Solano has his eyes on sports again

Jun 26, 3015 | By George Albano, Hour Staff Writer

David Solano never had the opportunity to play sports while growing up in Norwalk. Not Little League. Not youth soccer. And when it came to high school sports, not a chance.

That decision was made for him pretty much from the time he was born and diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that causes severe vision impairment due to the progressive degeneration of cells in the retina.

“Basically, it’s a breakdown of the pigment layer around the retina, which in turn leads to a breakdown of the retina,” Solano, who turned 37 on Tuesday, explained. “I’ve had it pretty much since I could remember.

“My parents started noticing I had vision issues when I was two years-old. I’ve had glasses all my life,” the native Norwalker added. “The doctors thought I was just nearsighted because at the time they didn’t know much about it. I was always told I was nearsighted.”

Research has come a long way the last couple of decades, enabling doctors to better understand Retinitis Pigmentosa, which often leads to eventual blindness. In fact, it is the leading cause of blindness in many countries.

Symptoms also include decreased night vision and the loss of peripheral vision, known as tunnel vision. Those are two things Solano can relate to.

“I’ve never had night vision,” he said. “If I stand outside at night, unless I’m standing under a streetlight or anything light directly hits, it’s all darkness.

“And I mostly have tunnel vision. No peripheral vision. I either have to look down or straight ahead. I’m unable to look out of the corner of my eye.”

Of course, you can understand why all of this would make playing sports difficult, if not impossible.

“I was never able to play sports — baseball or anything — when I was a kid,” Solano said. “Part of symptoms is zero depth perception, so if someone threw a baseball at me, I could see the baseball, but I can’t physically tell how far away it is. So I couldn’t hold my hand out to catch it.

“I wanted to try out for Little League, but my parents wouldn’t let me. Not that they were trying to be discouraging.”

No, in fact, Marco and Hannia Solano, who are originally from Costa Rica and still live in Norwalk, were always encouraging their visually impaired son to try different things.

“But at the same time they were being realistic when it came to baseball,” David said.

His frustration went beyond sports, too.

“Gym class was always a nightmare, doing things that made me look foolish and getting laughed at by kids,” Solano, who attended local public schools, pointed out. “But again, nobody really understood what I had. I didn’t, either.

“I remember trying out for the soccer team in sixth grade at Ponus Ridge. That was a complete horror show.”

There were a lot of “horror shows’ as David Solano calls them.

But in 2004, his life drastically changed.

“It hit me that I had gained a lot of weight,” he said. “I was 25 years-old, not exercising, and had gained 50 or 60 pounds the last few years. I was well over 200 pounds.

“I realized it was time to start concentrating on getting healthy and in shape. So I started lifting weights on my own and running on a tread mill. My sister in-law started doing road races and I joined her. I did a 5K and couple of 10Ks, and since 2013 I’ve run four half-marathons.”

Sure doesn’t sound like the same person who couldn’t do anything athletically as a kid does it?

And on Saturday, Solano will add another chapter to his growing list of challenges when he takes part in the Gaylord Gauntlet 5K Trail and Obstacle Run, which takes place on the Gaylord Hospital 400-acre campus in Wallingford. It is a combination of wooded trail and open-field running featuring 21 natural and manmade obstacles.

What makes this event a little bit more special to Solano, however, is where it takes place and who it benefits. Gaylord Hospital is a long-term care hospital that specializes in traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, pulmonary issues and strokes.

What’s more, the hospital is committed to the healthy and wellness of those who have been disabled by accident and illness. Since 1995, the successful Sports Association program at Gaylord provides adaptive sports and recreation opportunities for individuals with physical disabilities. Other events include wheelchair tennis and rugby and adaptive cycling, skiing and golf.

Hundreds of athletes, abled and disabled, are expected to participate in the obstacle run at Gaylord, the first and only hospital to host such an event at its facility. Norwalk’s David Solano will be among them.

But he’s not just a participant. Solano is also involved on the organizing end in his role as the Fairfield County Regional coordinator for the Achilles Foundation, a non-profit organization whose mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics.

“A family friend who got into running after a snowboarding accident told me about Achilles and through her I met Erin Spaulding, who’s the president of the Connecticut chapter,” Solano said. “When I found out there was no Fairfield County chapter, I said I would start one.

“I help organize events and keep athletes from Bridgeport to Greenwich informed what’s going on. We also match athletes with people to provide a community of not only athletes, but people who want to help out. A lot of people not only want to run, but also help.”

Which is exactly what Solano is doing in Saturday’s Gaylord Gauntlet 5K in Wallingford. The trail and obstacle run will include a rock wall climb, vine swings and even a couple of mud pits.

“It’s a smaller version of an event called Tough Mudders,” he said of the popular endurance event, which tends to get a little messy. “My brother discovered Tough Mudders and when he started telling me about it, I said I’m in.”

As you can see, David Solano never let his lack of vision detract from his love of sports, especially after he became a father.

“Both my sons played baseball and I used to hang out by the dugout and try to do whatever I could, participate anyway I can,” the father of three — he also has a daughter — said. “I would cheer all the kids on, that kind of thing, or help roll up the tarp when it rained.

“I wished I could’ve coached, but that wasn’t feasible with my vision. Even now, I have to listen to the umpire and the crowd reaction to tell what’s going on.”

By the time Solano got to high school he had given up all hope of ever playing a sport.

“I think I could have done good in wrestling,” the 1996 Brien McMahon graduate said. “That’s a full-contact sport and doesn’t require perception.  “But by that time, I was not into sports anymore. I was into music.”

Solano started playing the guitar when he was 13 and played in a couple of bands. It was a nice alternative to the sports he was denied of playing. He still takes out his guitar once in a while and jams with his teenage son.

Work is also a challenge. Solano is in sales and commutes to Stamford by train every day and then takes a shuttle bus to the building where he works.  “Some mornings trying to find that can be frustrating,” he said. “I’ve never been able to drive. By the time I was old enough, my condition had progressed too much.”

Fortunately, the Retinitis Pigmentosa he’s learned to live his entire life with hasn’t progressed to the point where his new-found passion for participating in events like Saturday’s has been taken away from him. Once in a lifetime is not fair. Twice would be downright cruel.

“The progression is different in everyone and lucky for me, my progress is very slow,” he pointed out. “I actually run on my own. I don’t need a guide support. But when I do mudders and I have to run a half-mile through woods, that’s difficult. My brother helps me with that.”

In some events, he’s even been inspired by other competitors.  “There’s one guy in the Hartford area who has what I have, only it seems much worse, and he’s one of the top triathletes in the country. He travels the world.”

On Saturday morning in Wallingford, when he’s maneuvering his way around the obstacle course at the Gaylord Hospital, David Solano hopes he’ll be the one inspiring a few people.

“I’ll be involved as an athlete,” he said, “but I also understand what people are going through because I went through it. So I hope to lend my support that way.”

One thing no one can ever say to him again, though, is that he’s not able to participate in sports.