What Audiences Are Saying About Mary

Mary was incredible (as keynote)!  Our Chamber members are still talking about her! 

Jenny Smith, President 

Clintonville Area Chamber of Commerce

From the Akron Beacon Journal:

Monday, June 23, 2003

Ok, I admit, my knees were shaking. I was gripping the handlebars so hard, my right hand went numb. Cotton mouth describes perfectly the feeling in my mouth.

What made me so anxious? Well, Monday night I captained a tandem bike for the first time. Fortunately, I had a great partner in Mary Hiland, my stoker, the person who rides in back.

Oh, by the way, Mary is totally blind.

I need not have worried so much; it turned out to be an exhilarating experience. When Mary heard about the Ohio Odyssey, our 20-day bicycle adventure around the state, she sent an e-mail and asked whether I wanted to ride with her and some of her bike-club friends. She said it would be a learning experience I would not soon forget. She was right.

Still, after riding more than 40 hot miles during the day and then writing my daily stories for the Akron Beacon Journal, I was tired and cranky. Ok, I’ll go so far as to say I thought about canceling. After all, climbing aboard a bike with a person I didn’t know in unfamiliar riding territory – that didn’t sound too appealing to me.

But, a commitment is a commitment, so photographer Dennis Gordon and I drove out to Hoover Reservoir where we met up with Mary and her friends. I quickly learned the three rules of tandem riding with a blind person: communication, communication, communication. I’m told that tandem riding with a sighted person requires a high degree of teamwork. With a blind person, every move, every turn, every stop, everything must be forewarned and described in detail.

Just getting started was a challenge. After taking a spin around the parking lot by myself to get a feel for the tandem, I pulled up next to Mary and told her to hop on. Well, not really. At this point I was near hyperventilation with anxiety.

You see, when you pilot a tandem with a blind person you accept total responsibility for the safety of both people. Talk about guts. Mary didn’t know me from Adam, yet she was willing to put all her trust in me. As she described it, “If I don’t trust, I don’t ride.” And Mary loves to ride.

So, on command, I gave a great push off with my left foot and we went about 10 feet before stumbling to a stop. That was not promising. We backed up the bike and received more instructions from the friends. This time I really pushed off and so did Mary.

And so did one of the friends running along side in back, just like dads do with their kids. This time we rolled. For the first few miles, I barked out everything I was doing, even the obvious. “I’m pedaling, Mary, I’m pedaling. I’m still pedaling.” That was unnecessary. However, loud, clear announcements were essential at every turn and every stop. With the turns, Mary needed to know which way to lean. With the stops, she needed to know when to step off.

Soon, the bike-riding part became natural, almost easy. At that point I started to describe the surroundings, seeing things in exquisite detail – the better for sharing with Mary. At one point I described the sky as clear and deep blue. Then, like many sighted people around the blind, I thought I goofed. How would Mary know blue? No problem, she said. Now 58, Mary started losing her sight at age 8, giving her memories from childhood. “Blue is my favorite color,” she said.

After a while, even the necessary announcements became automatic. I started to relax and we began talking about her job – she manages 250 volunteers for the Columbus organization that reads for the blind – and other parts of our lives. Mary has done GOBA, the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure, three times – including once with a different captain each of the seven days. She’s been riding for 10 years.

She asked me a lot of questions about my job and admitted she had an ulterior motive for asking me on the ride. People needed to know that bike riding not only is possible for blind people, but it’s great exercise and a lot of fun, she said. The only problem is more sighted people are needed for piloting.

Maybe I could spread that word, she suggested coyly. Don’t worry, Mary, I understood from the start why you wanted to do this, I replied.

Then, something magical happened. We were riding down a shady lane that suddenly opened up into bright sunshine. “Ah,” said Mary, “I love to feel the warmth of the sun.”

Then, a bit later, she said, “Can you smell that. It’s almost like someone is burning something in the fireplace. I love to ride in the fall when people use their fireplaces.”

That’s when I fully relaxed. I stopped worrying about the terrible burden of responsibility. This was turning out to be like most bike rides on a pleasant summer evening down a tranquil country road. This was fun. Mary was enjoying herself. And so was I.

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