Vision of Victory

Most people would say Maria Runyan made herself a world-class runner despite being legally blind. Runyan begs differ. The way she sees it, her visual problems may actually have spurred her achievement. “People in general don’t expect a great deal—it’s like, ‘Oh,’ you’re visually impaired, just go sit on the couch,’ ” says Runyan, 31, who lost most of her sight when she was 9. “That really frustrated me and made me feel like I had a lot to prove.”

So she proved it. Last year Runyan ran off with the gold in the 1,500 meters at the Pan-American Games. In March she won the 3,000-meter event at the national indoor championships. A few weeks ago in her home base of Eugene, Ore., competing for the first time at 5,000 meters, she hit the tape in 15:07:66—the second-fastest mark in the world this year. And next month she will vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad bound for Sydney in September. If she succeeds, Runyan would become the first legally blind athlete ever to compete for an American Olympic team. “I think she’ll make the team—it’s phenomenal what she’s done,” says Olympian-turned-track-and-field-commentator Dwight Stones, Runyan’s childhood idol. “Maria doesn’t have the experience but she clearly has the heart.”

That much has never been in doubt. According to family lore, when she was a toddler in Camarillo, Calif., near Los Angeles, her first words were, “I wanna do.” Do she did—gymnastics, swimming and soccer. Then, when she began fourth grade, Runyan couldn’t see the blackboard. Her parents—Gary, a now-retired banker, and Valerie, a homemaker—took the younger of their two children to an optometrist, who dismissed her difficulty as “psychosomatic.” But after Runyan began complaining of stabbing eye pains from the light of oncoming cars, a retinal specialist identified her problem as Stargardt’s Disease, a degenerative hereditary condition of the retina, which affects central vision. Runyan didn’t brood; even before the diagnosis, she began reading books about braille. Says Valerie Runyan, 60: “On her own, she was doing the best she could to cope.”

Runyan had other ways of coping as well. Forced to quit soccer because she could no longer see the ball (her uncorrected vision is 20/800 in her left eye, 20/1,000 in her right; contacts improve it to 20/300 and 20/400), Runyan threw herself into a new passion—high jumping. She and her father made a pit using wooden poles and mattresses. “We did not want to set up any preconceived barriers,” says Gary Runyan, 63. “Maria amazes me all the time.”

At Camarillo High School, where her brother Grady was two years ahead of her, Runyan began competing in the high jump, sprints and relays while maintaining an A average. (With her undamaged peripheral vision, she could see the track beneath her feet well enough to run.) She went on to San Diego State, where she switched to the heptathlon—the seven-event women’s equivalent of the men’s decathlon—and earned both a B.A. and a master’s degree in communicative disorders. Runyan made school, like her running, seem easy. But it wasn’t. She got by with the help of audio books, visual-aid devices including glasses that let her read some print and by hiring other students to read to her. “It’s a lot easier to run around a track,” Valerie Runyan recalls her daughter telling her, “than to get your master’s degree when you can’t see.”

Not content with the five gold medals she had earned at the 1992 and ’96 Paralympic Games for disabled athletes, Runyan qualified for the 1996 Olympic trials in the heptathlon. She didn’t make the team, but she set a U.S. record in the final event, the 800 meters. Her showing persuaded her to focus on that race, and in September 1996 she moved to the track mecca of Eugene to train.

Runyan’s plans soon derailed. A series of knee, foot and hip injuries required two surgeries and kept her out of competition throughout 1997 and ’98. She was trying to rehab yet another foot injury in 1998, when a friend suggested she call Matt Lonergan, a former collegiate middle-distance runner who was working toward a license in massage therapy and needed bodies to train on. “I didn’t have any money to pay him, so I said, ‘I’ll take you out for pizza,’ Runyan recalls. Says Lonergan, 26: “We hit it off right away.”

After several months the couple moved in together, and they and their golden retriever Summer now share a spartan $485-a-month two-bedroom apartment across the street from a running trail. (Runyan pays her share of the bills with the modest salary she receives from the Asics athletic-shoe company.) Training 60 to 90 miles a week, Runyan has been making great strides. She and her family are hoping for Sydney, but Runyan recognizes that even if her Olympic dream doesn’t materialize, she is already a winner. “I guess,” she says, “I’m demonstrating the possibilities that the sighted never imagined were possible.”

Pam Lambert

Alexandra Hardy in Eugene

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