Strength and Spirit On the Waterfront

Blind rower Aerial Gilbert.
Training starts early at the Marin Rowing Club, where competitive crews arrive well before dawn. But to one rower the morning darkness makes no difference - Aerial Gilbertis blind.

"I don't want to be in a boat just because they think, oh, let's feel sorry for the blind lady," Gilbert told CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. "I want to earn my spot in the boat because I earned it."

To earn her spot she's on the dock by 5:30 a.m. at least three days a week. Her aptly-named guide dog Splash is never far away. But on the boat, where every oar has to move in unison, Gilbert is on her own to make it work.

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When I'm rowing I'm listening to the oars turning in the oar lock," she said. I'm listening to the sound of the seat sliding back and forth and I'm feeling the swing of the boat."

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Gilbert could be living a life of anger and depression.

"For the first six months after I lost my sight I didn't go anywhere. I didn't do anything-I didn't think I could do anything," she said.

She lost her sight after someone tampered with a bottle of eye drops on a drug store shelf, filling it with toxic drain cleaner. Gilbert was the unlucky person who bought the bottle. Her life changed in one moment.

That was 21 years ago. She was 34 years old, and suddenly helpless.

Gilbert recalled, "I was sort of incompetent at everything, but I got in a boat and I felt like, 'oh, this is something I can do.'"

And something other blind people can do as well, she says. So she has been working with rowing clubs across the country to get opportunities for blind rowers.

For Gilbert, "The American Spirit" means sharing with others what works for her. That's why her full-time job is helping others connect with just the right dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind.It's a task she has been dedicated to almost since her first walk with a guide dog.

"It was just so fluid, how we moved," Gilbert said. "I knew at that point that no matter what I wanted to accomplish, I could do it with my dog at my side."

Her most recent accomplishments include rowing this fall in one of the sport's premier events: the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston. Her crew of women over age 50 placed second against some of the best in the country.

Coach Dierdre McLoughlin said Gilbert brings more than muscle to the boat. "It's good to have some people who are physical and physically strong and capable rowers," McLoughlin said. "But the key between a winning crew and not is that mental strength."

And with that mental strength, Gilbert has found ways to brighten the darkness for herself and for others.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.