The great triumph of Charles King is not that he’s the oldest actively competing blind athlete and gold medalist on the United States Association of Blind Athletes’ (USABA) Powerlifting team. It’s not even that he only started powerlifting ten years ago.
It’s that Charles King’s life story is one hardship after hardship, tragedy, and despair. But through every unimaginable series of events that the universe has thrown his way, Charles—again and again and again—rises, perseveres, and triumphs through it all.
Waking Up to Darkness
Charles joined the military in 1977. After returning home to Philadelphia, he secured a job he loved with a construction company and had twin babies on the way. He, admittedly, was happy about life.
But in 1989, at age 39, everything changed. Charles went blind due to an optic nerve disease.
“I was very scared and angry, too. Why is this happening to me? I became so depressed that I wanted to die. Because nobody knew how to help me being blind, they just shove you in a corner. And I didn’t want to be put in a corner. So I just gave up on life.
“I wanted to be a success on whatever level I could because that’s the American Dream. And to be able to take care of my family. But I couldn’t even take care of myself. And so I just quit and just went deeper and deeper into depression.”
With all hopes shattered, no way to work, and no way to provide for his family, Charles went to the streets of Philadelphia so that he could live out the rest of his life homeless, hoping someone would take his life.
“I got down with the alcoholics and, unfortunately, learned about drugs out there. I just continued to go down, spiraling, and not caring. I woke up one morning, and I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t feel my legs. I thought blindness was the worst thing that could happen to me until I got frostbitten.”
He went to the VA Hospital that day, where they showed him how to use a cane, how to lean on his sense of hearing, and how not to be afraid of trying. He went through drug and alcohol rehabilitation, he met other blind veterans, and relearned how to live.
Slowly, he gained back all that he had lost when his sight abandoned him. Charles began to feel good about himself as a human being, despite not being able to see. He married his wife, cared for his children, and went to Community College.
Life was good.
How Much Can One Man Take?
Just when Charles thought he had a new, spectacular lease on life, the unimaginable happened.
Charles’s daughter, Lessie, had paraplegia. He lovingly took care of her, singing her lullabies and telling her fairytales. But while putting her down for a nap one afternoon, she slowly slipped away from him, unknowingly. By the time Lessie’s mother found her, it was too late. The day he lost Lessie, Charles wrote:
Losing my baby girl is like having a hole in my soul; my heart and head and chest are full of crazy pain, but there is no one to talk to right now. When my baby girl needed me the most in her life, I had to let her die because, being blind, I could not see. Can I ever forgive myself as a man and nurturing dad.
Here come the tears flowing out of my eyes, I wipe them, but the tears will not stop. Here I am a husband, a father, a dad, a provider, and God-fearing spiritual leader for my family, but right now, I am so helpless and alone.
He had hit rock bottom. And while he desperately tried not just to stay sober but simply live, more hurdles came his way: Charles was diagnosed with prostate cancer and diabetes.
Everything he had worked so hard to regain seemed like it was falling away; there was no more joy, no more reason to live.
Blind Ambition Strikes Again
When all felt lost and beyond repair, Charles got in touch with the VA Hospital again. They introduced him to an Olympic training center, where he met with blind athletes. That experience ignited the same spark of life that catapulted him out of homelessness 20 years before.
At 60 years old, Charles began—for the first time in his life—powerlifting. And that’s when everything changed, again.
Through the art and physical prowess of powerlifting, Charles learned, again, to hope.
“It allowed me to focus on something. I didn’t know I would become a champion one day. I just wanted to be able to do something with my life that would make a difference.”
Success in powerlifting didn’t come easily. It took Charles months to master the basics. But by putting his passion, dedication, and will to work, Charles persevered to ultimate greatness. He’s won 1st place at the National Blind Powerlifting Championship, set records at the World Championship Games, and broken all world records of any blind powerlifter in his age group.
Living Greatly with Diabetes and Blindness
Now, at age 70, Charles continues powerlifting and breaking boundaries. And, just like all of us with diabetes, he continues to persevere through the daily challenges. But unlike most of us, Charles also triumphs over his blindness.
“Today, I worked out until my diabetes caused a drop in my strength and blood sugar. This led to my taking two glucose tablets, sitting down, eating several glazed donut holes, and a miniature Reese cup. It took about 10 minutes before I recovered enough to begin my trip home on public transportation, which consists of catching two buses and about 90-minutes of travel time.
“The emotional stress of navigating my path to the bus stop from the gym while interacting with pedestrian traffic (consisting of both college students and transportation personnel) was frightening. I was afraid of using so much mental energy that my sugar might drop again.
“The amount of mental energy required to keep the images of the map of my destination in my mind, as well as comprehending the information being given to my brain by my ears is sometimes overwhelming. It scares me that perhaps my brain might just shut down altogether, and I’ll lose track of where I am and what I am supposed to be doing.
“That’s when I have to stand still and yell for help from the people around me; then, explain to them that besides being blind, I am also a diabetic in crisis. Fortunately, on this day, I ate some peppermint candy, another piece of chocolate, and averted the above scenario.”
Charles isn’t just a fighter. He is a master hero.
The obstacles overcome and the continued joy found amid blindness and diabetes are reason enough to celebrate a life lived greatly. He hopes his story inspires and proves to others that life is a song worth living. And, perhaps most importantly, that it helps them find their sense of purpose, self-love, and triumph.
“Triumph for me isn’t my medals; it isn’t having my name in record books. Triumph, for me, is learning how to love myself, no matter what life throws at me.”