“I would never be able to complete a triathlon without these amazing people supporting me!”
In 2021, Sha Khan’s life changed completely when he lost 90% of his vision over two weeks from hereditary conditions, retinis pigmentosa and Stargadt disease. One minute he was living a regular human life – able to travel, shop and cook his own food, and the next – he became totally dependent on others.
“It was very daunting. And it’s still scary. I’m totally reliant on those around me, even strangers. I have to trust people. If I get the bus on my own, will the bus driver tell me when I’m at the right stop?”
Sha credits the community of Jersey for his recovery and the response to his condition, and believes that if he’d lived somewhere else, the journey would have looked entirely different. “The amount of support I got is what built my confidence and helped me to carry on working. My employers are really good people and genuinely want to help. It’s not about a Disability Act or law, they just want to support me.”
Before Sha’s eyesight deteriorated in 2021, sport was the last thing on his mind. “I was the most unfit person. The last time I ran was when I was in school. I had a gym membership just for the sauna and steam room! If you’d have told me a few years ago that I’d be a runner or a triathlete, I’d have laughed at you and said ‘no way’!”
With such a sudden life change, Sha focuses on the positive and believes that the deterioration of his eyesight has actually been a blessing, particularly when it comes to sport and physical activity. “I’ve lost weight – I never thought I’d be a regular size ‘large’ after years of buying 2XL! And the people I’ve met are so amazing, so generous and I feel I’m just so lucky to get to learn all these new things and benefit from the advice and guidance of such great coaches.”
Of course sport was not the first thing Sha thought of when adjusting to his new life with severely impaired visibility. At the beginning he was more concerned about the practical changes to make life easier at home.
“I couldn’t see the transparent crystal water glasses so we had to swap those for ones I could see. If we used white toothpaste, I couldn’t see it on my toothbrush! I had so much to deal with.”
Thankfully, local sight impairment charity EYECAN, were a great support, helping Sha figure things out and introducing him to other people with similar conditions. It was through EYECAN that Sha met a wonderful lady who introduced him to running. “I thought it would be impossible! But she was so passionate and EYECAN told me I needed to be open to new things, so I said ‘tell me more!’”
“This lady introduced me to ParkRun and Couch to 5K. I met so many people and had so much fun. I walked at first, then walk-run, and finally built up to running the entire 5km. I felt the results almost immediately. While I was running I felt so good, it was like electricity in my body. It was magic! It made me want to run more and more and that feeling has never gone. It makes me want to be active. Even days after my first half marathon in London, I still felt really good!”
Training for the Jersey Ana Leaf Try-A-Tri Triathlon has been an incredible experience for Sha and by the morning of the event he was overcome with emotion. “I was so emotional. I was really excited all the way to the day and then I became really anxious. I woke up at 4am asking myself ‘how am I going to do this? It’s impossible. What am I thinking?’ When I got to the event and everyone was there, I became really emotional. I knew that I would never be able to do this without all these amazing people helping me. A triathlon is a big deal and I’ll never forget it. Ever.”
Sha competed in all three triathlon disciplines in June 2023 with the support of three fantastic coaches (pictured above): Hayley Butlin (swim), Danny Smith (cycle) and Terri O’Donoghue (run).
In the event, Sha was completely focused on the experience. Sea swimming was one of the most difficult challenges because Sha’s poor eyesight means he has no idea where the coastline is and is completely reliant on Hayley. “She has to keep talking to me to reassure me and to make sure I don’t end up swimming in the wrong direction. I feel safe knowing Hayley is there. I’m lucky to have her because I’m way out of my comfort zone. There was a lot of swell on the day but I could feel it more than I could see it. It was quite exhilarating being lifted by the water.”
“We are so insignificant. We can be so arrogant, but in the big picture I was just this tiny thing on the waves at the mercy of the sea. It was scary but having Hayley there made a massive difference.”
In triathlons, the transition stage is generally regarded as a fourth discipline as everything needs to be completed in a certain way at high speed, something that is much more difficult when you have limited eyesight. “The transitions were almost more challenging than the actual riding, swimming and running. I didn’t know where I had to go. I had to get changed, drink water, take a gel sachet, put on my competitor number label. I needed three times as long because I’m slower than everyone. Even though all my stuff was laid out it was still confusing. Danny’s wife, Vicky, was in the area to help me which was amazing. There’s a lot going on, it’s go, go, go!”
Understandably, by the time Sha got to the finish line, he was overcome with emotion. Hearing his 17 year old daughter shouting “Go Dad” while he was running meant so much to him. “At the end of the race it was like there was a whole stadium of people clapping and cheering. It felt like the whole island was there. I thought ‘I’ve done it, I’m a triathlete!’ I could never have done it without these people.”
Sha has nothing but praise for the dedication, support and expertise of his coaches. “Danny Smith at Cycle Without Limits is such a high calibre coach. All the team are so generous and they kindly loaned me their tandem for the triathlon event. What they’ve done for me is amazing. I knew how to pedal a bike before but I’ve learnt so much from Danny, like how to correctly adjust the seat, fit my helmet and how to go round corners effectively. I’m so lucky to learn all these things from such great coaches.”
“Hayley Butlin is a world class swimming coach. I was assured from the first time together that I was in the right hands. I always feel safe knowing Hayley is there. Terri O’Donoghue is a top running guide and she’s an amazing person to run with. She ran the half marathon with me as well as the triathlon.”
In addition, Sha praises the triathlon event organisers in Jersey: “The organisation of the event is world class, I don’t think anything could be better. They’re so experienced and the Marshalls were all so lovely, friendly and polite. That level of organisation added to me feeling safe at every point along the way.”
With so much achieved in such a short amount of time, we asked Sha what other sports or activities he’d love to try. “Because it’s summer, I’d love to paddle board. I have no idea how I’m going to do it though! I’d also love to try surfing, but I don’t even know if it’s possible.”
If you’re inspired by Sha’s story and would love to try a new sport or physical activity, we’ve put some handy links below.