98 percent blind Cal Berkeley student competes as triathlete

BERKELEY, Calif. (KTVU) - Newton Nguyen is not just a Cal Berkeley athlete – he's a triathlete.

But he also is not just any triathlete, he's 98 percent blind, which mean most of what he sees he says is a dark blur.

Yet he still competes. "If you think about what you don't have, you won't appreciate what you have," says Nguyen, who is in his junior year at UC Berkeley.

Nguyen and his teammates are training for the Collegiate Triathlon Nationals coming up next month in South Carolina.

To compete, the athletes must run, swim, and bike long distances.

That's hard for most people who can at least see where they are going.

"He is an inspiration to the team," says Cal's triathlon coach Dean Harper.

Harper says it is difficult to grasp what Nguyen has to cope with.

"I tried to swim with blackened goggles as part of a clinic. It's totally disorienting," he said.

"I hit the wall with my head sometimes. I'm trying to work on that still," Newton acknowledged.

On Friday the organization, Challenged Athletes Foundation, surprised Nguyen with a new bike.

Rules allow Nguyen to ride a tandem bike with a guide.

Nguyen has a degenerative disease that affects his retinas. It slowly began robbing him of his eyesight eight years ago when he was twelve. He says he joined the triathlon team for the challenge.

His fellow triathletes say they have learned to treat him as just another member of the team.

"You really appreciate how incredible it is to have one of those guys doing the same exact thing. Running, training. He's there the whole way," says triathlete Varun Pemmaraju.

Nguyen plans to get his PhD in geophysics and keep competing as a triathlete. He says he is having too much fun to stop.

"We can push ourselves to what we think we can do and achieve bigger things," he said.

Nguyen may have lost his eyesight, but his vision is crystal clear.