UW athlete overcomes blindness to compete at the highest level

SEATTLE -- One of the greatest spectacles in Seattle sports each year is the Windermere Cup.

Each year, fans line the Montlake Cut to watch head-to-head crew racing.

One University of Washington Husky will row her fist Windermere Cup on Saturday, but she won't be able to see the excitement on the Cut as she flies by.

She can barely see anything at all, but that hasn't stopped her from rowing her heart out.

Eleni Englert has been slowly losing her vision since the fifth grade.

"It's a degenerative disease I have," she said. "It's slowly getting worse."

Her worsening eyesight didn't stop her from getting into the University of Washington. Along with her guide dog, Briggs, Englert came to the university because it's one of the best in the country for helping visually-impaired students.

Every day, Englert gets up before 6 a.m., puts Briggs in a kennel and attends one of her favorite classes.

Englert is a rower, and she's part of one of the very best collegiate rowing programs in the country.

It's rowing at the highest collegiate level, and the university recruits student-athletes from around the world to take part in the program.

On the Montlake Cut, seconds matter and precision means maximum propulsion. As it happens, that's where Englert excels.

"Speed is my thing," she said. "I like speed, I like going fast."

In a sport where success or failure is determined in large part by a team's ability to work together, rowing blind might cause a problem. But nothing has changed for Englert.

While she can't see anything in front of her, she does have some minimal vision.

"Where you look is in your central vision, which I don't have, so I have peripheral," she said. "In the boat I can see movement on the side, but I can't see what the oars are doing."

Stargardt disease, for which there is no cure, puts her vision at 20-600. Legally blind is 20-200.

But in the boat, it's not about what she can't see, it's about what she feels.

"I can feel what everyone is doing around me," she said. "You want to be connected in the boat. So if you're connected, you can feel that. If you're not connected, you can feel that."

And when things don't feel right, she listens.

A team of rowers can see each other and row, but until they feel that boat gliding underneath them and they hear that oar catch in unison, there will be no victories.

Englert has shown there is more to rowing than meets the eye, and everyone around her has envisions of greatness in her rowing future.

As for rowing blind, it won't slow Englert down -- nothing can.

"It's just the way I am," she said. "People can get upset about it, I can understand that it kind of sucks. but I just make the best of it. I enjoy it."

Englert competed on the Paralympic team last summer in London, and rowing on the U.S. Olympic team is her next goal.

But her long-term goal is to go to law school and become a lawyer.
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