By: Sharon Aron Baron
Paralympic silver medalist Tyler Merren is preparing for his next goal: competing in Tokyo in 2020. Although he’s legally blind, there isn’t much the personal trainer, public speaker and father of four can’t do.
Merren, 34, doesn’t let his disability affect his ability to achieve his dreams. Besides getting around his Coral Springs community to work and appear in public speaking engagements by either walking or using public transportation, he’s also training to compete with the men’s Paralympic USA goalball team for an upcoming international competition.
A goalball player since high school, the sport was designed specifically for athletes with a vision impairment. Participants compete in teams of three and try to throw a ball that has bells embedded in it into the opponents’ goal. Because the players have different levels of visual impairment, they all wear blindfolds to even the field.
Before competing in Japan, the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games silver medalist has to be one of the top two teams in the U.S. Men’s goalball team at the IBSA International Qualifier in Fort Wayne, Ind. in July.
“It’s a really big deal because it hasn’t been the U.S. in 20 years,” said Merren. “I’m really excited about it. I’m going to bring my wife and kids.”
Growing up in Michigan, Merren was diagnosed with an underdeveloped retina as a toddler. He discovered at the age of 14 that the text in his books was getting too hard to read, and he had to sit closer to the front of his classes. He was going blind and was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa.
Merren was officially given the status of being legally blind, although he had actually been so his whole life.
“I was born legally blind, but my vision was clear enough until I was 14. I was born with tunnel vision. I could see in front of me – but as I got older, my visual acuity got worse.”
In the 70 and ’80s, there were many schools in Michigan set up for the visually impaired – compared to mainstreaming students now. Merren had teacher consultants who helped him with accommodations. He learned to walk with a cane, learned adaptive technology with a screen which read the material and began the process of learning braille.
Merren said braille could take only two weeks to learn, that is if someone took a crash course in it. He spent a semester learning braille, and much like learning an instrument, it takes much longer to master.
Throughout his challenges, Merren became a National Honor Society student and graduated high school with honors.
At 15, he attended a sports education camp for students who were visually impaired. One of the sports they taught was goalball. He picked it up quickly and was scouted by the Western Michigan University Wrecking crew to play. While competing, the U.S. Olympic coaches saw him and invited him to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to play for the USA team as one of their youngest players ever.
In 2001, he played at his first international tournament: the Parapan American Games in Spartanburg SC. Then in 2002, in São Paulo, Brazil at the World Championships.
He attended Western Michigan University and continued to play goalball, later graduating with a Bachelor of Science in exercise science.
Merren met his wife Leanne playing goalball. Also visually impaired and legally blind, she lost her vision due to retinoblastoma. The couple has been married almost 17 years and has four children: a stepson, 19, and three girls ages 16, 11 and three who are homeschooled.
After graduating college, Merren looked for personal training jobs in warmer climates and found one as a trainer at 24-hour fitness in Coral Springs. But first, they scouted out the community.
He chose Coral Springs because it was rated high as family-friendly and moved to the Maplewood area because of its walkability to many local amenities.
“In ten minutes, we can be at the grocery store and restaurants. We take the bus, we walk. Mostly it’s our own feet. The house we chose, the area we live in, we chose it because it’s walkable.”
Their son and two older girls have inherited their mother’s genetic condition; however, they are not blind and have been treated for cancer since they were newborns.
“They’re healthy, happy kids and we are careful with extra toxins in the home,” he said. “We are extra cautious as they have this genetic condition, which makes them high risk, so they are checked regularly.”
The time that Merren wasn’t training others, he would earn extra income at speaking events and small workshops with various organizations. His speaking and training were both a passion of his, but he was working so many hours with training that he couldn’t do much speaking, and the thought was that when he picked up his speaking career, he would need to cut way back on the training.
“These two passions of mine seemed to be pushing against each other in a sense. Then I thought, do these two things really need to be in opposition? Why not do them both together? Why not let them feed and support one another?”
After working for 24 Hour Fitness for six years, Merren decided to create his own company called Revision Training LLC., to provide training for both body and mind in a spiritually safe environment. A lot of his personal training is done in the Maplewood community he lives in, as well as the Ralph Diaz and Dede Gilmore Memorial Parks nearby.
After winning the silver medal in the Paralympic Games in Rio, Merren decided to step away from goalball to spend time with his family. However, this July, he will be back competing.
Merren said if they don’t succeed at the IBSA International Qualifier, they would only have one more opportunity in the Pan American Games in Lima in late August.
To train specifically for goalball, he heads to Therapeutic Recreation of Palm Beach County located in Lake Worth twice a month.
“Other than that, I train myself at the parks where I train my clients. That, I do pretty much daily.”
Merren continues to accept speaking engagement at churches and elementary schools, sharing his story and letting children check out his Olympic medal. If you’d like to book an engagement, contact him at email@example.com.