBURN — Even though Alice Jordan can only see less than 10% of her field of vision, that doesn't stop her from painting and collecting work from other artists. The walls of her Auburn home are adorned with them.
And her vision loss didn't stop Jordan, 70, from becoming the first blind person to bike in the annual Great Race. On Aug. 11, she and her cycling partner, Jim Kleiber, rode a reclining tandem bicycle for 10 miles on country roads in the town of Owasco to complete the cycling portion of the relay race.
The rest of their team included two canoeists and one runner, making them the only five-person team to compete.
“It was our first event in the bike and first event for all of us — all five of us — being in the Great Race. So it was exciting," Kleiber said. "We kind of knew based on our practice runs that our time was ..."
“Not good,” Jordan interjected.
They were also the only team in the race to use a tandem bicycle, which the two said was difficult to maneuver in a straight line and strenuous to pedal uphill. Kleiber, who steered and sat in the front seat, called back warnings when they were approaching bumps in the road. They also had to communicate about when to start and stop pedaling in order to switch gears.
"We didn't go into it with any expectations other than having a good time," he said.
Jordan said that tackling Martin Road was particularly harrowing.
"It zigs and zags and goes down and everything else. I don’t see that well, but I do see enough to know that I wasn’t happy,” she said.
But before they could even start practicing, Jordan had to learn how to use a tandem bicycle. She attended a workshop with her son at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Cleveland that would eventually give her the bicycle that she and Kleiber used during the Great Race. That training session was three years ago. Kleiber, an Air Force veteran, said he and Jordan first tried to assemble a team of veterans to do the race.
Jordan, a retired fraud investigator for Cayuga County, joined the Air Force in 1968 and was discharged with a skull injury in 1971. The military sponsored her education when she decided in 2002 to pursue a degree in psychology at Syracuse University, which was around the time she was diagnosed with an eye condition called Stargardt's disease that gradually deteriorates the retinas.
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But Jordan only went to see a doctor because she needed a new pair of glasses. “I’m infamous for losing glasses — breaking glasses, sitting on them. Destroying them,” Jordan said, laughing. Then a co-worker told her the Syracuse VA Medical Center might to able to get her another pair.
Once she went to the VA, the doctor noticed something wrong with her vision and decided to run tests.
“They told me I had a real problem with my eyes, and I’m legally blind,” she said. “So then the next week they took my damn license away from me.”
A case of tunnel vision also severely limits what Jordan can see peripherally.
Jim Hanley, a Great Race founder and committee member, said he can't recall people using a tandem bike on the Great Race course before.
"Having someone with a disability participate and enjoy the race makes us really happy," he said.
Jordan's fiancé, David Cook, found that other people competing in the race showed a lot of interest in the bike after the day's events were over.
"People would come by and look at the bike and really make nice comments about it,” he said.
Kleiber said other people even recognized him and seemed impressed that he and Jordan navigated a tandem bike around the course. Even before the race, the pair's practice runs attracted some attention.
“Even when we’re driving around here in town, people yell, ‘Oh, wow, that’s cool.’ And everyone likes it,” Jordan said.