Archdeacon: This Centerville grad has a black belt, plays the piano and is on her way to Stanford. And she’s almost totally blind.

Aug 25, 2018

With quite a hand from Centerville High School, Tiger Woods continued his comeback at the Masters this past April.

Playing the tournament for the first time in three years, the four-time winner who has battled injuries had a few shining moments during his final round on Sunday.

He rolled in a 29-foot putt for eagle on the par 5, 15th hole and nearly aced the 232-yard fourth, landing his tee shot a couple of centimeters from the cup.

But maybe his best effort came as he walked to the first tee for that final round. With a crush of people flanking the tee box, Tiger scanned the crowd and zeroed in on just one person.

“I’d made sure to have my red Stanford shirt on, I wanted him to see it,” said Trisha Kulkarni, who would graduate from Centerville a month later. “I was with my dad, but Tiger fans can be kind of aggressive — all of them were trying to get close — and my dad wasn’t able to get up there with me. I had squeezed my way through and when my dad saw Tiger coming, he yelled for me to get ready.

“Tiger saw me and came over. I was the only person he high fived. It was really cool.”

Their palm-to-palm exchange also saluted a connection between two extraordinary talents, one who went to Stanford in the mid-1990s and one who is headed there as a freshman on Sep. 7th.

The pair also met briefly a decade ago, when Trisha was 8, and while Tiger likely does not remember that encounter, she embarrassingly does: “I asked him if his daughter called him Daddy or DaDa.”

Another difference between them – besides Woods’ 14 major titles – is that Tiger sees and Trisha now does not.

Once something of a golf prodigy herself — the youngest of three Centerville sisters, all with an extraordinary grasp of the game — Trisha is now almost totally blind.

Eye problems when she was young have left her with a prosthetic left eye. And six years ago – when she was 12 – a retinal detachment in her right eye stole the rest of her sight.

Yet her accomplishments since then have been like Tiger at his very best, the equivalent of dropping one long eagle putt after another and another and another:

Trisha Kilkarni got black belt in taekwondo two years ago. CONTRIBUTED Photo: colmunist

• She graduated from Centerville — where she was a member of the National Honor Society, the student council and the speech and debate team — with a 4.86 grade point average.

• She spoke at the commencement ceremony, delivering a stirring speech from memory that brought the Nutter Center crowd to its feet in applause.

• She scored a perfect 36 on her ACT test.

• She was a semifinalist for both the prestigious 2018 U.S. Presidential Scholarship award and the distinguished Coolidge Scholarship. And at the National Federation of the Blind’s annual convention in Orlando this summer, she won the group’s Oracle Scholarship.

• She played the cello, now plays the piano and two years ago earned her black belt in taekwondo.

• She’s the inspiration for the Kulkarni Family Golf Outing for Retinal Research, which, over the past three years, has raised over $100,000 and considerable communal awareness about the condition.

• And she’s considering playing golf again. “There’s actually a league where you can compete with blind golfers,” she said. “A lot of hitting a golf ball is about feel and when you can’t see, you put a lot of focus into feeling. And while you’d probably need someone to help you find your ball, there’s also a beeping device put on the pin that lets you know how close you are.”

If you think this sounds a bit far-fetched, you don’t really know 18-year-old Trisha Kulkarni.

As she told her fellow graduates during her commencement speech:

“As you leave this arena, I encourage you to have faith in your journey and embrace the opportunity to create your own path. Do not let your fear of failure be bigger than your dreams.”

Setting high standards

Dr. Raj Kulkarni – Trisha’s dad and the head of the Springboro-based Kulkarni & Fitz Orthodontics which has five offices in southwest Ohio and Columbus – is from Bangalore, India. His wife Benu is from Philadelphia.

After they moved to the Dayton area in 1996, Raj became a superb golfer himself and passed his love of the game onto his three daughters, each of whom went to Centerville.

Nina, the eldest, became the only four-time Greater Western Ohio Conference Player of the Year, then went on to play for Xavier and now is getting her masters at the University of Cincinnati.

Esha was a three-time all GWOC first team selection, shattered numerous conference records during her prep career and has played at Purdue the past two seasons while working on a neurobiology degree.

Ten years ago, when Trisha was 8, she met Tiger Woods for the first time at a golf course in North Carolina. Her sister Esha (left) looks on. CONTRIBUTED Photo: colmunist

As for Trisha, Raj once told me: “She was the best golfer of the three. She could outdrive her sisters and she had terrific bunker play.”

After Trisha lost her sight, her parents took her to various specialists around the country and soon settled on Dr. Vinit Mahajan, then an assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the University of Iowa, a well-respected vitreoretinal surgeon and the director of the Omics Laboratory.

Over the years, with the surgeries and treatments and his guidance, Dr. Mahajan became like an “uncle” to her, Trisha said:

“He always told me, ‘You do your part and I will do mine.’”

She took his advice to heart and set an extremely high bar for herself.

“My parents always set very high standards for us,” she said. “They taught us to go after what we wanted. And after I lost my vision, what was most inspiring, most encouraging, was that they didn’t change the way they treated me. They didn’t change their standards because of what had happened.

“They saw the academic standards I set for myself and they adopted them. Some days for them that meant staying up all night reading me books before they were in accessible formats or I had the skills to read them myself.”

In her final years at Centerville, she took all Advanced Placement (AP) classes and was able to handle the more demanding work thanks to her teachers.

“I had an incredible support system at Centerville,” she said. “My teachers were awesome. They devoted a lot of extra time to help me, They’d explain graphics after class or talk things through to make sure I understood. And because we worked together on a daily basis, my teachers and I became very close.”

Along the way, Trisha said she also taught some classmates and administrators:

“There often are misconceptions about blindness and, in general, people with disabilities or special needs. Too many people believe they come into education below average and it’s the educator’s job to get them to be average.

“But there is not a lot of talk about people excelling and, unless you show them otherwise, they assume, at best, you are average. That was a hard pill to swallow.”

She said she also didn’t want to be treated as an “anomaly, that I am the only one who does this, because then it discourages other people from doing the same.”

She said she quickly learned self-advocacy, not just through words, but in her actions. She did so in classroom and outside of it, as well:

“I competed in speech and debate and traveled to other schools around Ohio without an aide. I was part of that every weekend.

“In the social community there are stereotypes, too – that all blind people are awkward and we can’t succeed socially. Well, I found a great, fun group who accepted me and we’re still in touch after six or seven years. It’s the same with many of the people I grew up with even before I lost my vision.”

She touched on this in her essay to get into Stanford and in her commencement speech, as well.

The Kulkarni Family at Trisha’s Centerville High graduation ceremony at Nutter Center from (l to R) Benu ( mom), Raj (dad) (sister) Nina, Trisha and (sister) Esha. CONTRIBUTED Photo: colmunist

“As you move forward, I encourage you to have faith in your journey,” she told her fellow graduates. “Be confident in the skills that make you unique. Don’t let anybody place limits on what you are capable of.

“From here on out, you determine your story.”

For her to continue to do that, she said she looked at 12 to 15 schools across the nation, visited five or six and chose Stanford.

“It was the best,” she said. “They have a lot of resources, but more importantly, they have the right attitude. For students coming in with disabilities, they do everything possible to put you on an equal playing field.”

Interestingly, her trusted doctor – Dr. Vinit Mahajan – is now at Stanford, too.

“He hadn’t said anything about it to me beforehand, it happened completely separate,” she said. “He was invited to be part of a new eye institute there and work with other world renowned specialists who were invited to come.

“Some would say it’s coincidence, but I say it’s a sign.”

But not relying solely on karma, she also is adding the concrete.

Her guide dog Liberty or Libby, as she calls the two-year old black Lab-golden retriever mix, is headed to college with her.

So is Benu, her mother,

“My mom is actually coming to California with me to help me move in and get used to things,” she said. “She’ll probably be out there for a month. We’ll say a month and see how it goes.”

And with a shake of the head and a laugh, she quietly added:

“If she’s still there four years from now, you’ll know it didn’t go so well.”

Getting more mobile

This summer Trisha and Libby spent eight weeks at the Colorado Center for the Blind in Littleton.

“At the beginning of the summer I learned basic orientation and mobility skills,” she said. “Things like how to use the sun to figure out the direction I’m walking, how to analyze and cross different types of intersections and how the bus and train system worked.

“Libby and I worked together and I also worked on cane travel with an instructor – he was blind, too – who took us out into the community. The last thing was for me go by myself two or three miles through the community, using just my cane, to get to a café and then return.”

Although she had practiced beforehand with others, she admitted with a laugh: “I was terrified. I had never done anything like that before.”

She said she walked the whole way, navigated a busy bus hub where crowds were jostling one way and another, asked for help when she needed it and had just one notable miscue.

She took a wrong turn at an intersection and ended up on a side of a street where there was no sidewalk.

To prove she had made it to and from the café, she was told to pick up a business card there.

“I got my instructor a cookie, too,” she laughed. “Peanut butter.”

Back home, her longtime friend, Niyanth Reddy – a senior at Miami Valley School and a standout tennis player for the Rams — became the point person on the golf outing this summer.

The Kulkarni family was still deeply involved, as was the Reddy family, and the proceeds went to both the Eagle Scouts, of which Reddy is a member, and retinal research again, though this time it was earmarked for the Byers Eye Institute at Stanford.

“There are a lot of technological advancements happening now, as well as scientific and medical advancements like stem cell research and genetic testing,” Trisha said.

“It’s because all that is so expensive that our family has committed itself to raising money to help the cause.

“Since we were little, that’s one thing our parents have stressed: ‘Don’t always make it about yourself. You need to give back to the community.’ And that’s a value that inspires me for the future. I want to have a job or some type of role in the world where I can touch other people’s lives.”

To better prepare for her future at Stanford — where she said she’ll likely pursue a special computer science degree that incorporates psychology, linguistics and philosophy — she’s first been prepping here at home these past weeks.

Stanford sent her three books to read, which she’s doing in braille. And she and Libby are traversing neighborhood streets in an effort to work better as a team when they get to the large campus.

“It’s 8,800 acres, it’s huge” Trisha said quietly. “But my four-legged friend here will be out there with me. She’ll be my roommate.”

With a laugh, Trisha stretched a hand toward the floor in an attempt to touch her pal, who lying on her side, breathing deeply, was sound asleep.

“We always joke that Libby’s going to sleep right through her whole Stanford education,” Trisha said.

Almost on cue, Libby stirred, lifted her head and began to wag her tail.

It was the canine equivalent of another high five.