News16 Jul 2000

Blind runner qualifies for Olympics


Blind runner qualifies for Olympics
Rob Gloster (AP)

17 July 2000 – Sacramento, California - Marla Runyan has completed her heroic odyssey from Paralympic champion to Olympic qualifier, overcoming blindness and a serious leg injury to become the first blind athlete to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team.

Runyan raised her arms in triumph Sunday as she finished third in the women's 1500 metres, crossing a finish line that she can see only as a blur.

"I never said I want to be the first legally blind runner to make the Olympics. I just wanted to be an Olympian,'' Runyan said after her victory. "I think my vision is just a circumstance that happened and I don't look at it as a barrier.''

Runyan, 31, has a degenerative retina condition that allows her to see only peripherally and reduces other runners to streaks of light. She has had Stargardt's Disease since she was a child, and while lenses help, they only correct her vision so far, from 20-800 to about 20-300.

Her victory Sunday puts her on the women's team running this fall in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. According to the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, she is the first legally blind athlete to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team in any sport.

Runyan, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, has competed in track events since her youth. In 1992, she competed in the Paralympics and won the 100, 200, 400 and long jump, and she won the pentathlon in the 1996 Paralympics. She tried out for the 1996 Olympic Games but fell short of qualifying, finishing 10th in the heptathlon.

Since then, she has focused exclusively on middle-distance running.

For Runyan, the more pressing concern this year has been a recent leg injury that prevented her from running for five weeks until Friday's first-round heats of the 1500m. She had injured tendons in the leg when she jumped out of the way of a child on a bicycle.

The injury was so bad she considered pulling out of the trials, and was unable to warm up Sunday before the 1500m final.

Runyan came from sixth place midway through the race to finish third in 4 minutes, 6.44 seconds. She survived a bump on the second lap that forced her to lean on Shayne Culpepper, who finished fourth, to keep her balance.

Regina Jacobs finished first in 4:01:01, making her fourth Olympic team. Suzy Favor-Hamilton, who has had to deal with the suicide of her brother and major Achilles' tendon surgery in the past 18 months, was second in 4:01.81.

Wearing a bronze medal around her neck after the race, Runyan found it hard to believe she had overcome the challenge – referring not to her blindness but to the injury to her leg.

"It felt like a miracle,'' she said. "Normally I would have been going into this very confident, but when this injury occurred I was just counting my blessings that I would be able to run.''

Find out more about Marla Runyan on her web site: http://www.marlarunyan.com

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