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Blind woman finishes Brewhouse Triathlon

Annie Young was at her friend's lake home in Pine City, Minn., on Friday, getting ready to cook up a batch of spaghetti -- "carb loading" as it's called -- while Lesley Ernst's 7-year granddaughter looked on in disbelief.

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Blind triathlete Annie Young (left) and guide Lesley Ernst near the finish of the Brewhouse Triathlon on Saturday while friend Robin Ruegg (background) cheers them on. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Annie Young was at her friend’s lake home in Pine City, Minn., on Friday, getting ready to cook up a batch of spaghetti - “carb loading” as it’s called - while Lesley Ernst’s 7-year granddaughter looked on in disbelief.
“Grandma,” she asked, “How does Annie cook? She’s blind.”
There are a lot of things Young can do, as she proved again on Saturday.
Young, of Burnsville, Minn., completed the short course at the 29th annual Brewhouse Triathlon at Island Lake with a little help from Ernst, her guide. It marked the 10th anniversary of Young’s first triathlon, which also came in the Brewhouse.
“The mantra I live by comes from a quote by Audrey Hepburn,” Young said. “She said the words ‘I’m possible’ are found in the word ‘impossible.’ I think that is a universal message anybody can use. We’ve heard people say, ‘Well, I don’t think I can do that swim.’ If there is something you want to do, you can do it. You just have to find a way. A positive attitude will take you anywhere you want to go.”
Young, 52, lives up to her name. She looks and acts younger than her age. Her personality? Effervescent. Her attitude? Undeniable. You meet her once and want to meet her again. She is that kind of person.
Originally from near Rochester, Minn., Young began to lose her sight about 15 years ago, when she was 37, from a medical condition she didn’t want to elaborate on. By age 40, she had lost 85 percent of her vision. Outside she can sometimes pick up light, like shadows.
Young hadn’t done the Brewhouse since 2011 after she tore a hamstring off the bone while training for the Twin Cities Marathon. The hamstring was surgically reattached, but she had two infections.
“I love to swim, so I’m irritated that the running took me out of commission,” Young said.
Young has had three surgeries and is still getting back into it, so she walked the run portion on Saturday. In a first for her, she actually led that portion, in front of her guide, with her friends telling her which way to go while she used her cane to follow between the rough and smooth portions of the road.
“Next year she will be back doing the whole thing,” Ernst said. “This year she was thrilled just to be able to walk it.”
Young is multitalented and diverse. It’s as if she already has lived three lives in one. She spent 14 years in the Air Force before transferring to the Federal Aviation Administration, where she was a special agent for security. Now she is living blind, but living well.
“I came back from a trip where I heard about all these amazing women who do triathlons,” Young said. “Lesley asked if I wanted to do one, but I didn’t know how to swim.”
Her friends showed her.
“We were mean to her,” Ernst said, laughing. “My biggest thing is that I forget that Annie is blind.”
Young received her training in Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis. They trained in only waist-deep water for her safety, but they would bump into her because that is what happens in a triathlon. Ernst said she came up sputtering and coughing and crying.
“Are you trying to kill me?” Young said.
But she learned how, and is now a better swimmer than Ernst and her sister, Robin Ruegg, who also was at Island Lake to lend a hand. Ruegg used to play softball with Young. She was the catcher and Young the pitcher.
“Don’t ever give up,” Ruegg said. “Sometimes, as you get older, you think, ‘Ah, you know, I’m old, I’m fat, I’m tired. And … No. I was having some problems just the other day. My eyes were tired, and ‘I said, ‘I can’t see, I can’t see.’ Wait a minute (glancing at Young). Yeah, you can see. It’s just your eyes are blurry.”
For the swim, a tether was attached from Ernst’s ankle to Young’s swimsuit strap. Young’s guide usually swims in front unless she is feeling adventurous and wants to lead. Then her guide taps her feet as to which way to go. For the bike, they ride tandem. And for the run, the tether is attached wrist to wrist, running side by side.
“We just help her,” Ernst said. “She’s the star.”
Young deflects the attention back at her friends. She knows sometimes it takes a team.
Young received the loudest ovation of anyone when she crossed the finish line Saturday. There were lots of hugs to go around.
People often tell her that she inspired them to do their first triathlon.
“We do it for the spectators,” Young said. “They look at us and go, ‘If they can do it, I can do it, too.’”
Young is an accomplished painter. She has her own website, annieyoungarts.blogspot.com, to display her work. She posted a photo of her and Gov. Mark Dayton on the site aptly titled, “yes, I can!”
You start to wonder. Is there anything she can’t do?
“Ummmm,” Ernst said, thinking.
“We don’t use that word,” Young said. “That’s not in our lexicon.”
“Ummmm,” Ernst, still thinking. “We don’t let her fly airplanes. Or drive cars, but that’s about it.”
That includes cooking.
Young was nice enough to show Ernst’s granddaughter how to make spaghetti. Young was an example to her as she is to many. And never mind that it was her first time ever in that kitchen.
“She just bangs around till she finds what she needs,” Ernst said. “When Annie’s in the kitchen, we just get out of her way.”
Young wants to do an inline marathon and kayaking, too.
So you can call her many things, but just don’t call her disabled, because she certainly doesn’t need your sympathy.
“We don’t like the word ‘dis’ because nobody likes to be ‘dis’ anything,” Young said. “We like the word difference. We’re ‘diff-abled.’ Because we’re all different and abled, and we’re going to make this world a healthier place, one race at a time.”

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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