By: Jennie Lutzow
Source: USA Cycling
Jennie Lutzow is an adaptive athlete and mindset mentor. She had been secretly living with a visual impairment for 42 years. Until one day, she decided to hit record on her phone and tell the world. Jennie uses her experience to help others through mentorship and coaching.
My name is Jennifer, but I go by Jennie, with an -ie, a little different. The really short story about me is that I’m an athlete through and through, and I was born with a visual impairment and never told anybody until last year, when I was 42. The visual impairment is only in my Right Eye – I guess the powers above have a sense of humor, right? I feel like I’m a big science experiment for life. When you have doctors, adults, and all these other authorities tell you that you can’t do something? I’m going to do it! And I’m going to tell you how I did it.
I had doctors tell me as a little kid, ‘you’ll never play sports, you’ll never drive cars, you’ll never, never, never.’ It was basically a life of NEVER that was being dictated to me. But, I really embrace who I am: I am an athlete. Sport is my jam. That’s where I feel connected to the community. That’s where I really identify with myself. Growing up, I was just going through school and learning about who I am, and really just kept the whole visual impairment thing a secret. The reality was, as a really tall female trying to fit in with your friends that are just super tiny, I was already very different from everybody else without the addition of the visual impairment. So, I figured, ‘what’s the lesser of two evils? Do I stick with the height thing because that’s what people can see, or do I tell them I’m partially blind?’ I opted to let them attach to height – I’m 6’3”.
I went to college, did the whole All-American thing, and had an amazing career, both volleyball and education-wise. I loved what I did.
When I graduated college, it was education and law. I wanted to be a police officer. That’s where I encountered my first hurdle of being visually impaired. I passed the physical exam, but I didn’t pass the vision exam. I did everything I needed to do – had all the reference letters and everything. I didn’t want to be “that person” to be excepts due to a letter. I couldn’t get into the state police because of my visual impairment. So, back to the real world.
I decided to move into health care field.
Recreational therapy was my thing because sports is where I felt at home. I fell in love with helping others and stayed in the field for 17 years – therapy, counseling, group therapy – the whole thing. I’ve always been very intrigued by the way the brain works and people behaviors. That’s where I got my taste of how I can really help the world with my abilities. But, it was time for a change.
My best friends opened up a boutique boxing facility, so I helped them build their business over 4 years. I fell in love with it boxing – what a great environment to help other build self-esteem as well as their health and wellness!
COVID-19 closed the facility for three months and this cause many of us to pivot. The closure prompted me to think, ‘I need to figure out what I need to do in life.’ Just months before the pandemic I finished my master’s and other coaching certifications – which came in handy. I am beyond certified in everything you can imagine – from cycling certification, fitness training to health and wellness. One of my favorites is working with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) patients and Parkinson patients – it’s the whole mindset and eye-hand coordination thing that I love. These clients of mine had such passion for life and I was excited to be a part of it.
After some hard conversations, “I need to do something”. I knew my passion is talking with people and changing lives. I knew I had a great story to tell. It was time, I started my own coaching business. I filed for business licenses early 2020 and I knew its was official – Now what?
Well, one day I picked up my phone, turned on Instagram and hit record. I basically said, ‘Hello world. I’m Jennie. And I’m visually impaired.’ Just like that, I told the world my story. It was scared, worried, and horrified all at one. But after I ended the Live video, I had amazing feedback. It was the first time I told my honest truth. It felt amazing!
Since my impairment is not visual, people never noticed. Many times I would hear ‘you’re not blind because you don’t look it.’ These are people who don’t understand what levels of impairments are, and you have the other aspect of my family, my friends, and my college teammates who never knew I was visually impaired.
Everyone started messaging me saying, ‘this makes complete sense. The way you would track a volleyball – you were turned around. Thank God you had 38-inch legs! You approach the net faster with those long legs.’
It felt so good to tell the world basically, ‘this is me!’ And I’m still bada**, that’s my kind of lingo. No matter what your abilities are, you can still be bada**. I embrace that every day.
I spent 43 years adapting into the world that’s still learning on person first language. I’m part of many organizations to help build more awareness and support the adaptive culture.
I love working with individuals who are newly into the visually impaired community. I work with clients who are cyclists with visually impaired, to young teens trying to build their confidence to adults trying to find their life path. I always say “A mentor is someone that lives the journey and teaches the CliffsNotes.”
Cycling for me is the ultimate freedom. It’s where you can “see” the world and do everything you possibly can, but you’re still competing with yourself. And yes, being partially blind is hard as a cyclist. But, I bike with my husband (George) – I call him my “seeing eye George” – because he’s cycles in front of me and uses hand signals. He does all these things with his hands to show danger points – It’s super helpful! I know what’s going on if there’s someone in a car because I won’t be able to see much without turning my head. It’s very comforting. We have this really cool bond when we bike. So it’s all about adapting. And that feeds into my coaching too.
My coaching is about rewiring one’s mindset. We all have the capabilities within us to excel, we just need to believe and not underestimate our own abilities. I really want people to understand that no matter what kind of impairment it is – mental, physical, emotional – we’re all still human. We all have our moments, we’re all on a journey, and no matter how you get from point A to point B, it’s very different for all of us.
I always say we’re going the same direction, but my journey looks a little different. I’m okay with that, it makes my story a little bit different. And I love that.