When Charles King went blind at 39, he gave up — on life, on his pregnant girlfriend, and on himself.
“I said ‘OK God, that’s it. I quit.’ I literally quit and just went out on the streets and joined the homeless,” he said. “I hoped that because I was blind, someone on the streets would kill me.”
But going blind and becoming homeless wasn’t the toughest battle King would have to face. In 2000, after he got clean and was reunited with his family, King’s 14-year-old daughter died. Five years after that, he was diagnosed with cancer.
And yet, somehow he’s lifted himself up — both mentally and physically. Today, the 69-year-old Philadelphian is one of the oldest blind powerlifters in the world, having finished first in his weight and age class last month at the United States Association of Blind Athletes National Powerlifting Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., with a 248-pound squat, a 236-pound bench press, and a 341-pound dead lift.
“All of a sudden I expect something of myself," King said. “The world doesn’t expect anything of someone who is blind, but I am doing something nobody can imagine at my age."
A West Philadelphia High School grad and Army veteran, King was working as a carpenter’s apprentice when he began to lose his peripheral vision in 1988. By the end of 1989 he was completely blind, due to an optic nerve disorder.
King was terrified. He could no longer work and he was afraid he couldn’t take care of himself, let alone his pregnant girlfriend.
“I just quit. Something inside of me just snapped," he said. “I had no desire to live but I didn’t have the courage to kill myself.”
That’s when he made a conscious decision to become homeless, hoping his life would be claimed on the streets. Instead, people showed him where to eat and where to sleep. But he said they also showed him how to get alcohol and crack, to which he became addicted.
In November 1996, King fell asleep outside at 37th and Spruce Streets. As he slept, snow and ice covered his body. When he woke, he couldn’t feel his legs.
Terrified of being blind and unable to walk, King finally accepted the help of a University of Pennsylvania police officer who brought him to the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. It took 17 days before he was able to walk.
While there, George Stilwell, the VA’s vision-impaired veterans program coordinator, offered to help King, if he wanted to help himself. Through the VA, King went into detox and rehab. Then he went to several other East Coast VA facilities, where he received counseling for depression and learned how to navigate life without sight.
“I became so grateful that I wasn’t going to be blind and crippled. That scared the hell out of me,” King said. “It made me say, ‘OK, God, you win. And you’ve got all these people helping me.’”
By 1998, King was able to secure housing and was reunited with his girlfriend, who is now his wife, and 11-year-old twins — Andrew, his son, and Lessie, his daughter, who was born with a developmental spinal condition that left her unable to walk or speak.
Around the same time, King also enrolled in the Community College of Philadelphia, where he graduated with a 3.4 GPA and an associate’s degree in behavioral and mental health.
But in 2000, King’s world was once again shattered when his daughter died suddenly. She was 14.
“You never get over a child dying,” he said. “That’s a hole in your heart you can’t fill.”
Then in 2005, King was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery. The following year, he was diagnosed with diabetes.
“I look up and I say, ‘God! What is wrong with you? I can’t make no money. I can’t see. I can’t have sex. And now I can’t eat my favorite foods no more!'” he recalled.
King started seeing a psychologist again and agreed to take a trip with the VA to the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes Olympic training center in Colorado Springs.
Over eight days there, King was introduced to a host of physical challenges for those who are blind, including white-water rafting down the Colorado River. But he took a particular interest in powerlifting.
When he returned to Philly, Stilwell reached out to Joe Braca, owner of Underground Gym in Flourtown, who agreed to help train King.
“The whole gym got behind me," King said.
Braca taught King how to lift by having him put his hands on his shoulder and hips to try to visualize his positions. It took eight months of training for King to properly do a squat.
“Mentally and physically, he had to put himself together,” Braca said of King. “He got a handful of help from other people over the years. I’m just one little part of it.”
As King progressed, he and Braca attended several powerlifting tournaments for blind athletes, including the International Blind Sports Federation World Championships in Seoul, South Korea, in 2015, where King placed fourth, even though he was the oldest guy in his weight class — by four decades.
Now, King is inspiring other blind senior citizens, including 70-year-old Martin Lee who also competed in the national championships last month and took first in his age group.
King is already looking forward to next year’s National and International Blind Sports Association Powerlifting Championships. He’s praying for sponsors to help offset the costs, and he dreams of one day starting a nonprofit group for other blind athletes.
These days, when King feels the depression kicking in, he goes to the gym. Recently, as he was strength training at the Community College of Philadelphia’s gym on a particularly bad day, a student approached and asked if he could join him.
After their workout was over, the young man confessed that he’d seen King around campus before but for some reason, was moved to approach him that day.
“He says, ‘Mr. Charles, I thank God for meeting you today because I was ready to give up on my classes and goals because it’s too hard, but after watching you, I’m regenerated,’” King recalled. “I said, ‘Son, God blessed both of us today.’ ”