SAN FRANCISCO -- Bobby McMullen pedaled his road bike over a wooden bridge, swooped along a curving trail, and then, as he approached a gate, readied himself for what, under the circumstances, was a risky maneuver.
Risky because McMullen, 50, of Mill Valley, Calif., is blind. McMullen, who can see some shapes and bright colors, competes in downhill and cross-country mountain bike races by following a guide who calls out turns and obstacles.
"Stay on me, Bobby," instructed McMullen's friend, Brad Waldron, who served as his guide during a recent 20-mile training ride. "Poles on both sides, then a hard right."
"On you," confirmed McMullen as he lifted slightly off his saddle before the two riders zipped between the gate poles and deftly made the sharp turn, keeping a smooth cadence as they glided confidently toward a hill.
Incredibly, McMullen's inability to see the road is the least of his recent troubles.
A champion skier, McMullen has overcome two kidney and pancreas transplants, numerous broken bones and an injured toe that had to be amputated. Last year he underwent heart surgery to unclog his arteries, had a pacemaker inserted in his chest, was diagnosed with cancer that metastasized to his lymph nodes, and underwent radiation treatments while dealing with the death of his father.
The remarkable thing about McMullen is that he has remained upbeat, even cheerful. "S --- happens," he says with a shrug.
McMullen had no problem with his eyes when he was growing up in Redding, Calif. At 12, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a condition that would require him to take insulin the rest of his life. He played baseball and basketball, ran track and was the starting quarterback on the football team at Central Valley High School, where he graduated in 1981.
McMullen attended Weber State University, skiing 150 days a year and competing on the ski team.
During the winter of 1986-87, he crashed and broke his left femur and shattered his hip after catching a tip while hauling racing gates down the hill after ski practice. It was nine months before he could walk again. Then, in 1989, he broke the tibia and fibula on the same leg, "doing something really clever" on skis.
He decided, during rehab, to become a lawyer and was enrolled at Cal Northern School of Law in Chico in 1992 when spots suddenly appeared in his eyes and blurred his vision so much that he couldn't see the chalkboard in class. He was diagnosed with proliferative diabetic retinopathy, or ocular bleeding. The doctor told him he would be blind within a month.
He is now blind in his right eye and has 20/1200 sight in the left. Eyesight registering 20/200 is considered legally blind in the United States.
He began training with blind Paralympics ski champion Brian Santos, competed in the U.S. Nationals and became the national blind ski champion in slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom and the downhill.
In 1996, he won the overall disabled ski championship in the super giant slalom and downhill. Shortly after that, his kidney failed. He was back on the slopes one month after undergoing kidney and pancreas transplant surgery.
"He's an incredible guy, just an inspiration," said Dr. Steven Katznelson, a transplant nephrologist at California Pacific Medical Center who became friends with McMullen after managing his care during his first transplant.
"Nothing gets that guy down," he said. "No matter what happens, he heals up and he heals up faster than anybody would have guessed."
In 1997, McMullen qualified again for the U.S. National Disabled Ski Team and finished second twice and third twice in the World Cup. He took third overall in the World Disabled Dual Slalom Championship in 1998 and competed in the Paralympics, in Nagano, Japan, with a badly broken toe. He endured the pain, finished fifth, and had to have the toe amputated after the competition.
McMullen competed again in the 2000 world championships, but he was weak and his kidney soon failed again, he said. He went on dialysis and, in 2003, had his second kidney and pancreas transplant.
After surgery, he took what he learned skiing and began using it as a mountain bike rider.
"We're all capable of remarkable things," said McMullen.
"I think it is important to have a passion for something, to believe in yourself. I don't think people believe in themselves as much as they should."
Bicycling, he said, is his life support system.
"I wouldn't trade my life for anybody's," he said. "When I can put a leg over a bike and roll a few feet, it means I'm getting back to living my life. That little bit of adrenaline, that fear, makes you know you are alive."