A few hundred of the finest amateur athletes in the world gathered in Eilat last month for the annual Israman triathlon, where they swam in the Red Sea, cycled uphill through desert heat, and then ran for miles along trafficked roads. Among the competitors in this year’s Israman, Israel’s version of the arduous Ironman triathlon competition, was a man who didn’t exercise at all until about seven years ago; a man who can’t see two feet in front of him, or even own feet for that matter.
“When people see you go through tremendous pain and physical challenges, they respect the work you do,” says Richard Bernstein, a 37-year-old attorney who splits his time between Michigan and New York, and who has been blind since birth. In addition to the Israman and an Ironman in Idaho in 2008, Bernstein has run 13 marathons in the last six or seven years, and anticipates running a 14th in Jerusalem next month. He says, “It’s the easiest way to break down stereotypes.”
As the first blind competitor in the Israman, Bernstein sought to do more than cross the finish line. Bernstein and his guide — Shaked, a pilot in the Israeli Air Force who doubled as both tour escort and sighted athletic companion — aspired to alter entrenched attitudes in Israeli culture, particularly the military’s mindset. The pair aimed to demonstrate that the disabled can be strong and competent, and that Israel Defense Force units needn’t be wary of employing disabled individuals who wish to serve.
Together Shaked and Bernstein devised a plan: Bernstein would fly out a week before the Israman to train for the course with Shaked, and also visit with various high-ranked commanders in the IDF, to showcase his accomplishments as a disabled individual. Bernstein is not only an ardent athlete, a lecturer at the University of Michigan, and a lawyer in his father’s Detroit firm, but also a pro-bono advocate for disabled rights. Among other achievements, Bernstein partnered with the Justice Department to force the City of Detroit to repair wheelchair lifts on its buses.
Bernstein also happens to have the gift of gab. He is an unfailingly energetic talker, the type of speaker who can artfully, extemporaneously, restate his ideas three different ways to get a point across.
The message for the IDF? “If you have a disabled person in the military unit, they’re going to be unstoppable,” says Bernstein.
“Every part of the competition was amazing,” says Shaked, who because of security concerns asked that his full name not be printed. Shaked, who is 31 and lives in a small town near Tel Aviv, met Bernstein here last July at a Shabbat lunch, which was hosted by One Family Fund, an organization that helps Israeli victims of terror. Shaked had never met a blind man before, and never guided a blind athlete, but he says, “If you have the right attitude — to see through their eyes — everything becomes very easy.”
Shaked and Bernstein reveled in the steady stream of support they received both before and during the competition, from the taxi drivers to the flight attendants to the onlookers who shouted “kol hakovod” (“way to go!”), and the competitors who rode up alongside the pair’s tandem bike to express their pride, and sometimes their love. But Shaked says he drew greatest satisfaction in knowing that he helped “make a real change in people’s minds regarding the abilities of the disabled.”
Bernstein knows something about shifting preconceived notions. He needed to overcome his own fears and prejudices before he would even take a step jogging in Central Park. He perceived himself to be too fragile.
In other realms of his life, Bernstein behaved in a more self-assured manner. As a college student, Bernstein served as student body president of the University of Michigan, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1996. After college, he continued to tackle intellectual pursuits with vigor, committing reams of reading to memory in order to graduate from law school at Northwestern University. He required four or five times as much time on every assignment as his sighted classmates, he says. But athletics? He didn’t view himself as an “energetic person, as a cool person.”
“Before I joined Achilles, the understanding I had was that people who had disabilities didn’t exercise,” said Bernstein, referring to the organization that trains people with a diverse array of impairments on how to exercise, which can improve both cardiovascular health and mental state.
“For me it was a psychological thing. There’s a tremendous amount of fear that exists when you can’t see your footing,” says Bernstein. “I had no sense of where I was going. It’s much deeper than being in shape.”
Within a year of training with the Achilles Track Club, which taught Bernstein how to follow the detailed instructions of an athletic guide, Bernstein ran his first marathon.
Bernstein enjoys visiting Israel, where he says, pedestrians don’t feel the need for personal space, and where they “have no problem tackling you if they are concerned about your safety. I love it.” He found the Israman competition to be among the most uplifting — and also grueling — experiences of his life.
In 2008, Bernstein competed in a full Ironman in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, which included cycling 112 miles, running a 26.2 mile marathon and swimming 2.4 miles in 55 degree open water, all without a break. But Bernstein, who completed the half Ironman in Israel (the full course was also an option available to Israman competitors), found this competition to be even more excruciating and exhilarating than his experience in Idaho.
The heat and the hills in Israel, for starters, tested Bernstein’s endurance.
Then there was the sea, which unlike the Coeur d’ Alene Lake in Idaho, has the aggravating tendency to surge up in sudden waves. Bernstein, who was roped at the waist to Shaked, recalls, “You’re swimming and you can’t communicate. You can’t hear. You can’t see. You’re in a complete abyss.”
Finally, there was the half marathon, a run on pebble-strewn, gravelly roads, with cars whizzing by, sometimes honking their congratulations, and Shaked patiently narrating every foot fall. “I was putting my entire being into someone else’s hands,” says Bernstein. Luckily, that someone turned out to be the most skilled guides Bernstein has yet encountered.
That bond with Shaked, and the demanding nature of the course, helped transform a physical challenge into an almost religious event. “When it gets really scary, painful, difficult, my connection to Hashem tends to get stronger,” says Bernstein, who has become interested in learning more about Judaism in recent years. “It’s the one time I can really feel the disconnect between the body and the spirit. The body is in so much pain, and you find that the spirit guides the body.”
In preparation for the trip, Bernstein learned a new phrase, one familiar to Israelis who have served in the military: “HaKol Ba’Rosh” — “It’s all in your mind; you can do anything.”