If there is beauty in hope, then Wendy Werthaiser sees life as an Impressionist painting.
The 49-year-old Ashland cyclist — who is visually impaired with a degenerative disease called Cone-Rod Dystrophy — frequently races past Ashland vineyards and orchards on a tandem bike with her pilot Jill Williams.
“The best way to describe my vision now would be to think of a Monet painting,” Werthaiser says. “That is how I see. Things aren’t really clear and can appear cloudy. I can’t make out faces or read signs. Going in and out of shadows can be really dangerous. It’s like when you are out in the bright sunlight and then walk inside a dark room. For a split second, it’s black. It’s like that for me, only for a longer period of time.”
The light she can see shines strong for Werthaiser, a competitor aiming for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“It’s a beautiful and liberating feeling,” she says of riding. “The sight I do have, to see the amazing views. We live in such an incredibly beautiful place.”
The 49-year-old Werthaiser started noticing some vision loss in her early 30s while pregnant with her second of three children, she says. She had to stop driving in 1999 and began using adaptive technology to enlarge words.
Werthaiser’s mother, Ellen, has the same condition and is blind. Genetic testing in her mid 20s revealed Wendy was predisposed. Her younger sister is also a carrier of the gene.
“It was just a matter of time before I’d be affected,” says Werthaiser, who is a middle-school teacher.
“I learned pretty young the idea that as a family you work together,” she adds. “You help each other out. I would read recipes or the newspaper to her, or tell her who we were talking to if we were in a group of people. I was her eyes for her at times. Because she couldn’t drive, my sister and I had to be pretty independent.”
Werthaiser was born in Olympia, Washington, and grew up in Denver, Colorado. The Werthaiser family moved west to open and run a coffee house in Brookings for several years before Wendy left for Ashland to teach sixth grade language arts.
Werthaiser got into cycling and triathlons about eight or nine years ago after going through a divorce. She met a group of women, including Williams, who encouraged her to ride. A knee replacement four years ago ended Werthaiser’s triathlon career, but cycling stuck.
Werthaiser has enough eyesight to ride a single bike with a watchful group, or on a tandem.
“I just love being on a bike with people,” she says. “Doing something that feels good, that allows us to have that camaraderie. When you are traveling with someone on a bike for three, four, five hours, you learn a lot about them.”
That rings especially true when she’s on a tandem with Williams.
“It’s a totally different thing,” she says. “The two of you have to really trust each other, work together and communicate well. You both have to be putting in the power to make it work. It is a kind of dance. You really have to feel each other. You can feel their power in the pedals. You have to lean into turns. It can be scary, but not if you trust your pilot.”
Werthaiser and Williams competed at road nationals in June in Georgia, where they finished second out of eight and third in time trials. Their times meet the standards for Werthaiser’s Paralympic aspirations, she says.
Former professional cyclist Jade Wilcoxson has served as coach for the duo, who get together several times each week to practice. Those three help make up Team Blind Girl Cycling.
“She is really very strong physically,” Williams says of Werthaiser. “Also, she’s just strong individually. And so riding with her I’m always blown away by her to persevere through whatever challenges we face. We work really hard together. We are constantly learning together. And we have a lot of fun. We laugh a ton. It’s been a great experience. Since we’ve been working with Jade we’ve really improved.”
Werthaiser calls Williams fearless.
“She is fierce,” Werthaiser says. “The way she can handle a tandem with me on the back is incredible.”
Williams adds that as 2020 draws near, Werthaiser will need an even stronger pilot.
“What we learned when we did the national championship in Georgia is that there are pilots in a different league,” she says. “I am so much stronger than I was a year ago when we started but a lot of women are top-tier pro racers. So it looks like I will continue to train with her as a local pilot. But she’ll need someone with more experience.”
Werthaiser sometimes travels to Arizona to visit and train with her boyfriend Michael Somsan, who is completely blind. The two met at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, last May.
“He’s a source of comfort because he understands the struggle when I do struggle with my eyesight,” she says.
Werthaiser is amid a tapering process she abides by after completing big races: the intensity of her preparation ramps up as the event draws closer, and when it wraps, she begins rebuilding. Hardcore training for a December track national competition will start in August, Werthaiser says. She is seeking to improve both her sprinting and long-distance skills for the banked-track racing format.
“That way our peaks are really high,” she says.
Back home, the Ashland community has been beyond supportive, Werthaiser says.
“I just find myself on a daily basis feeling lucky to live here,” says Werthaiser, who has a bachlor’s degree from Northern Colorado and a master’s from Southern Oregon. “People are so willing to go that extra step for you, no matter what it is that I’m doing.”
And it helps having all those Southern Oregon hills to train on, too.
“It’s just a premier place,” she adds.
Students at Ashland Middle School help Werthaiser, volunteering to hand out papers and to read aloud.
“They are such sweet, compassionate kids,” Werthaiser says. “I didn’t realize how much my students would be into this journey. They want to know all about it. They want to talk about it. When we are in class learning and doing things together we have such a connection. The kids are able to see that just because you struggle with something it’s not a bad thing. With struggle, it makes success that much sweeter.”
Friends like Ben Bellinson, who has helped Werthaiser with fundraising and organizational operations, marvel at her spirit.
“It is really incredible,” he says. “She has an amazing attitude and drive to succeed and help others despite her own challenges.”
Werthaiser is raising money to help fund her goal of making the Paralympic cycling team.
To donate, visit blindgirlcycling.com.
“Oh my goodness, it is expensive,” she says. “Traveling, a bike, training centers, places to stay, food, coaching, entry fees, equipment. All that. It is a lot more than I anticipated.”
If it all comes together, Werthaiser’s vision of the future is clear. And it’s beautiful.
“I want to be an inspiration for anyone who is living with a disability,” she says.
Reach Dan Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.