Tucker Dupree: “People living with physical limitations deserve to be treated equally”

People living with physical limitations deserve to be treated equally. We are just as capable at achieving our goals as those who don’t experience disabilities. As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tucker Dupree. Tucker Dupree is a successful marketing professional, public speaker and former Paralympic swimmer. He is […]

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People living with physical limitations deserve to be treated equally. We are just as capable at achieving our goals as those who don’t experience disabilities.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tucker Dupree.

Tucker Dupree is a successful marketing professional, public speaker and former Paralympic swimmer. He is a four-time Paralympic medalist and three-time Paralympian. Today, he coaches swimming with the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour across the U.S. and speaks publicly on the topic of his limitless vision and living with a disability.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My name is Tucker Dupree and I currently live in Chicago, where I work in marketing for an energy company. I’m a former Paralympic athlete and have been competitively swimming since I was a teenager. When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with an inherited retinal disease that causes progressive vision loss. At 17 years old my eyesight was worsening, and I had to learn how to live my life as a blind person for the first time. Since then, I’ve been adamant about keeping a proactive mindset and staying committed to swimming, which led me to some of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

When I was younger, I was pretty active with sports and activities. I began swimming in high school and hoped to compete competitively in college, but everything changed in 2006. In October of that year, I woke up and the vision in my left eye was starry. I swapped out my contacts, mentioned it to my mom, and figured it would get better. But it didn’t. My mom decided to make me an optometrist appointment to help determine what was wrong. After months of tests and seeing specialists, I underwent a genetic test to try to identify the exact gene mutation that was causing my vision loss and there was a hit. That December, I was diagnosed with Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy (LHON). By my senior year of high school, I had lost 70% of central vision in both of my eyes.

When I was first diagnosed, it was very difficult to digest the idea of living without vision and it was getting harder and harder to picture my future. Everything I had worked for felt like it was slipping away. I always tried to stay positive and continued to improve my swimming skills. I learned to swim without 100% vision — I’d count my strokes to swim the length of the pool. Eventually, I deferred my college swim scholarships and went to a rehab facility for people with vision loss, where I met Lex Gillette, a blind track athlete. Gillette had competed in the 2004 Paralympic Games and encouraged me to try swimming at the Paralympic level.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

In the summer of 2007, I swam in five Paralympic qualifying races and broke five American and Pan American records. I was the fastest blind swimmer in the U.S. in 25 years.

At 19, I qualified for the 2008 Paralympic team and went on to compete in Beijing, China. I later won a silver and two bronze medals in London at the 2012 Paralympic Games. Four years later, I won another bronze medal for Team USA at the 2016 Rio Paralympics in 100-meter backstroke. After 12 years on Team USA, I retired from swimming to focus on my next chapter.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

Receiving my diagnosis was a battle in itself and by the time we figured out my disease, I was emotionally exhausted. I now realize the importance of proactively seeking out genetic testing, especially since comprehensive panel testing has become available, making the process much more bearable.

In terms of mindset, it’s important to remind yourself that you are a person with a disability and the word person comes first. Anyone can perform at their highest level whether it’s in your personal, athletic or professional life. When I was first diagnosed, I thought everything I had worked for was a waste. But as it turned out, I accomplished so much more being blind than I would have ever dreamed of fully sighted. Today I live by the motto: limitless vision.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I really owe so much of my success to my swim coach, Jeannine Carpenter, who stuck with me and pushed me to think beyond swimming. She’s not only my coach but a true friend and an incredible person. She really drove me to realize that my life could be so much more than my disability and that I was in control of creating my own destiny. I remember when I first told her I was diagnosed with LHON, she said, “you can either be depressed, or you can leave a legacy.” I’ll never forget that conversation.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’ve had the opportunity to swim for a lot of great coaches so I’m passionate about giving back to other swimmers. I share all the greatness I learned by coaching young swimmers as the first and only blind coach for the Fitter and Faster Swim Tour.

Sharing about my experience being diagnosed with LHON is also particularly important to me. If genetic testing was as common and accessible as it is now, I might not have had to wonder what was happening to me for so long. That’s why I am hosting Eye Know — Do You?, a podcast created by Spark Therapeutics, to showcase stories from the inherited retinal disease community and help others learn about the importance of genetic testing.

I’m also a motivational speaker. I want to encourage others who are living with vision loss or other disabilities that they are truly capable of anything and can write their own future, no matter what physical limitations they may face.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.

  • People living with physical limitations deserve to be treated equally. We are just as capable at achieving our goals as those who don’t experience disabilities.
  • We can achieve great things, in fact the obstacles we may face due to our disability can help us get there.
  • There are so many tools and technological resources for people living with disabilities that allow us to achieve just as much as our peers in all aspects of life
  • For an athlete who was once a horrible swimmer, for a Paralympian who was once not a medalist, and for a man without full vision, I wish more people would understand that drive and determination can help you overcome challenges despite having a physical limitation.
  • Sometimes a diagnosis or disability can take you places you would have never thought possible.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

In life you can pick between what is right and what is easy. When I started to lose my vision, it was easy to let this become a negative identity, or I could do the right thing and leave a legacy.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

David Letterman. He has interviewed some of the biggest names and personalities in the world. His show “My next guest needs no introduction” has some of the best one on one interviews that I have ever listened to and I would love to meet him in real life to hear his story and favorite career interviews.

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