When Marissa Nissley crossed the 50-mile finish line during BellRinger Weekend 2022, she was feeling a mix of emotions. The Saturday morning ride from Georgetown to Urbana, Maryland had been exhausting, but represented an enormous personal accomplishment. Marissa, an incoming senior at Georgetown University, was diagnosed with albinism and a visual impairment shortly after she was born. Growing up, Marissa faced unique challenges compared to her sighted peers, but was determined to live a full, curious, and interdependent life. That curiosity and determination launched Marissa on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery and achievement that led her to the finish line on that beautiful Saturday morning last fall.
During the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Marissa took on a new adventure. Although she should have been in Washington, DC as a first year student at Georgetown University, she was stuck in her childhood bedroom hundreds of miles away in New Jersey. But for Marissa, lockdown didn’t mean going on family walks or learning new TikTok dances. It meant that she had the opportunity to find her voice and share her story with the world.
Marissa is legally blind, and she wanted others to know her story and that her disability is far from a tragedy. It is an integral part of who she is and how she navigates the world.
After some initial research, she came to understand that her blindness is not the problem; society’s perceptions and barriers are. Marissa decided to launch her own podcast called “Legally Blonde & Blind” in 2020 with no recording, editing or graphic design experience. All she knew was that she wanted to share her story and connect with others.
Upon further research, she discovered the Social Model of Disability. This model helped her to understand that external barriers disable people, not their impairments or physical limitations. Her perceptions about her blindness and albinism quickly shifted from what once was a source of shame, to a beautiful characteristic of who she is. Her podcast launched her newfound confidence and voice, and once she was able to return to Georgetown for in-person classes, this confidence only began to grow.
Marissa had always loved bike riding, particularly indoor cycling through SoulCycle. She had never experienced outdoor cycling, however, due to her low vision. When she heard about the opportunity to participate in BellRinger through her involvement in her student group, Hilltop Consultants, she felt disappointed as she knew biking alone wouldn’t be safe or feasible for her.
But Marissa didn’t let her vision deter her from her passion for cycling and making a difference. After researching the intricacies of blind athletics, she discovered tandem cycling and quickly realized that there was no reason she couldn’t be a part of BellRinger. After conversations with the BellRinger Team, she was connected with members of the Metro Washington Association of Blind Athletes (MWABA). Thanks to their assistance, Marissa found an experienced captain who could ride lead on a tandem bicycle with her during her first ever organized bike ride, the 50-mile route in BellRinger’s Inaugural Ride.
Marissa and her captain, Lori, had never ridden together before BellRinger, and at that point, Marissa had only been on a tandem bike once before. Although Marissa had been training through SoulCycle for months, she underestimated the coordination and focus that it took to tandem cycle, but within a few short minutes, she found herself in the groove. Marissa and Lori were constantly communicating with each other as they navigated every turn, stop, and acceleration. Although they had to talk logistics for a large portion of the Ride, the two of them also had the opportunity to get to know more about one another over the course of their five hour journey. BellRinger was Marissa’s way to not only challenge herself and defy expectations, but to raise awareness for a cause that touches the lives of so many.
“Cancer is scary, and it’s a part of who we are. But with initiatives like BellRinger, we can eliminate it together.”
Marissa Nissley, 100-mile Rider
Fast forward to January of 2023, Marissa took a leap her younger self would have never expected. She once viewed guide dogs as the most clear indicator of dependence, but after research, conversations, and a desire to invest in herself and her wellbeing — Smalls became the newest addition to her journey. Smalls is a female yellow labrador who came from the Guide Dog Foundation. It was love at first sight, as crazily enough, Marissa’s nickname was Smalls when she was growing up. The six months after their first meet could be best described as a beautiful challenge. Although learning to depend on one another will always have its ups and downs, Marissa’s life has changed for the better, getting to spend everyday with her cuddly side-kick as she navigates the world.
She’s excited for the moment when she crosses the finish line this fall, as Smalls will be waiting with a wagging tail and many kisses to congratulate her after she completes her first 100-mile bike ride in BellRinger.
Independence was always etched into the very fabric of her being — a badge of honor she thought she always had to wear, a badge she once wore with pride. Marissa thought being independent meant she could never acknowledge her limitations, even to the detriment of her physical and mental health. But through discovering a platform to share her story, her voice, and her unique perception of the world in 2020, Marissa is now living her life without society’s views of independence shaping her, and has fully embraced the beauty of being interdependent. From navigating the intricacies of Georgetown with Smalls by her side to riding 100-miles this fall during BellRinger 2023, Marissa has proven that society’s perceptions and barriers will never hold her down.