Sunday Mail – English Channel solo swim

May 2011


Blind Courage

By Heather Greenaway, Sunday Mail – May 1st, 2011.

Dean walks on wings, jumps from helicopters and climbs mountains… not bad for a man who can’t see

Daredevil Dean Dunbar has abseiled down Britain’s tallest waterfall, bungee jumped out of a helicopter and is preparing to swim the English Channel.
Incredible achievements for any extreme sportsman – but what makes his terrifying exploits even more astonishing is that Dean is registered blind.
The adrenaline junkie, who has completed more than 50 death-defying challenges, admits the Channel crossing is his scariest stunt to date because six months ago he could not swim a length.
Dean, 42, of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, who is busy training three times a week under long-distance swimming coach Colleen Blair, plans to attempt his swim in August 2012.
He said: “I have had this challenge in my thoughts for many years and feel that the time is now right for me to go for it.
“I have booked my support boat, found a great coach and am learning to swim in the Blairgowrie High School pool.
“This time last year I could all but manage one length of a pool but now I can swim 1700 lengths*, which is around two-and-a-half miles.”
He added: “As a child on family holidays, I had crossed the English Channel many times by ferry. I knew people had swum this crossing and I had always thought them to be crazy. As I got older and took on my own adventures, I often wondered if I was crazy enough to take on the swim. The answer is yes.”
Dean, who has also wing walked, white water sledged and been flung from a human catapult, is attempting the crossing to raise funds for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen & Families Association and a local blind charity.
Former gym instructor Dean suffers from the rare rod and cone dystrophy, which has left him with badly blurred peripheral vision. He started to lose his sight when he was nine years old.
He recalled: “I could see the teacher writing but I couldn’t see any words even though everyone else was copying it down.
“I didn’t want to seem different so I asked my mate if I could copy him. That went on for a couple of weeks before he grassed me up.”
At the time, a specialist told Edinburgh-born Dean he had opticatrophy, registered him as partially sighted and told him to sit at the front of the class with a magnifying glass in the hope that the problem would clear up in a few years.
But in 1996, at 27, while he was working at a blind school in Exeter, his eyesight deteriorated overnight.
Dean, who is married to GP Rhona, 42, said: “The doctor I saw was very blunt. He said, ‘You’re going to be blind by the end of the year so get a guide dog and learn Braille.’ “I cried but being around those kids made me realise it could be a lot worse. I decided I had to make the best of it.”
Dean, who has travelled round the world, got his taste for extreme sports in a tandem skydive in 1998, two years after he lost his sight. Since then he has been constantly on the quest for the next big buzz.
The feeling provides some consolation for not achieving his aim of joining the forces, which he tried to do at 16.
He said: “The recruitment officer wasn’t very sympathetic when I told him I was partially sighted so that was the end of it.
“My grandfather was a great military man and the forces still hold a special place in my heart. That’s why I want to raise money for the SSAFA.”
Dean, who has taught his black Labrador collie cross Stumpy to guide him round obstacles, runs the Extreme Dreams website, which details all his daredevil antics and thanks the adventure firms who have helped him.
He said: “I hope my website inspires other people with disabilities to chase after their dreams and try new sports.
“It’s also my way of thanking all the open-minded organisers and instructors who have risen to the challenge and adapted, where necessary, their sports to enable me to take part.
“Nine out of 10 organisations turn blind people away because they say health and safety restrictions won’t allow them to participate. They are lazy.”
Dean, who has plunged 100ft down a waterfall, windsurfed, paraglided and water-skied, says he would not have accomplished so much without the support of his Glaswegian wife.
He said: “I met Rhona on a blind date in 1998. I put a personal ad in the local paper. I said I was an extreme sportsman looking for a fun companion.
“I didn’t mention about my sight in the ad but I told Rhona over the phone before our first date. We really hit it off and have been together since. We got married in 2002.
“Rhona supports me in everything I do and has come on some of my adventures. She will be one of my guides during my Channel swim.
“I could not have achieved half my dreams without her love and encouragement.”
Dean admits he does not tell his mum Liz and dad Ian, both 62, everything he is planning to do. He said: “I’m still my mum’s baby so I don’t tend to tell her what I’m up to until I’ve done it. She worries too much. Out of everybody, she took my blindness the hardest.
“My condition is hereditary and there is a 50/50 chance I could pass it on to children I have so Rhona and I have decided not to take the risk.”
Dean, who completed a 160km trek in Nepal last year, has set several world records. He said: “I’m the first registered blind person in the world to bungee jump from a helicopter, white water sledge the world’s highest commercially run waterfall, be thrown by the human catapult, do the gruelling five-day Hebridean Challenge adventure race and set a time record around the Isle of Wight in a Thundercat power boat.”
Mountain Treks Sight problems hit thousands ?25,000 children under the age of 16 are visually impaired.
Nearly two million people in the UK are blind or partially sighted.
Every 15 minutes a person begins to lose their sight.
One in 12 of us will become blind or partially sighted by the time we are 60. This rises to one in six by the time we are 75.
*1700 lengths should read 200 lengths, with at least another 1700 lengths to go.

SPONSORS

These sponsors have been a tremendous help in supplying kit and support for my challenges.