Before Erik Weihenmayer was able to climb the highest peaks on all seven continents, he had to hit the mat.
When Weihenmayer came to Lehigh in May to deliver the commencement address to the 1,735 members of the Class of 2007, he was well familiar with the university's storied wrestling tradition. Wrestling, he says, served as the foundation for his adventurous and inspirational life.
On May 25, 2001, Weihenmayer became the first blind person to stand on the summit of the world's tallest peak, Mount Everest. His exploits have landed him on the cover of Time
magazine and earned him the Helen Keller Lifetime Achievement Award, the Freedom Foundation's Free Spirit Award, and an ESPY Award.
They also have earned the former fifth-grade English and math teacher and wrestling coach a spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
When he went blind at age 13, Weihenmayer says, he was afraid that he would be swept to the sidelines of life. "That was my biggest fear: I thought I was just going to be sitting there listening to my life go by," he says.
Wrestling helped him regain his confidence and taught him a lesson about teamwork.
"Maybe I wasn't the best on the team, but I was a contributing member to the team," Weihenmayer says. "I'd make people work hard and I'd try to bring out the best in them. People don't think of wrestling as a team sport, but it really is. Sure, individually, you're wrestling another person, so there's no place to hide. You're either going to win or lose. Yet, the points all add up to a win or a loss for the team. So everyone is contributing to the team."
Weihenmayer moved on from wrestling to rock climbing, and then to mountain climbing. By age 33, he had reached the summit of the highest peaks on all seven continents. But he still attributes the toughness he's exemplified in his life to wrestling.
There's a phrase rock climbers use for an extremely difficult climb, Weihenmayer says, one where "there's dirt falling off the rock into your eyes and into your mouth, and you're sweating and you're grunting and you're inching your way up the rock ... the phrase they'll say is, 'That's a wrestling match.' And it's perfect, because that's exactly what wrestling is."
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Inauguration 2007 issue
Photo courtesy of Douglas Benedict