An Expansive Vision


Former professional mascot Mike Walsh ’96 now cheers on his own nonprofit, Flight for Sight, and advocates for those who are blind or have low vision

Mike Walsh ’96 was 20 years old when he learned he had Usher syndrome Type 2C, a rare genetic disorder marked by childhood deafness and progressive vision loss in later life. But his condition did not stop him from becoming a sports legend in Colorado; for 10 years after his diagnosis, he endeared himself to stadium crowds as RapidMan, the first mascot for Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids. Hobnobbing with players, goofing with fans, the bulging-biceped water-blue man with pearly teeth and white-capped hair was beloved as a community ambassador for the growing league. As one sportswriter recalled in a retrospective: “RapidMan popped up on the morning news, at public events, greeting fans, noshing with the tailgaters and, in general, being the must-have on everyone’s guest list.”

For Walsh it was a high point of a mascot journey that dates back to his time at Williston, when as a postgraduate he became the school’s first Willy the Wildcat, tracking down a costume company in New York City and helping place the order. After Williston, at the University of Richmond, he entertained as Spidey the Spider, then transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, where he ran triathlons, studied communications and dance, and won national recognition as Chip the Buffalo. His fame as RapidMan and a stint as Miles, the horse-headed mascot of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, would follow.

But by 2012, Walsh’s peripheral vision had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer drive. (Though his hearing had been impaired since childhood, developments in assistive technology have allowed his hearing to actually improve over the years.) Forced to hang up his mascot costumes, he turned to the considerable social media marketing skills those roles had required, taking on a series of consulting positions back in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. He also began dating a flight attendant, which gave him an opportunity to travel. One day, he recalls, he put out a seemingly innocuous question on Facebook. “‘Hey, I’m losing my sight,’” he posted. “‘Where should I go?’ And it blew up.”

Inundated with travel suggestions, with invitations from blind organizations, and with introductions to other people and organizations in the blind and low-vision world, he decided to start a blog and to use his social media platform to share his experiences with others. For the next year he traveled around the world to raise awareness of vision issues, using social media to help choose his destinations and activities and interviewing prominent figures and advocates in the low-vision and blind community. Eventually Walsh moved to New York City, where he worked in the schools as a substitute teacher and discovered the sport of blind baseball (and won a bronze medal with his U.S. team at an international tournament). Travel had opened up the world for him, and that in turn got him thinking. “What would happen if we could give other people this opportunity? What would they do with the money? What educational content could they create about blindness?”

In 2021, with the help of an experienced nonprofit development manager, Rosalie Chandler, Walsh launched Flight for Sight, a nonprofit that awards grants to blind and low-vision people for travel projects that let them engage with others and educate the public about vision loss. His younger brother, a lawyer and occasional comedian who also has Usher syndrome, joined him on the board (two younger sisters do not have the condition). The organization has been funded in part by professional sports team owner and blind philanthropist Gordon Gund, founder of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, whom Walsh had met and befriended in his travels.

Last year Flight for Sight distributed $10,000 to each of its first three grantees: a baseball fan who traveled to stadiums around the country blogging and podcasting; two Paralympic medalists in goalball (a sport played with blackout eyeshades), who traveled to Europe and documented their experience on Instagram and YouTube; and a DJ, born blind and now losing his hearing, who created a YouTube mini-documentary series about his recent tour of Europe and Asia. More than 100 applications for the second round of grants were submitted in February, with winners announced in April. Walsh has set this year’s fundraising goal at $200,000, hoping the group can give away even more.

The outsize enthusiasm that served Walsh so well in costume continues to mark his work today, as he tirelessly promotes Flight for Sight through partnerships, social media, his website, and frequent speaking engagements. Appearing last February on “Between the Fur,” Kenn Solomon’s pro mascot podcast, Walsh explained his hard-won approach to life and success. “Everybody is unique in this world,” he told Solomon, who for years was Rocky the Mountain Lion, mascot of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. “So take your peculiarities, your disabilities, whatever your challenges are, and put them out there. Because some people are going to be very interested.”

Clearly, the Wisconsin kid, whose first foray outside of North America was a Williston class trip to the Galapagos Islands, has come a long way. Looking back, he notes that his time in Easthampton, meeting students from across the globe, helped broaden his perspective, allowing him “to realize there was another world out there.”

He acknowledges, however, that his fascination with mascots was something he brought with him. At his previous high school in Madison, on a lark during a homecoming football game, he had gone out on the field and led the crowd in a cheer. Thrilled by the response, he became the Edgewood Crusader, donning a cape and helmet.

Creating Willy the Wildcat for Williston only made sense. When the ordered costume arrived from New York in the spring, Walsh debuted it at an assembly in chapel. “I remember I didn’t have gloves, so my hands were sticking out. That’s kind of a rule—you don’t want your body parts to be sticking out. But I put the outfit on, went into the chapel, and basically the whole school was clapping.”

Though he wears no costume today as an advocate for the blind and low-vision community, Walsh still recognizes the power of appearances. “I use a cane everywhere, but even the cane isn’t a detriment to my life,” he explains. “My cane is marketing, in some ways. I stand out, and hopefully people come up to me and ask questions. Because if they ask questions, then I can tell them about Flight for Sight.”

To learn more, go to or contact Mike at