Rare genetic disorder hasn't stopped Tucker

Sweaty and determined, Brandon Tucker stands before the 24-inch box, a staple of the no-frills CrossFit workout.

He can’t see the box, only the contrast between it and the white concrete floor.

So he focuses on what he can see — a beam of light coming through the glass door.

He reaches out, feels the top of the wooden box, leaps up to it and steps back down. Again and again. No scraped shins or missteps.

“I just keep jumping,” he says. “Tap the box and jump.”

Born with a rare genetic disorder called Usher Syndrome, Tucker has only a fraction of his hearing and is slowly losing his sight.

But that hasn’t stopped the 39-year-old from becoming a husband and father and an enterprising entrepreneur with a workout ethic top athletes might envy.

While his vision has slowly shrunk to a pinhole of light, Tucker has had to rely on others, and now attends an Affiliated Blind of Louisiana school in Lafayette where he’s learning to be independent, use a cane to get around and read Braille. He comes home every weekend to St. Francisville to his wife and their four children.

“CrossFit is getting him through this transition in life from being sighted to being blind,” says his wife, Courtney Tucker. “I don’t know where he would be without it.”

CrossFit is a mix of constantly varied, high-intensity, very demanding workouts.

“His confidence and sense of self-worth have climbed,” she says, watching her husband tackle the gymnast’s rings at Geaux Crossfit in Baton Rouge.

Growing up in Baton Rouge, Tucker’s family recognized his hearing loss and low vision early.

When he was 2 or 3 years old, his mother would call him and he wouldn’t answer. He’s being ornery, his grandmother would say. He’s ignoring you.

On early morning hunts with his father, the 4-year-old Tucker would cling to his dad’s belt, unable to see in the low, pre-dawn light.

“I wouldn’t let go of him,” Tucker recalls. “It was pitch black.”

Doctors at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston diagnosed Tucker with type 2 Usher Syndrome when he was 8. Like most people with the genetic disorder, he was born hard of hearing — he has 76 percent hearing loss in one ear and 78 percent in the other — and his vision began to slowly degenerate.

By high school in McComb, Miss., Tucker was legally blind with only a tunnel of sight. He played golf and loved football, but doctors would not OK him to take the field, afraid opposing players would blind side him. Instead he served as the athletic trainer and taped ankles. At practice, the coaches let him run kickoff return drills.

“It was a little aggravating because I could outrun people,” he says. “I wished I could do these things.”

In his 20s, doctors were surprised he wasn’t totally blind. But Tucker, who said he had not researched Usher Syndrome much, had not expected to lose all of his eyesight.

“My vision was slowly getting worse, but it was so slight you couldn’t tell,” he says. “At least I couldn’t tell.”

At Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Tucker majored in kinesiology. After graduation he worked in the crude oil broker business in Houston. On the side he was a personal trainer, and he loved hitting the weights.

With dreams of becoming an entrepreneur, Tucker saved his money.

“I wanted to work for myself,” he says. “I wanted to control my own destiny.”

Tucker developed a business plan, applied for a loan and sunk his savings into his first car wash in St. Francisville.

It was a success, and, after five years he opened a second car wash, h2o Auto Spa on Jefferson Highway in Baton Rouge, with his brother and brother-in-law. Then they expanded to detailing cars and trucks for local auto dealerships and opened offices in Lafayette and Alexandria.

Over the past decade, Tucker says he noticed that his vision worsened. He realized it when he read to his children. It was difficult with his first daughter, but it slowly became impossible.

Now his 2-year-old son knows to lead him around the house when he’s having trouble.

“It’s a little sad to me that I can’t see everything and be able to help watch them,” he says, “but that role is still important to me, supporting them.”

CrossFit came into his life about a year ago when he tagged along with his brother, who had started the hardcore workout program. After growing up hunting and fishing and playing golf, Tucker says he had lost most of his hobbies.

And he hadn’t worked out in four years. That first CrossFit day wiped him out.

“I was as sick as a dog,” he recalls. “I was nauseous. I was pale white.”

Within a month, however, he was jumping from weights to rowing machines to lunges and a dozen other exercises that punish every muscle.

During a Sunday afternoon workout, Tucker’s trainer, Amber Leonard, puts her hand on his shoulder and leads him from a rack of weights to a wall where she’s placed two 25-pound plates a foot apart. The plates show Tucker where to put his hands to do headstand push-ups, one of several tricks Leonard developed to adapt exercises for him.

“If I told him to do something, he did it,” she says. “He’s just brave. It was me getting over my fear of hurting him to let him reach his potential.”

Tucker says he’s always trying to top his personal best, and now he’s testing his skills against others in CrossFit competitions.

“It’s never been an excuse,” Tucker says of his eyesight. “It’s just one more thing. I have to work to be a little better, work a little harder.”