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Pete Gustin Blind Surfer

Pete Gustin is blind. Pete Gustin also surfs. And Pete Gustin should inspire you. Photos: supplied

The Inertia

You might not have heard of Pete Gustin, but you’ve definitely heard him. He’s been in your living room; he’s been in your headphones. He’s been at the movie theater with you, and he’s been inside your car. Creeped out? Don’t be. Pete Gustin is a voice actor, and a very successful one at that. As he told me, “it’s hard to be an American without having heard my voice.” Pete Gustin is also blind. And Pete Gustin also surfs. He surfs so much and in such a unique way that he’s started a web series about it called Blind Surfer. It’s not just a show about surfing, though—Pete is trying to show people that if you want to do something, you can. If you can’t do it one way, you simply have to find another. And listening to Pete tell me about his life story, it became clear that he’s been doing that, in one way or another, with just about every endeavor he chooses.

Gustin has been the voice of Super Bowl ads and countless network TV promos. He’s voiced commercials for The Walking Dead, for Archer, Family Guy, and SpongeBob. He’s that dripping baritone you’ve heard a million times thundering through a movie theater before the main feature comes on. Listen to his reel:

But that’s not even close to the most interesting thing about Pete. He wasn’t always blind, although he’s been slowly going blind since the day he was born. “I was born with perfect eyesight,” he told me. “Then it started to crap out immediately. I didn’t really notice it until I was eight years old. I was sitting in the classroom and realized I couldn’t see the chalkboard anymore. A couple of local optometrists put glasses on me and it kept me quiet for a little while, but honestly, it wasn’t really helping.”

Soon, though, the fact that it wasn’t really helping became obvious to his parents. “They took me to a world-renowned hospital called Massachusetts Eye and Ear,” Pete remembered. “After a whole day of testing, the doctor comes out he says, ‘you have macular degeneration. Your central vision will continue to deteriorate.’ He was a researcher with no bedside manner at all — like, at all. He walked in and said… that. Then he just walked out of the room.”

That was in 1985, more than a decade before Google hit the internet and had the answers to any question. With a million questions and no real answers, Pete and his parents went home and opened up the Encyclopedia. “We see ‘macro’, we see ‘Montana’,” Pete said, “but we don’t see ‘Macular Degeneration’. We literally had no information. Nothing.”

Then, a few days later, a woman came to their house and knocked on the door. Pete had been registered with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, and she was there as a state employee to fill them in on what Pete’s life might look like. It was bleak, to say the least. “She tells my mother with me in the room, ‘your son is never going to be able to maintain a regular school regimen. He’s not going to be able to go to college.’ She says there are state programs for me that will help, but she’s laying out my whole life for me as a ward of the state. I was eight.”

Pete’s mother, however, wasn’t having any of it. Looking back on what Gustin has accomplished so far in his life, one thing becomes very clear: the Gustins don’t take no for an answer. “My mom was like, ‘no, that’s not happening. We’ll figure this out,’” Pete said. “I think my mom was the one who kind of gave me the find-a-way attitude. She made sure I stayed in school. She took a job in my elementary school and then in my junior high, then took a job in my high school. All she was doing was reminding the teachers to use large print text or reminding them if they wrote something on the chalkboard to say it out loud. She was working, too, but she was really there in the background to make sure that those little things that could easily slip someone’s mind were getting done.”

Now, Pete is almost completely blind. He sees shapes and shadows up to about three feet away. One might assume that would essentially shut the door on a lot of things in life, but Pete, with that find-a-way attitude, simply goes about his life with a kind of dogged, optimistic determination to figure out a different path to what he wants to do.

“It’s almost unfair to pinpoint the one hard thing in my life,” he told me when I asked him what single thing he found most difficult. “It’s the everything. There are moments when it becomes overwhelming, but everyone gets overwhelmed. It’s literally from the moment I wake up. The alarm goes off and I can’t see it, so I have to reach over and find it to turn it off. Then I have to walk down the stairs to feed the dog and I can’t see a dog bone on the stairs so I trip on it and almost fall down the stairs. Then I get to the pantry and the food’s not exactly where I left it. It’s not just one thing. I just described the first three minutes of my day, and there are three things that are difficult. It just goes on and on and on throughout the day. It really can get to you… if you let it.”

That last sentence is the moment where Pete differs from a lot of people. He seems to have a singular determination to simply not let those things get to him, which, of course, is much easier to say than it is to do. But Pete’s surfing career is a perfect example of his ability to do just that. It started with a move to San Diego from Boston in July of 2016. He and his girlfriend Maggie were looking for a way to get to know people in the community, and surfing, as unlikely a prospect as it might have seemed, was something Pete was interested in learning how to do.

“Every time we went out, people were talking about surfing,” he said. “Everybody surfs in San Diego. ‘How were the waves?’ is the conversation starter for pretty much everyone. In Boston, there weren’t really any sports I could do, but when I got here, I thought, ‘I don’t know, I could probably see a wave. Waves are pretty fucking big. Maybe I could do that.’”

What followed was a learning experience that would probably have most people throwing in the towel. “I had my girlfriend drive me up and down the coast until we found a spot that had nobody,” Pete said. “I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. So for four or five months, I was just practicing in the whitewater. But at the time, I didn’t even know I was catching whitewash. I thought I was surfing. Then after five months, my girlfriend explained to me what real surfers do. I was like, ‘oh. I’m not doing that, am I?’ I hit closeout after closeout after closeout. I broke so many glasses, snapped leashes, broke a brand new Pod Mod from Channel Islands. Tons of injuries. I hit a jetty and ended up in the ER for a night. And I thought that was just what surfing was.”

Still, though, he didn’t give up. The thought didn’t enter his head. Just like many other things in his life, Pete was determined to figure out how to do what he wanted. But that doesn’t mean it was easy, either physically or mentally.

“I had a conversation with myself at about the nine-month mark when I was out there looking for real waves,” he said. “I was getting pissed. I was like, ‘I can’t see the damn wave. If I could see it coming and start paddling ahead of time, I could get into it better.’ I was trying different glasses; trying anything to help me see better. It was really the wrong attitude. Then literally one day I just said, ‘this is it. This is how well I can see. This is what I have to deal with. This is the best it’s going to get, so make the best out it.'”

That sentiment is incredibly transferable to most things in life. Pete is an extreme example. But that’s exactly why he started Blind Surfer: to show people that they can do the things they want to do. They just need to do it.

“People will say, ‘oh, I wish I went to the gym. I should, but I don’t have time,’” he said. “And that’s a valid excuse. Working out is hard. Everyone’s busy. But if there’s something in your life that you want to do — something that you think about every day – you just need to stop making excuses. You have to prioritize your life so you can accomplish what you want to do.”

Take, for example, his voice acting work. Pete, as I said before, is one of the most accomplished voice actors in the business. In 2018, he won the SOVAS Voice Arts Award for Outstanding Movie Trailer Voice-Over. He’s been on the prestigious Benztown 50, a list that honors the top 50 voice-over talents across the U.S. and Canada, multiple times. So how, exactly, does a blind man read copy well enough to become of the most recognizable voices in the industry?

“I’d been trying to be a voice actor for a long time,” Pete said, “but reading the copy was impossible. It just wasn’t going to happen. It was another one of those times where I was like, ‘I’ve got this voice and all I want to do is use it to make a living and tell a story and my stupid eyeballs won’t let me read this stupid script.’ It was super frustrating.”

Then, something happened that flicked a switch on in his head. “When texting first came out, I was like, ‘well this sucks,’” he laughed. “But the old phones, if you hit the pound button, it would read the text to you. I was listening to my texts for about five months when I was sitting in a car with some friends and got a text about the Red Sox scores. As the text was coming in, I was reciting it back to my friends. It didn’t really hit me until the next day. Someone wrote something and my machine read it to me and I read it back. I started taking all of my scripts and I fed them into this program on my computer. In the beginning, it was almost like surfing. It was so hard. You’ve got this robot voice telling you the words but in this really robotic way. To do it in real-time, you’ve got to get all the copy with the right inflection at the right speed at the right time… you know, you’ve got to perform. You’ve got to emote and connect.”

After that revelation with the text from the Red Sox, Pete found a narrow crack. It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to get his fingers in and start pulling away at the bricks in the wall that covered up what he wanted to do. “After about two years of listening to the robot,” he remembered, “I let it get about four seconds ahead of me and then I start reciting it back. Again, it’s similar to surfing. That thing is just four seconds ahead of me and I’m reacting to what the copy is saying, just like what you have to do with a wave. You just have to react as its happening… It’s like being focused on one moment in time but living in another.”

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, Pete compared a lot of things in life to surfing, which brings us back to his web series, Blind Surfer. “I didn’t necessarily want to be about me, if that makes sense,” he explained. “I wanted it to be about someone with a really obvious handicap doing something that’s pretty visual and seemingly very difficult. I wanted it to get people’s attention. I want people to look at it and go, ‘oh shit, how does that work?’”

And watching the web series, one does indeed ask that question. Next time you go surfing, try surfing with your eyes closed. Or try surfing on a cloudy night with no light from the moon or stars. I don’t know how close that is to what Pete sees, but I imagine the level of difficulty might be similar. The mere fact that Pete learned how to surf is inspiring, but don’t tell Pete that. To him, it’s just another obstacle, and everyone has obstacles.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘oh, you’re so inspirational’, but everybody’s got a thing. My thing is just super obvious. I can’t see you. I can’t see across the room. I might not be walking in the right direction or grabbing the right thing, so it’s really obvious. But there are so many people in the world, like 99 percent of the population, who have goals — whether it’s starting a business or getting a new job or going out and meeting a new girl or breaking up with someone that they’re with. Saving up for a vacation that they don’t think will be possible. From the frivolous to the important, everyone has something real that’s holding them back. I wanted to kind of slap everyone in the face and say, ‘I’m blind, but I can surf.’ I want people to look at themselves and go, ‘yeah, I can overcome those obstacles.’”

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