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Floridian trains to be 1st blind woman to hike Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim

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Grand Canyon hiker

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., resident and Army veteran Shawn Cheshire, 43, is planning a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon in early October, which is even more impressive when you find out she is blind. Here she works out at Body Couture Pilates in Fort Lauderdale.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — She'll start the hike down the Grand Canyon at 4 a.m. It's seven, steep miles down, each step like a descending stair, except in place of a stair there's loose dirt, random rocks and ungroomed trail.

The temperature will approach 100 degrees at the bottom, and the elevation change will surpass 10,000 feet. An 18-mile trek follows across the Canyon and leads up the other side of the so-called rim-to-rim hike. Shawn Cheshire then will hike back again in a "rim-to-rim-to-rim madness," as a hiking site calls this idea.

All told, it's a 42-mile hike where the concerns of uncertain weather, rocky trail, elevation change, desire for record time of under 20 hours and fear of falling and "breaking a bone that makes me stop," as she says, take a backseat to another challenge.

Shawn Cheshire is blind.

The last thing Cheshire saw in this world was the back of an ambulance on Dec. 9, 2009. She doesn't remember it. She was a paramedic, picking up a patient on an icy day in Syracuse, N.Y., when she slipped and hit her head on the back of the ambulance.

The resulting head injury, the latest among several dating to her days in the Army, left her with "severely impaired vision," as she said. Over the next few years, even that little sight faded to nothing.

She wasn't just blind. She was lost, angry and depressed.

"I did not want to live," said Cheshire, 42. "I didn't see any purpose other than my two children."

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Shawn Cheshire

Shawn Cheshire is planning a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon in early October.

But this is a story of how people view the world — even when they can't view it — and how they, in turn, help others see it more clearly. It is a story that evolved over years. Because Cheshire was in the military, the Veterans Affairs hospital helped at a time she didn't want to help herself.

She was taught to use a cane, even though she said: "I was embarrassed to be seen with a cane. I hid in my house a lot. They were aware I was going in the wrong direction emotionally."

Exercise was suggested, though Cheshire was never an athlete. She was out of shape — 45 pounds heavier than she weighs now — when in 2013 a VA counselor took her to a running group associated with a veterans' outreach called Team Red, White and Blue.

"I had a bad attitude, and they were like, 'This is Shawn. She can't see anything. Who wants to learn to be a guide runner?' " Cheshire remembered. "One women in the group said she would. That was the start."

They ran four miles that day. At the end, some runners talked of running the following month in a 10-mile, high-elevation event in Syracuse called the Mountain Goat Run.

"Let's do it," Cheshire said.

"It's not long enough to train for you," she was told.

She ran it. She completed it carrying the American flag. She thought she was going to collapse, to be sure, but that was the start of a different course for her.

"I like to say after losing my vision my list of things I can't do was so long compared to my list of things I can do," she said. "I think that was the beginning of making my list of things I can do longer than what I can't do."

She kept running, kept improving, kept seeing a new world. Six months later, she got on a tandem bike at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I was still angry, still struggling, still thinking I didn't want to live this way," she said.

At the end of the week, she wanted to train for the Paralympic Games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. She was told to think of 2020 in Tokyo. She changed her life, made the U.S. team and competed in Rio.

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Workout

Shawn Cheshire, a Fort Lauderdale resident and Army veteran, works out at Body Couture Pilates. Her seeing eye dog, Kiara, waits patiently for her to finish.

She moved to South Florida, but kept going in sports. She cycled in blind races in Europe with a sighted partner. She competed in biathlons, which are skiing and shooting events (a noise sensor is involved in her shooting).

She locked in her life to compete in Tokyo until getting injured at a training session in Los Angeles. She wasn't allowed to bring her seeing eye dog, Kiara, a German shepherd. She was pointed to a bathroom. She bumped her head on a concrete beam, leading to more head trauma and an ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"This isn't what I wanted," she said.

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Kiara

Shawn Cheshire's seeing eye dog, Kiara, waits patiently for her to finish her Pilates class. Cheshire is training to become the first blind woman to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim.

Amid this, she went to a retreat this summer at the Grand Canyon. She hiked into the canyon, falling flat four times after tripping on rocks. That hike led to the thought of a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike.

Three guides will walk with her on Oct. 7. One will walk ahead with a bell sounding the way. One will walk behind telling her what's ahead. The third will rotate in and out of the mix to provide some rest.

A blind man did this hike in 28 hours. No blind woman has done it as far as she can tell. Guinness World Records wants to mark her time, which she hopes will be 18 or 19 hours.

She discussed the idea after finishing a Pilates class in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which followed a weight class and preceded training at home on her cycle.

"I don't want to do this just for myself," she said. "I want to show people who are suffering from something that you can do great things. I feed off the energy of helping someone that way. I love it when people ask me to talk to someone in need of help like I was."

That's the big-picture plan. The small-picture plan was clear.

"I'm not just planning to hike the Canyon," Cheshire said. "I'm planning to crush it."

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