Blind scuba diver overcomes watery jitters

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Posted by on April 09, 2005 at 14:13:48:

It's surprising enough that at age 57, Montgomerian Ross Irving Jr. finally decided to follow up on his childhood dream of scuba diving. But what's really remarkable is that seven years ago, Irving lost his sight to glaucoma. A blind scuba diver?

If anyone could do it, it'd be Ross Irving. It was an early memory that just wouldn't go away. Irving vividly recalls sitting in front of the TV as a child, glued to "Sea Hunt," a series in which fearless scuba diver Mike Nelson explored shipwrecks, downed satellites and sunken treasure, all the while fending off fierce sharks with a spear gun.

The show ran in the late '50s to early '60s, when scuba diving was brand-new to Americans. Like many youngsters at the time, Irving was determined to try it, to follow Nelson into the vast unknown. But real, land-based life made demands on Irving from an early age: He had to quit high school to help pick cotton on his family's farm.

By the time he reached manhood he was in Vietnam, serving as an infantryman in the 173rd Airborne unit of the U.S. Army. After his military service he returned to Montgomery, started a family - his wife of 26 years, Cordelia, and their three daughters - and went to work as a truck driver. Still, somewhere in the back of his mind, the dream of scuba diving lingered.

Seven years ago, Irving lost his sight. Glaucoma is a disease that doesn't give many warning signals, and by the time he was diagnosed with it there was little hope for his eyes. And for a while, Irving felt very little hope for himself.

"I just stopped doing the things I had always done," he said. "I stopped going to church."

But then, rehabilitation at the VA Blind Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham "turned my life around," he said.

With new hope, old dreams surfaced. Strangely, it was only after he lost his sight that his long-awaited underwater adventure would finally begin. Lane Weitman, Irving's recreational therapist at the Therapeutic Recreation Center, had never heard of a blind scuba diver.

It was certainly unconventional.

But when Irving expressed an interest in scuba, Weitman immediately said, "Let's make it so."

"Who are we to deem someone else's goals or dreams impossible?" he said.

Weitman enlisted scuba instructor Tom Smedley of Adventure Sports II in Montgomery. Smedley regularly facilitates "I Tried Scuba" experiences for all kinds of folks. This, however, was the first time he was facing a client who was visually impaired.

Like all beginning scuba students, Irving's first experiences would take place not in open water but within the safe confines of a pool. Therapeutic Recreation Center's large heated indoor pool is accessible to those with an array of disabilities.

Smedley said at first he was a little skeptical, but upon meeting Irving and witnessing his indomitable spirit, he was sold.

"As soon as his hands hit the bottom of the pool he was oriented," said Smedley in a story he wrote about Irving on a scuba Web site

Smedley said just before his first scuba lesson, Irving was nervous, just like anyone beginning a new adventure, with a few added complications. But Irving was prepared. For weeks before, he and Weitman had executed diving drills, without scuba equipment, in which Irving would repeatedly swim to the bottom of the pool to retrieve 10-pound diving bricks Weitman had thrown in.

"He had a task," Weitman said. "It wasn't just going underwater and sitting there. He had objectives and goals."

Irving met all of them. This exercise strengthened Irving's underwater endurance as well as his ability to locate underwater objects, and it built up his familiarity with the dimensions of the pool.

Weitman said Irving maneuvered expertly in the pool, easily differentiating the depths by noting changes in the tile at the bottom.

Working with the scuba tank, mask and breathing apparatus was another matter. Before taking his first fully equipped plunge in the pool in late February, Irving's only fear was that, since it's difficult to breathe from your mouth only, he would choke once he got underwater. He did choke, but he soon recovered.

The second try was a success. Smedley and Weitman had planned to keep Irving in the shallow end, but he proved so adept at diving that they quickly allowed him to venture into the deep end. His confidence escalated to the point that Weitman sometimes had to gently guide him away from the pool's wall when Irving approached it too quickly.

Irving was so alert to the underwater environment that at one point he stumbled onto and explored an unexpected object lying on the floor of the shallow end - Smedley's scuba tank.

"I felt around for a while, and then I said, 'No, this is not something I'm supposed to bring up," Irving said, laughing.

"I was watching when you were headed that way - I was going to see how you responded," Weitman told Irving.

Weitman said there's a fine line between when a recreational therapist needs to intervene and when he just needs to let the client learn things on his own.

"It's like in the movie 'Ray,' when the mother had stand back and let Ray as a child go and find his way, even when there was danger," Weitman said. "He had to learn some things the hard way, and it's kind of like that with Ross in the water.

"After a while, he was hands-off, completely independent," Weitman said of Irving. "There was noticeable progress in that evening that facilitated his independence. It all started with courage."

He'd begun with jitters, but during his first scuba expedition, Irving grew familiar and comfortable with the feeling, even, at one point, striking a pose inspired by his "Sea Hunt" hero, Mike Nelson - standing underwater, aiming an imaginary spear gun.

"I stayed underwater longer than I ever stayed underwater," Irving said of his two-hour adventure. "I felt so relaxed when I got out."

By the end of that evening, Irving was already determined to continue with the scuba lessons. His next session is this month. What he didn't expect was a chance-of-a-lifetime offer from his instructor.

After the experience, Smedley asked Irving if he'd be interested in joining his search and recovery team. Irving's immediate response: "Sure!" Smedley explained that search and recovery divers often have to work in very limited visibility, a situation where Irving would have the upper hand.

There will be several lessons before Irving joins that team, but he's looking forward to an expedition later this year with Smedley's crew in the open waters off Key West, Fla., at a facility that accommodates folks with disabilities. Irving's scuba adventure was the result of Therapeutic Recreation Center's "VIP (visually impaired) Adventures and Beyond" program.

"It's called 'Adventures and Beyond' because it's absolutely an adventure, and it's beyond what people expect," Weitman said.

Now that Irving's scuba adventure is on course, he's ready for his next one - skydiving.

"We're already planning that one," Irving said. "Oh yeah, I'm going to do it."

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