Runyan has eyes fixed on Olympics

Legally blind athlete avoids talk of barrier

July 18, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Marla Runyan is energized by her status as an Olympian, but long weary of the adjective that will precede it: blind.

Runyan made history Sunday at the U.S. track and field trials, when she became the first legally blind athlete to qualify for the Olympic Games. She will go to Sydney, Australia, as the most intriguing member of an American 1,500 meters entry that has medal contenders in Regina Jacobs and Suzy Favor Hamilton.

Runyan has two gold medals of her own at her home in Eugene, Ore. She won the gold medal in the heptathlon at both Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in '96. They came in the Paralympics, however, after the international media had gone home and the disabled athletes taken the stage.

Runyan, 31, became a sensation last year, when she won the Pan American Games 1,500 and placed 10th at the world championships. It's been four years since she gave up on the heptathlon and turned her attention to middle-distance running, and it could be another four before she gets her wish and is treated as just another jock.

"I never really think that much about my vision as much as the media does, and I don't think my competitors do either," Runyan said after Sunday's 1,500 final. "I just think about my personality and the person I am. I'm definitely an athlete. My vision is just a circumstance that happened. I never really looked at it as a barrier.

"I never said to myself, `I want to be the first legally blind Olympian.' I just wanted to be on an Olympic team."

At different links on Runyan's Web site, there are variations on a stock quote: Some people have a lousy attitude, and that's their disability. Runyan has been dealing with hers for more than two decades, and done a remarkable job of piling up advanced degrees and athletic honors.

Runyan inherited a recessive gene from her parents for Stargardt's disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration. When she was in the fourth grade, her vision began to deteriorate. She couldn't pick up the flight of a ball, and had to press a book up to her face to make out words.

"It is almost like having a hole in the back of your eye," Runyan relates on her Web site. "My peripheral vision is intact, and this enables me to get around very well."

Runyan makes her way on training runs through the Oregon woods just fine, but can't make out her coach, former Olympic steeplechaser Mike Manley, if he's standing 10 feet in front of her. With contact lenses, her vision is 20/300 in her left eye, 20/400 in her left eye.

Growing up in Camarillo, Calif., Runyan was forced to give up soccer at age 14. She turned to track and field, and cleared 5 feet 7 in the high jump as a high schooler. She went to San Diego State, became a heptathlete and got an education degree. She has a master's in education of deaf-blind children.

Runyan was 10th in the heptathlon at the 1996 trials, but she tore through the concluding 800 in 2:04.70, an American record in the seven-event test and a portent of her middle-distance potential. Limited by major surgeries in 1997 and '98, she dropped 20 pounds of heptathlon bulk and chunks of time off her personal bests.

Runyan ran the 1,500 in 4:05.27 at the world championships last year. Two months ago, she covered the 5,000 in 15:07.66, and only eight American women have ever run faster. She was not expected to enter last night's qualifying round for the 5,000, because an injury to her left thigh had made her doubtful even for the trials' 1,500.

As late as last week, Runyan wasn't sure if she would able to race here. As the women warmed up for the 1,500 final, Jacobs sprinted on the backstretch, but Runyan barely broke into a jog. As Jacobs and Favor Hamilton dueled up front, Runyan won the race for the final American berth by nearly two seconds.

"Unbelievable," she said.

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