Pearl Outlaw was 9 years old when she found out she was going blind.
One of the brightest students in her class, Outlaw shone during discussions but baffled her teachers with surprisingly low test scores. Looking for answers, her parents decided to have her eyes checked—perhaps she needed glasses. And it was true, her eyesight was failing her. But the diagnosis was far more shocking than her family expected.
The Charlottesville native had retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that causes a gradual loss of peripheral and night vision. While Outlaw was already struggling to differentiate plus signs from division symbols, her vision would only get worse.
Eyesight is a luxury often taken for granted, and no one would’ve blamed her for being terrified at the thought of going blind.
But fear isn’t what drives Outlaw.
Twelve years after her diagnosis, she isn’t absorbed in self-pity. Outlaw doesn’t see her disability as a roadblock to living a successful and happy life—it’s just an opportunity to find another way to even the playing field.
That drive for success has fueled her rise from a half-blind teenager who was falling down the stairs at Tandem Friends School to a world-class Paralympic athlete representing her country in the 2019 World Rowing Championships, which will be held in Linz-Ottensheim, Austria, beginning August 25.
“The feeling of getting in a boat and being able to use your legs and really push yourself…It really makes you feel really strong and powerful and just like a badass,” Outlaw says. “And that’s so hard to find when you have a disability. We rarely have moments where we feel in control and like we’re accomplishing something that not everybody can accomplish.”
Outlaw picked up rowing on a whim, attending a clinic the summer following her sophomore year at Tandem after hearing about it at an end-of-the-year assembly. Despite having to be on the water by 5:45am twice a week, she fell in love with it almost instantly.
Cathy Coffman, her coach at the Rivanna Rowing Club, saw her potential and—after some pleading on the part of Outlaw—offered her a spot on the Albemarle High School team the following school year. Outlaw couldn’t participate in races since she still attended Tandem, but she trained hard enough to earn a place on the Ithaca College rowing team by the time she graduated.
“She was just so positive when she was training with us that we decided that we really just wanted to have her a part of our team,” says Coffman, who’s coached rowing in Charlottesville since 1996. “She just worked extremely hard…and she got stronger and she decided she wanted to go to college and row and so she went to Ithaca and the rest is history.”
So far, Outlaw is still working on writing that history. Now a senior at Ithaca, she’s competed in several national races and last year placed fifth in the PR3 mixed double sculls alongside her partner, Josh Boissoneau, for the U.S. Paralympic national team.
The PR3 category of para-rowing is for athletes with full mobility and is therefore the most challenging to compete in. Outlaw and Boissoneau will be paired up once again later this month, and the duo has its sights set on a much better finish than 2018: At the national trials in July, they topped their personal record by 20 seconds, despite Outlaw fighting a fever.
Boissoneau is a former international hockey player whose career on the ice was cut short when he contracted a neurological auto-immune disease that initially left him confined to a wheelchair. Now a fully dedicated para-rower, Boissoneau is in charge of steering of the boat and must yell commands to Outlaw so that they can “move as one” during races.
“The chemistry, a lot of it has to do with just being comfortable with one another and being open to listen and take constructive criticism,” Boissoneau says.
After Austria, Outlaw will finish up her final year at Ithaca. She plans to have a long career in rowing, and hopes this year’s world championships won’t be the last that she attends. Although her eye condition worsened last September, and she’s no longer able to discern people’s faces, she’s learned how to adapt to her disability and not allow it to define who she is.
“Don’t feel sorry for her, she doesn’t want that,” says Ruth Ellen Outlaw, Outlaw’s mother. “She wants to be a part of this community and just be somebody who’s capable and smart and doesn’t want any special favors done for her.” Being independent “really is something that’s part of her identity,” she says.
Pearl Outlaw is a competitor. Despite knowing that she’ll probably be completely blind, rowing has given her a reason to get up and work hard every single day.
“It’s so easy to fall into, ‘I can’t do the things I used to be able to do’ or ‘I can’t stay active’ or ‘I can’t go out and be social,’” Outlaw says. But in a world stocked full of “I can’ts,” rowing has “really given me something that makes me feel strong.”