Shawn Cheshire rode across the country on her bicycle, depending on Grand Rapids Community College professor Jesse Crandall to guide her every bit of the two-month, 3,700-mile trek.
Cheshire is a Paralympian who is blind and competes in a variety of sports at the international level. Through a friendship with the GRCC chemistry professor, she has added bicycling to her activities, traversing the country, meeting and inspiring people all along the way.
Crandall said both teaching and guiding are about helping others through obstacles.
“For many students, introductory chemistry is something they have no experience with,” said Crandall, a GRCC associate professor of chemistry. “So, when I’m teaching, it helps to think about my experiences coaching my friend Shawn, who is totally blind. Then I try talking about the lesson in a language that, hopefully, everybody can understand.”
That gift for guiding students was born of a longtime friendship — and many record-breaking escapades — with best friend Shawn Cheshire, an Army veteran, Paralympian and renowned adventure-seeker who is blind.
Following her years in the military, Cheshire became an EMT/paramedic. During a 2009 snowstorm, she slipped while treating a patient in an ambulance and sustained a traumatic brain injury that resulted in total vision loss.
Sports and physical challenges ignited her competitive spirit and helped her confront her blindness, she said.
“You have to want to live,” Cheshire said. “For me, I wanted to be someone I could be proud of.”
Crandall and Cheshire have been skiing, climbing, running and bicycling together for the past decade. They met in New York when Cheshire, in search of greater independence, decided to learn cross-country skiing.
“Here was this woman who was blind and had never seen someone cross-country ski because she grew up in Texas, where you don’t find much snow,” said Crandall, a top skier and former ski coach who was in Syracuse earning his doctorate in chemistry. “She had no way to visualize cross-country skiing or recall seeing someone else do it.”
But that never stopped Cheshire — or Crandall.
Cheshire not only learned to ski, she earned a spot on Team USA and was the first blind woman to compete in biathlon (skiing and rifle shooting) for the U.S. Paralympic Nordic ski team. She has since competed for Team USA in both summer and winter sports.
Since the Rio Olympics in 2016, Cheshire has focused on competing in awe-inspiring athletic feats to challenge social norms for the blind.
Instead of her eyes, she relies on her ears — and on Crandall to show her the way.
In 2018, the pair and two friends faced the steep terrain of the Grand Canyon, completing a rim-to-rim-to-rim double crossing in just over 24 hours. As they walked 42 miles through the night, Cheshire listened for warnings of obstacles from Crandall and the other guides, as well as the noise of the bell the lead hiker wore, which sounded as they walked.
“There was lots and lots of climbing and lots and lots of descending,” Crandall said. “She did it in just over 24 hours, which is the world record for any blind person doing it.”
In 2021, Cheshire set another world record by riding her own bicycle — not a tandem — from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. The cross-country trek took 60 days and covered 3,700 miles.
It wasn’t easy.
“We had two-way radios in our helmets, and I had a speaker on the back of my bike; I would give her directions and describe road conditions — if we were moving right or left and any hazards — and she would follow my sound,” Crandall said.
They are accompanied for a portion of the trip by Steve Martin, a U.S. Army veteran who lost his legs below the knees in an explosion in Afghanistan.
Last year, Cheshire biked the Tour Divide, a 2,700-mile mountain bike race along the mountain passes and windswept valleys of the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada, to the Mexico border with Crandall and another friend. It was the worst weather in the history of the race and more than half of the riders who started the race dropped out, according to Cheshire’s website here.
They finished the race in 50 days, cycling through snow, mud, hail, rain, freezing temperatures and triple-digit temperatures. With this feat, another world record was set.
And now? Cheshire is training to summit both Mount Everest and Mount Lhotse, the highest and fourth-highest mountains in the world. If she completes the back-to-back expeditions this spring, she would be the first blind woman in history to summit Everest and one of the first blind people to attempt this double summit.
But this time, Crandall won’t be joining her in the Himalayas.
He’ll be at GRCC, guiding his students as they navigate the often-overwhelming world of chemistry.
At least for now.
“I don’t know what our next adventure will be,” Crandall said. “We’ve talked about skiing across Antarctica … I do know that with Shawn, there are no limits.”
This story was reported by Beth McKenna.