Bodybuilding blind: 'Anything’s possible with a bit of ingenuity'

Jason Whiter has faced medical challenges since he was born. The pandemic closing gyms wasn’t about to stop him

When I was a teenager playing American football my nickname was Frequent Flyer because I got knocked through the air so much. I’d been told I was too short to play, but if people tell me I can’t do something, I think, “too bad”.

I’d been impacted by medical concerns ever since I was born. At birth, I had a hernia that nearly killed me. At 18 months I got asthma. When I was 11, I was diagnosed as having type 1 diabetes. Then the doctors noticed something wrong with my eyes when I was 17 – I was seeing spots. Now, my left eye is really useless. My right eye, it’s like looking through a pinhole.

Vision Australia surveyed their clients and found that only 17% exercise regularly. I think sometimes that’s because people are worried about how they’ll be perceived by others, or they’re just too scared, or family tells them not to. Often there are other health complications, which means that people can be further worried about exercising during the pandemic. I want to show that anything’s possible with a bit of ingenuity.

An exterior view of Jason Whiter's home gym – inside he is skipping in front of a laptop.
Jason Whiter trains in his home gym in Keilor Downs, Melbourne. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

I grew up in Gladstone Park in Melbourne’s north-west and I played a lot of sports – ice hockey, rugby, gridiron. I used to sprint up a hill with a weight strapped to my back, and a friend and I built a gym, with a bar that was a broken clothesline with cinder blocks at either end. We’d be training out there, screaming with effort, till two in the morning.

I started going to the local gym three times a day. One of my dreams was to get on to a bodybuilding stage, but then my health started giving out. By the time I was 25, I was really having trouble training because of fainting spells from hypotension. My vision deteriorated quickly.

Jason Whiter, at 18 with a short cropped haircut, stands shirtless outside, looking tough, with a knee up on a log.
Jason Whiter at 18, exercising outside. Photograph: Jason Whiter

It underlined the importance of staying fit. Back in 2005, I’d wanted to become a personal trainer and had completed a cert III in fitness at Tafe, but then the gyms I applied to work for told me I’d never get professional indemnity and public liability insurance.

I was thinking, “Well, what CAN I do?” I’d tried acting, but I pulled a set wall on top of me so I had to stop that. I was a property manager for a real estate agent, and that had to stop because I couldn’t drive. People in the real estate industry had also been telling me I’d never get a job.

Then my appendix burst and I nearly died. I hadn’t realised that there was an infection, because my nerves were that damaged from the diabetes.

I was in hospital for a month and then I got married to my neighbour-turned-girlfriend, Janene. She quit her job to be my driver so that I could get back into real estate, but after three years, my kidneys failed. That was nasty. I was lucky enough to get given a kidney and pancreas transplant quite quickly, but my blood sugars still fluctuate, and I’m at high risk of [severe] Covid-19 because I’m now immunosuppressed.

Jason Whiter practices body building posing in a Zoom training session in his home gym.
Jason Whiter working out with his personal trainer – Marco Monteiro – over Zoom. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Vision Australia came to me when I was in hospital. They taught me to use Jaws, which reads what’s on your computer screen, and I decided to study and get my real estate licence. In 2012, I opened my first real estate business.

My health was still up and down, and I got a bit of anxiety because I couldn’t go too far from home because of my blood sugars playing up. Because of nerve damage, I don’t have those impact feelings when I put my feet down either, so I can’t walk straight. When I’m walking down the street without my cane, people don’t know I’m blind, they just think I’m drunk or mad.

Jason Whiter sits on a workout bench, gritting his teeth as he lifts a weight with one arm.
Jason Whiter: ‘When I’m walking down the street without my cane, people don’t know I’m blind, they just think I’m drunk or mad.’ Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

Around 2017, I started training at Snap Fitness in Airport West. My ophthalmologist didn’t want to give me clearance to go to the gym in case I fell and injured myself. I said, “It’s a bit late for that because I’m already going.” He said, “Oh well, in that case … ” The trainers there just kept a bit of an eye on me.

It was around this point that I decided to resume my dream of bodybuilding. Now, this wasn’t going to be easy. I’ve got a scar down my torso from my transplant operation, which means you can’t see my abs. But it turned out that ‘I Compete Natural’ (ICN) Victoria had recently decided to include “physically challenged” as a category under “men’s physique”. It’s still about the symmetry and posing, but they take into consideration that you can’t train like an able-bodied person.

At my first bodybuilding competition, in Ballarat, there was myself and Bradley Sewart, and I won the standing category. That meant I qualified for the ICN World Pro/Am Championship. I got to go up against Andy Harrison [former triathlon athlete who was severely injured by a car but went on to become Natural Olympia Champion in 2015]. I came second, but my aim is to beat him one day.

A photograph of a laptop showing a Zoom training session between Jason Whiter and his trainer Marco Monteiro, with a pair of weights in the background.
Jason Whiter trains over Zoom. He has resumed his studies to become a personal trainer. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

The pandemic closing gyms wasn’t about to stop me. With my wife’s help I built a home gym consisting of a multifunctional rack, two benches, a treadmill, multiple bar bells and dumb bells. One of the trainers at Snap Fitness, Marco Monteiro, agreed to train me using Zoom, and designed a program for me.

I’ve also been diagnosed with osteoporosis, which means my bones are more susceptible to breaking, but he’s safely figured out a four-day program of weights – working the push muscles, the pull muscles and the legs – and one day of bodybuilding posing, amounting to around one hour each day.

As I have nerve damage I can’t rely on feedback from my arms, but a mirror helps to make sure they’re straight when I’m doing weights, and Marco guides me on my form. He’ll watch to see if there’s fatigue happening. If he wasn’t there I’d definitely be pushing myself too hard.

I’ve also resumed my studies to become a personal trainer. I decided to contact insurers myself, and they said that if I could pass the cert IV in fitness, they’d cover me. So far I’m a qualified fitness instructor, and my aim is training people in the disability field.

Jason Whiter doing a one-armed push up in front of his laptop. In the background, his home gym is hung with purple, star-shaped fairy lights.
Jason Whiter hopes to train other people in the disability field. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

The next ICN competition I want to enter, if it’s not cancelled because of lockdown, will be in Bendigo in December, so I’m busy training for that. Really, I’d love to advocate for the sport, so that it grows in representation. Ideally next year I’d be up against five competitors so that I’m not guaranteed to come first or second!

I’m generally on a mission to become an advocate for disability-inclusive activities.

I keep a nice big list of my goals in different folders on my computer. They’re mainly goals around things people told me I couldn’t do. Which makes me want to do it even more, out of a bit of spite.


As told to Jenny Valentish

The GuardianTramp

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