Life Without Limits Is Graduate's Message
University of Central Florida senior Kyle Coon isn’t your average 21-year-old.
By the time he’d graduated high school, he had already climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and trekked through Machu Picchu. At 14, he appeared on Oprah. After earning his diploma this week, he’ll be focusing on developing a nonprofit to get kids active in the outdoors.
Coon is ambitious, and his spirit is infectious, especially considering that at the age of 5, a hard-fought battle with Bilateral Sporadic Retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, cost him his left eye. By age 6, both eyes had to be removed.
“Being blind, there are always obstacles, and I’m forced to think creatively about getting around them,” said Coon, an interpersonal-organizational communication major who will be among the more than 7,800 students graduating from UCF this week.
“My parents have always treated me like a normal kid, and that’s what I really needed. But nobody’s omniscient. It’s up to me to educate people about myself and my history. Flexible, open communication and honesty would help all of our lives go a lot smoother.”
As a kid, Coon went through a time when he felt sorry for himself. Then he heard the story of Erik Weihenmayer, a world-class athlete who didn’t let his blindness hinder his ambitions. Weihenmayer is the only blind person to have reached the summit of Mount Everest and the tallest peak on each continent, known as the Seven Summits.
The two connected in Jacksonville– Coon’s hometown— through a family friend, and the meeting set Coon forth on his athletic career. Coon even appeared as a surprise guest on Oprah Winfrey’s show to read Weihenmayer a letter he wrote about Weihenmayer’s invaluable inspiration.
“He encouraged me that I could do absolutely anything I wanted to do,” said Coon.
Coon took up competitive rock climbing and then moved on to downhill skiing and long-distance backpacking. By high school, he had gotten into wrestling, and he competed as a varsity player all four years.
By the end of high school, Coon had traveled around the world with Team Sight Unseen, a blind, visually-impaired and sighted mountaineering team he and his friends created after a 2006 expedition along the Ancascocha Trail into Machu Picchu led by Weihenmayer.
“Together, we found the courage and inspiration to tell people you can break through any barrier if you’re willing to put in the hard work,” said Coon.
When it came time for college, Coon considered a few other universities, but he chose UCF because he felt welcomed by the wrestling team and the UCF community. Since he has traveled so much, he said the transition to full-on college independence was a breeze. And Tyrone, his Seeing Eye dog, was a huge help in navigating campus.
Coon was a member of UCF’s wrestling team for about a year and a half before he left to focus on teaching fitness. He’s been a spinning instructor at UCF’s Recreation and Wellness Center ever since, where he’s known for creating a vivid image of the outdoors and channeling a mountain bike ride during his classes.
It was also at UCF that Coon met his fiancé, Kailee Smith, who graduated last summer. Now a teacher for students with learning disabilities at Avalon Middle School in Orlando, Smith said she was instantly drawn to Coon during a fall 2011 interpersonal communication class.
Smith said she nervously introduced herself to Coon after the first class, and the conversation continued as she walked with him and Tyrone back to his residence hall. A Facebook friendship blossomed from there, and then it was onto a first date at Subway, lots of coffee runs and trips to the farmers market, and a New Year’s Day proposal. Ultimately, Smith said she was won over by Coon’s determination and kindness.
“His blindness didn’t seem to matter to him, so it didn’t matter to me,” said Smith. “I love how he can do anything, and he knows he can do anything.”
UCF Instructor Joan McCain first met Coon in “Principles of Advertising,” which she taught last summer. For the final assignment, students were asked to create a print ad that visually exemplifies who they are. For Coon, McCain adjusted the task to writing an elevator speech, a 30-second pitch about who he is and why others should support him.
“I was grading assignments, and when I got to his, I honest to goodness screamed a little. At the end of his speech, Kyle wrote ‘Cancer took my sight, blindness gave me vision, the mountains let me live,’” said McCain, who is now working with Coon on his memoir. “As a professor, the hardest thing for me to remember is that he is blind, because he makes it so easy to treat him like any other student I’ve ever met. He comes across as a person who can do anything.”
Inspired by Coon’s story and his enthusiasm for telling it, McCain assembled a group of advertising-public relations students to help Coon develop his public speaking career as part of a semester-long interdisciplinary study project. The students established a social media presence for Coon and assisted him with branding materials for Sight Unseen, Inc., a nonprofit organization he’s creating to get people off the couch and into the outdoors.
Coon will return to UCF this fall to pursue a graduate certificate in nonprofit management to help him lead Sight Unseen, Inc.
He’s filed for 501(c)(3), or federally recognized nonprofit status, and he hopes to achieve that within the next year. From there, he wants to expose people to the clarity and self-awareness that the outdoors gave him.
In the meantime, Coon will continue to spin, climb, backpack and seek opportunities to tell his story.
“If my experience can help people realize their limitations are far fewer than they imagined, then I’ll keep telling my story,” Coon said. “I want everyone to be able to live a life without limits.”