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'You can achieve anything': Life-long B.C. athlete keeps competing after sudden vision loss

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VICTORIA -

For as long as he can recall, James Kwinecki has loved athletics.

“It’s hard-wired in my body,” James smiles. “I don’t think I could go a few days without moving.”

When he was a kid, he played on every team he could. After graduating, he got a job that would support his pastime.

“I could make some money,” James says. “And then I could do my fitness and sports on the side.”

His life couldn’t have been better, until his vision suddenly got worse. He went to the doctor after the vision in one eye was “sort of getting fuzzy.”

“And then they sent me to the ER,” James says. “That was a bit of a curveball.”

The then 21-year-old was diagnosed with a rare eye disease, Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. Six months later, James was almost completely blind in both eyes.

“It was terrible,” James says. He suddenly couldn’t drive, couldn’t see his phone to connect with the world, and couldn’t play sports. “I had no idea what I was going to do.”

All the activities that James used to do – which defined him, fuelled him, and provided him with community – he now couldn’t do.

But then James heard about blind baseball. Seeing as he had nothing else to do, he tried it.

“It was so much fun,” James says, explaining how all the players are blindfolded before attempting to hit a ball that emits sounds, and running towards bases that do the same. “It kind of propelled me into getting into other sports.”

It inspired James to go to university and join the varsity rowing team.

“It was tough. It was hard,” James admits, before smiling. “Some of those days, I spent much more time in the water than the boat.”

But James persevered. And did so well that he earned an opportunity to join the national Paralympic rowing team.

“The momentum sparked more motivation,” James says.

It also gave James the confidence to look for a sport that would provide him with some of the autonomy he’d lost. He found that in running.

“I can just go run,” James says. “Nothing's going to stop me.”

After finding closed tracks and public routes that were safe, and often wearing a vest that says ‘blind runner,’ James runs by himself almost daily.

He’s now part of a community of runners. And with the help of a guide, James has also completed more than few marathons, and is training for more.

“You’re on top of the world,” James describes the feeling of running.

Although nothing compares to the feeling of proposing to your partner and her saying ‘yes.’

James and his fiancée Sydney are planning their wedding, while he’s also starting a new job at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind to support youth with vision loss.

“It does get better,” the now 29-year-old says. “It does get easier.”

And although life does take unexpected turns, James says if you commit to forging your own path, you just might find you couldn’t be happier with the direction you’re headed.

“Once you achieve that,” James smiles. “You can achieve anything!”

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