As thousands of avid runners crossed the finish line for the New York City half-marathon recently, one runner stood out.
His yellow Labrador, Gus, trotted slightly in front of him for part of the race.
Thomas Panek made history by becoming the first blind runner to complete this arduous trek led by a trio of guide dogs — instead of by a human guide.
For three months before the race, the dogs each ran about 120 miles as part of their preparation.
Panek, president and CEO of Guiding Eyes for the Blind, lost his sight over 25 years ago — but this was not going to deter him from his lifelong passion. This was the first time he ran without the help of a running buddy by his side.
Another heartwarming story was reported recently by the Good News Network: “Stevie Wonder may be reminiscing about his own childhood if he’s watching this completely adorable 6-year-old boy.”
“Avett Ray Maness is a self-taught piano player who has been tickling the ivories since he was just 11 months old,” the outlet noted. “The youngster from Dayton, Ohio, has become somewhat of an internet celebrity after his mom started uploading videos of his piano performances to YouTube. What’s even more impressive than his self-directed learning is the fact that he learned to play while blind.”
The child was born with optic nerve fibroplasia.
He’s completely blind in one eye and has only partial vision in the other.
“Significantly visually impaired, he walks with a cane and reads Braille,” the Good News Network also reported. “Lack of plain sight has not deterred him, though, from finding his way among 88 keys. In addition to accumulating thousands of YouTube subscribers, [Maness] has also performed on stage for hundreds of people. As of late, the youngster has enjoyed … singing [and playing] songs by his two favorite bands: Queen and the Turtles.”
His mother, Sara Moore, said she hopes her son’s talent will help encourage people to improve resources for the visually impaired.
“Music is in his body,” Moore told CBS News. “He’s really practicing on performing now. Since his talent is so amazing, people are asking him to perform.”
St. Paul reminds us, “God brings good out of evil for those who love Him” (Romans 8:28).
God generally respects the laws and imperfections of nature and human freedom, so He can allow bad things to happen like blindness and optic nerve fibroplasia. But like a good father, He tries to bring some good out of tough situations.
As a marathon runner myself, I’m always deeply moved when I see blind runners with guides running beside them. Some people even “run” the race from their wheelchairs. These athletes do not feel sorry for themselves.
And their mere presence serves as a reminder of the determination we all need to have when we’re faced with obstacles or roadblocks as followers of Christ.
During this season of Lent, it might be helpful for us to meditate on the harsh reality of how Jesus carried the cross.
With the crown of thorns pressing into His head and His body weakened, He collapsed three times under the weight of the cross.
But Jesus did not stay down. He got back up again and again, knowing His hands and feet soon would be nailed to the cross and He would die a tortuous death — all out of love for us.
“You can’t change the wind, but you can change the sails.” Thomas Panek and Avett Ray Maness inspire so many people, precisely because of how they face their personal and painful headwinds.
At some point, life will throw us tough punches and terrible surprises. As hard as those surprises are to deal with, our faith allows us to see this as a gift.
Suffering can be a golden opportunity to grow in trust and love for God.
Fr. Michael Sliney is a Catholic priest based in the New York City area and an adviser to the Lumen Institute, a professional business group.