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Interview: Israel Antonio

Israel Antonio is a five-time Boston marathon qualifier and a Paratriathlon USA National Champion. He is also an accomplished writer, playwright, and screenwriter with wide-ranging interests in performance and the arts. After losing his sight at 14 years old, Israel has continued to set high goals and challenge both his own limits and the assumptions of his fellow athletes. Craig Pearson talks with Mr. Antonio about running with guides, the value of a creative community, and what it means to be a blind screenwriter.

Craig Pearson  :::  There’s a famous slogan about running that says, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” But the truth is, most runners actually enjoy what they do, even when it’s painful. What draws you to running as a sport, and long-distance running in particular?

Israel Antonio  :::  As an undersized prepubescent in Chicago, I was never the strongest or most talented on the various school teams and leagues on which I played. However, I was frequently the fastest. I loved how awed friends and classmates would be each time they watched me run.

After losing my sight, I stopped being involved in sports until, as a high school senior, I was allowed to race on my school’s track team. At the time I joined, I was the only blind or visually impaired person in the state racing against all sighted competition. It was so liberating to churn my legs that fast once more. While I may not be the most athletic person, running has always come naturally to me. Once I find my rhythm, especially during a longer run, I get such satisfaction visualizing my leg muscles working and strengthening with each step I take. It is that visualizing which helps me run even faster through the pain.

Describe what it’s like racing alongside a guide. How does being blind affect your training and your strategy on race day?

Not having sight forces me to do a majority of my run sessions on a treadmill. From time to time, a friend might have time to volunteer to meet up with me for a long run, but unfortunately, it is not as often as I would prefer. Having to rely on a treadmill does often cause me frustration that, unlike many of my friends, I cannot just lace up my running shoes and go for an outdoor run.

Another aspect which is difficult for me is preferring to know there is someone available to guide me for a race before registering for said events. I know I can register and then focus on finding a guide, but I would rather know a guide is in place ahead of time. There are times where a guide must drop out due to injury or other issues, but luckily I am surrounded by top notch pro and elite athletes, so there is always someone ready to free up her or his schedule for me.

I find that my emotions heading into a race are always tied to my guide’s level of satisfaction. In other words, I put so much pressure on myself to “run hard, run fast,” but it is not so much to ensure I know I have given my all on a given day, but to ensure I did not disappoint my guide. It is important to me that my guide enjoy the experience; otherwise I feel that I have, in some way, failed as an athlete or friend if my performance makes it a difficult or challenging day for the person guiding me.

Some runners tend to be solitary. I personally love the feeling of running through a park or on a trail through an empty field. Other runners derive energy from social interactions or the competitive instinct. Where do you fall on this spectrum?

I enjoy both. It is so nice to run alongside a friend or two. In fact, some of my fondest memories have taken place during marathons, because I always use two guides and the camaraderie between the two of them and me is such a magical experience.

That said, I truly love listening to music while I run, so running by myself permits me the opportunity to daydream or get lost in thought during my runs. Being a playwright and screenwriter, this alone time while I run allows me to brainstorm ideas for projects on which I may be working at the time. I do not always plan to brainstorm, but once the music takes over and I achieve a moment of tranquility, I find my imagination opens up and I am able to let my thoughts wander, which is something I would not be able to do when out running with others.

I am very competitive too, yet I do not get a rush in competing against others as much as I get joy in competing with my own previous times as I push to see by how much I can break my personal best times. Of course, having the experience of finishing on the podium or winning first place adds some extra juice to the activity.

You mentioned the camaraderie and relationship between you and your guides. I’d love to hear more about how those relationships develop. Do you run with the same set of people, or are you often meeting a new guide on the day of a race?

During the first few years I participated in races, I would not only meet my guide for the first time on race day, but often the person had never guided any athlete prior to that day. At the time, most of my friends were artists and didn’t have interest in racing, so my options for guides were limited. Through the power of Facebook and Twitter, I started getting involved with various cancer charities, and people were introducing me to their more athletic friends.

Little by little, elite individuals and professionals started volunteering. They would enjoy the experience of guiding and would volunteer over and over. Pretty soon, those athletes would introduce me to other elites or pros who would take an interest. Nowadays, I have a small group of mostly women marathoners and triathletes to whom I turn before anyone else to guide me.

My favorite example of this is my friend Rob, who is a college track star turned actor. One day, on Facebook, Rob and I were discussing running. Jen, one of Rob’s former college teammates and an elite marathoner, was fascinated by our conversation and jumped in to introduce herself via Facebook. Before long, Jen and I had become friends, and she volunteered to guide me. She loved it and has since guided me for ten races in three cities, including the Boston Marathon. Of the ten races, Jen has guided me to nine personal bests. She has introduced me to five or six of her closest female elite runner friends, all of whom have guided me too. Having that familiarity both on and off the course certainly enriches my life as an athlete — and our friendship as a whole.

Who inspires you?

Paula Radcliffe’s world record shattering performances at the 2002 Chicago Marathon and 2003 London Marathon inspired me to run marathons. Lokelani McMichael’s story of being the youngest person to finish the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii when she was eighteen years old is the reason I started racing triathlons.

Jenna Parker inspired me when I learned she wanted to be the first person in history to win both an Olympic gold medal and an Academy Award. Upon hearing that, I reached out to her and introduced myself. A pro triathlete, model, and actress, Jenna has become a dear friend and also my coach. That I’ve gone from a back of the pack finisher to a Boston qualifier and a USA Paratriathlon National Champion is a credit to Jenna’s friendship and coaching.

Aaron Sorkin inspired me to write. I took a media writing course in college, and for my final project I wrote a thirty-minute film script. I enjoyed writing stories, but prior to that day I sat down to write that film script, I would have never called myself a writer. I wrote the screenplay in one sitting one evening. Fast paced dialogue and Sorkin’s walk-and-talk style oozed out of me and on to the page. I discovered I loved writing dramedies.

People might be surprised to hear that you’re interested in film, due to your blindness. What do you find most compelling about the medium?

Even though I have never physically seen the people who entered my life after I lost my sight, I still have distinct memories of them and events involving them which I see clearly in my mind, and which I often re-live. Because I have vivid memories of color, shape, and size, I am fascinated with whether I can translate what I see with my mind’s eye to the page and ultimately to the screen.

I remember working on a screenplay where I was having difficulty writing a scene description or giving my characters meaningful actions to perform, so I took a step back and challenged myself to see the piece as a silent film and to convey the on-screen relationships without the use of dialogue. It helped me overcome the block with which I was dealing.

What excites me is the ability to evoke a response as someone who does not have sight, yet can paint such vivid pictures in a visual medium. That is what attracts me to film.

It seems sometimes that people with limited sight must balance two sets of challenges: the physical challenges of navigating the world without sight, and the social challenges of other people’s assumptions about disability. How have you approached those obstacles?

It is quite a balancing act, because I certainly have limitations and situations with which I need help, but there are plenty of other moments where I am fiercely independent. Where I have had to deal with stereotypes most is in the athletic arena. When I run, I place a tether around my waist, and my guide holds it to lead me. It never fails that when a male friend guides me for a training run, we’re on the receiving end of homophobic remarks or comments from those who mistake me for someone who is cognitively delayed. At races, people always approach me to say I am an inspiration, which I can certainly appreciate. However, I often wonder: are they merely saying it because they believe that is what one is suppose to say to a person with a disability?

Certainly, I cannot get into someone’s mind to determine how genuine a compliment might be. Still, I cannot help but wonder, if people are quick to call me heroic or inspirational for merely being out racing, then what about the able-bodied person, the teenage girl, or elderly gentleman who is out racing? Aren’t they deserving of such compliments too?

While I understand there are circumstances where I need some accommodations or assistance, my dearest friends do such a splendid job of treating me with the same attitude or sarcasm as they do everyone else. In fact, over the years, several of my friends have admitted to forgetting I cannot see. In some way, that is the ultimate form of compliment, because they do not see me as a blind person or someone with a disability. They see me simply as Israel.

You’ve mentioned several friends in the arts. How would you describe your creative community?

I would describe that community as a loving and warm family. One of the best decisions after graduating from college was enrolling in acting and movement classes. My “at rest” physical state seems to be always tense and on guard. Acting class and movement class instructors and classmates helped me break down those protective walls. The years I spent studying with other artists were some of the most productive years in helping me grow as a person. I was encouraged to explore and face ideas, shortcomings, and flaws which society tells us are best left untouched.

To this day, and even as many of those friends have gone on to act or direct theater or film projects, they remain some important and influential people in my life, always being honest with feedback. Most of them are constantly challenging themselves to grow as artists and as individuals. Seeing this motivates me to keep exploring and attempting new ventures. After all, there are no bad experiences, just wasted opportunities of not seizing the moment.

What do you think a community of writers and artists like Exceptions can do to engage creators across the visual ability spectrum?

That there exists an outlet like this may enable others to learn something or change a previously held perception. A gentleman who attended a staged reading of one of my theater pieces once said, “You’re such a visual writer. Your descriptions are so full of life and color that I would have never guessed you can’t see.” Giving artists and writers a platform like Exceptions can open society’s eyes to what is possible, to abilities which may not be associated with individuals of a certain segment of the population.

Reading through the articles, stories, and interviews posted on the site, I believe there are readers who may be surprised that these individuals have had such experiences. In some way, having a platform like Exceptions humanizes these writers and artists. Exceptions can be on the forefront for providing a deeper understanding of the writer or artist as well as their work.

Israel Antonio is a writer whose creative nonfiction pieces have been reprinted on the Fleet Feet Chicago Cheer Team blog and James Madison Be The Change sites. As a playwright, Israel is a two time Prop THTR New Play Festival selectee and a semifinalist for Another Chicago Theatre Company’s (A.C.T.C.) Last Play Standing Contest. He has written several screenplays and a television pilot, and has also written and performed stage plays, keynote addresses, and school assembly programs. He spent four years at WKDI-FM in DeKalb, Il where he was president of sports operations, in-game reporter, and host of a sports and entertainment program. After losing his eyesight at fourteen years old, Israel figured the speed which always made him the fastest one on his baseball, basketball, and football teams was a thing of the past, but thanks to his friend and coach, pro triathlete, model, and actress, Jenna Parker, Israel has turned into a five time Boston marathon qualifier and a Paratriathlon USA National Champion.

InterviewsCraig Pearson