Harry Cordellos article by George Snyder, Chronicle Staff Writer
(From San Francisco Chronicle - Marin, Sonoma, Napa) (Friday, February 18, 2000)

Guided by Faith Navato man has made it his mission to pursue his passions.

Harry Cordellos stands in his spotless downtown Navato apartment surrounded by bowling, running, skiing, swimming and golfing trophies. Nearby sit the coffee table, the guitar and the water ski he made with poser tools in his workshop and the motorized, miniature "Playland at the Beach" he created and exhibited during the holiday season last Christmas at the Stonestown mall in San Francisco.

Cordellos stands among this evidence of a life defined by accomplishment, and he talks about God. "I have a lot of faith in God," Cordellos says. "And I believe in using the body he gave you. I'm not a religious extremist, but if I didn't have faith in God, I wouldn't be here now." Sentiments typical for a world-class athlete, motivational speaker and power tool aficionado? Sure. But maybe Cordellos has earned his faith. The 62-year-old marathon runner, Water-skier, snow skier, golfer, hang glider, Ironman triathlon contestant and crafts specialist boasts a distinction that sets him apart even in a realm of distinctive personalities. Harry Cordellos is blind. So his respect for his creator carries a certain, well, weight, and it might be that this solid faith makes Cordellos one of a rare breed: those who do, no matter what. His list of achievements puts the average couch slug to shame.

As the first full-time blind enrollee at San Francisco City college in the early 1960s, Cordellos was a top-notch photography student. He used the heat of the sun to estimate exposure time, and paced off distance to calculate focus. He tapped his cane to center his subjects, and wound up taking the top photo in one class exercise. He graduated in 1966 from California State University at Hayward with a bachelor's degree in science and in 1968 earned a master's in physical education science. In 1971, he swam the Golden Gate Bridge crossing. He has rowed, run and water skied for three decades with the San Francisco South End Runners. He was the first blind person to enter, and complete, Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon. He has run in, among others, the Boston, Honolulu and Long Beach marathons. Twice a year, he participates in the human water skiing pyramid at Florida's famed Cypress Gardens. He spent the first day of the new year water skiing in the annual Frozen Bun Run in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta's Piper Slough. As if that weren't enough, he regularly speaks at schools, civic groups, business conventions and to corporate clients. He even provides directions as a passenger in friends' cars. And then there are the laurels.

Cordellos won the , "The Most Courageous Award in San Francisco's first ever Bay to Breakers in 1968, which he ran with his brother, Peter, and which he has run every year since. (Funny thing," Cordellos says, "My brother is the one who got me running. He quit a long time ago. I'm the blind one, and I'm still running.") The most recent award? The President's Award of the World Humanitarian Sports Hall of Fame, bestowed during a black-tie affair December 29th in Boise, Idaho, which attracted such luminaries as baseball great Harmon Killebrew. Pretty impressive, and just the kind of thing that could make a man boastful. Which is why it's equally impressive, says Cordellos' pal Mike Restani, that Cordellos has a self-deprecating sense of humor. "We were running in San Francisco in 1978, when a guy comes up to Harry and says, 'I've been blind in one eye for 16 years and I can't see how you do it,'" says Restani, who has known Cordellos 25 years and appeared with him in the award-winning 1979 short documentary "Short Run." "Harry's answer was, 'I've been running for 20 years, and I can't see how I do it either.;" Phil Paulson is a retired San Francisco engine mechanic now living in Discovery Bay, and is the man Cordellos credits with teaching him how to water ski on a single ski. Paulson, 73, has known Cordellos 30 years and sees in him a mix of intelligence and skill. "He's a unique person," Paulson says. "He is very bright, his memory is outstanding…Add to that he plays a good game of Ping-Pong. As a matter of fact, we did a rally Ping-Pong where you count the consecutive returns and Harry and I have gotten as high as 212 times without a miss." Cordellos came by neither his skill, faith nor sense of humor readily.

He grew up in San Francisco, near the late lamented Playland at the Beach amusement park, suffering both from a heart murmur that he later outgrew and from a congenital glaucoma that dimmed his childhood sight and started a series of ultimately unsuccessful surgeries. He says the cigarette smoke fogging Pete's Place, his late father's Ocean Beach restaurant, where he worked as a youth, aggravated the condition. That didn't stop him from playing in the George Washington High School band, but Cordellos eventually spiraled into a post-graduation depression. He realized that, while he could no longer function as a sighted person, he had none of the skills and education required by the sightless. His self-confidence plummeted and his faith - in God, in life - soured. He was totally blind by age 23. I thought about suicide," he wrote in "No Limits," his 1993 autobiography, "but I knew that if I were to take my own life, I would be denying my belief that God was there to help. That was never in question." Perhaps that's why Cordellos, all of 20, was ready when there occurred one of those life-changing events that, on the face of it, seems altogether ordinary. "A family friend came by and told my family about the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation's Orientation Center for the Blind, located in Oakland at the time," he says. "There I learned confidence. One of the first things they showed me was the wood ship and the power tools, and how to operate them. Power tools were all well and good, but it was a 1958 center-sponsored Lake Don Pedro outing that blasted wide open Cordellos' sense of the possible - especially since, in high school, he'd been sidelined from both sports and physical education classes because of his sight. That afternoon, the same man who had shown Cordellos power tool craft taught him the skill that would turn his life around: Cordellos, who had never even taken swimming lessons, learned to water ski. "I remember it like yesterday," he says. "On Sunday, the seventeenth of August, he handed me the rope and told me to hang on. He told me to say, 'Hit it!' when I was ready. And I did. Although I used to hate sports, I told myself, 'If I can do that, then why not other things?'" he says. People in sports, it turns out are so positive and very supportive of each other. It's an inspiration." Thus began Cordellos' striking sports career, aided by his faith in God and his reliance on fellow humans to serve as his "eyes" on his various fields of battle and play. On the golf course, for instance, Cordellos depends on someone to position either him or his club, to tell him which way the ball flew and to estimate distance down the fairway. The latter is an especially crucial - and exacting - shill, one not everyone possesses. I have one guy who told me(the cup) was 50 yards," Cordellos says. "I pulled out a club, took a huge divot and then he told me I had hit right on the green. Turns out I walked just a few strides, and I was there. It was more like 50 feet." While those sorts of misrepresentations may provoke a chuckle, in more strenuous competitions - the famed Dipsea Run to Stinson Beach, say, or cross-country skiing - accurate guidance is crucial. During long runs, he maintains light physical contact by touching elbows with his partner, and in competition skiing, "The guide is literally with me, right behind me, telling me 'Left turn, right turn' - and whenever I hear 'crash,' it means go down right now." Whatever the sport, Cordellos insists on ensuring his won security and that of those around him. "I put safety first," he says. "And if a sport is truly done safely, it's going to be safe for the sighted or the blind. On the other hand, if it's only safe with sight, then I won't do it. But if there is a good alternative, the sky is the limit." Indeed it is. Just look at Cordellos' plans. Soon he will hear to British Columbia for a skiing event, and will fly to Florida next week for another Cypress Gardens appearance. Then, there is the National Blind Bowling Tournament in Little Rock over Memorial Day weekend and later the Journey for Sight run in Norfolk, VA. All along the way, Cordellos plans to take his best friend. The spiritual aspect of this is really important," he says. "You might think you can do it all alone, but when you are all alone out there, you think differently."

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