On December 11, 2011, more than 19,000 runners finished the 39th annual Honolulu Marathon. The men's winner and the women's winner turned in times of about 2-1/2 hours. Darkness had set in and nearly all competitors and spectators had left when the last runner, 11-year-old Wakana Ueda, crossed the finish line. Her time was 14 hours, three minutes and 12 seconds.
More than 4500 miles away, 16-year-old Sami Stoner ran on Lexington High School's junior varsity cross country team this autumn. Like Wakana Ueda, she did not win any races. In fact, Sami was ineligible to score under the Ohio state high school athletic association's regulations, but permanent ineligibility did not matter to her. "I don't run for time or place or anything," she says, "I just run because I love it."
Fifteen-year-old New Jersey Little Leaguer Doug Wells had greater success over the summer. He pitched a no-hitter, a feat rare among pitchers of any age. In southern California, 15-year-old Taylor Howell was the starting center on Vasquez High School's junior varsity football team this season.
Wakana, Sami, Doug and Taylor have found their passions in different sports, but they share a common bond. Each of these young athletes is blind.
Wakana Ueda ran Honolulu's grueling 26.2-mile marathon course by following the sound of her mother's voice and the applause of spectators who chanted her name. When her legs began cramping halfway through the race, Wakana considered quitting, but she continued with her extended family's support. Her perseverance recalls coach John Wooden's advice that, "It is not so important who starts the game but who finishes it." Or the more specific words of Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 became the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon: "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon."
Doug Wells was diagnosed with infantile glaucoma when he was three months old, and he is legally blind after five surgeries failed to restore his sight. His vision remains blurry, and he can barely make out the catcher's mitt. On the mound, he wears a protective helmet with a face cage to protect him from line drives. "The kid has never let his disability become a disability," says his coach, "He's overcome it." Doug proves the coach's point by also playing basketball and football, and he says that he looks forward to a coaching career.
When Sami Stoner was in the eighth grade, she was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, an hereditary form of macular degeneration that causes irreversible blindness. With just a little peripheral vision, she ran cross country guided by an older classmate for two years, but then the classmate graduated. With a waiver from the Ohio high school athletic association, Sami now runs each meet with her guide dog along the three-mile course's difficult terrain. The association's director of cross country and track and field granted the waiver because "she gives a lot of hope to other kids." "How could anyone in cross country complain," explains her coach, "when you look at what she's doing?"
Taylor Howell was diagnosed with cancer as a toddler and lost his eyes from the radiation and chemotherapy. A teammate says that when Taylor decided to try out for the JV football team this year, "I didn't think he'd actually do it, but . . . he's pretty tough. . . . He gets banged up every day and . . . he's still hanging in there." The coach initially played Taylor at center only on point-after-touchdowns, but soon rewarded the young man's desire by playing him regularly.
Taylor looks forward to trying out for the varsity next year and has talked to his coach about playing college football. Coach Wooden chose a different sport, but his advice was universal: "Do not let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do."
When one door closes. . . .
Journalist George F. Will is right that, "Sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence." Experience in sports, concurred writer James A. Michener, "enlarge[s] the human adventure." Few examples of excellence are more vivid than ones set by athletes who overcome physical barriers to play to the best of their abilities. And the human adventure assumes special meaning when the intrepid athletes setting the example have not yet moved beyond their teen years.
"When one door closes, another one opens," says Sami Stoner, whose times have improved with each race. "Even if you have a disability or you don't think you can do something, there's almost always a way." The way may be in programs such as the Special Olympics, or it may be in interscholastic or youth league competition. Society frequently mislabels young athletes like Wakana Ueda, Sami Stoner, Doug Wells and Taylor Howell as "handicapped" or "disabled." These heroes are better seen as athletes with "special challenges" because overcoming challenges defines the essence of sports.
Sources: Emotional End for Last Honolulu Marathon Finisher, Hawaii News Now, http://www.hawaiinewsnow.com/story/16302720/emotional-end-for-last-honol... (Dec. 12, 2011); Amanda Mikelberg, Blind 11-Year-Old Girl from Japan Finishes Honolulu With Tears and Cheers, N.Y. Daily News, Dec. 13, 2011; Rob McCurdy, Blind Lexington Girl Making History With Dog, Lexington (Ohio) News Journal, Oct. 15, 2011); Lisa A. Flam, Blind Girl Keeps on Running Thanks to Guide Dog, http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/45034031/ns/today-today_health/t/blind-tee... (Oct. 27, 2011); Kavita Varma-White, No Hitter? No Problem for Blind Teen Pitcher, http://moms.today.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/10/07/8209977-no-hitter-no-pr... (Oct. 7, 2011); Doug Wells, Legally Blind 15-Year-Old Pitches No-Hitter in Little League, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/doug-wells-legally-blind-_n_100... (Oct. 10, 2011); Nat'l Public Radio, Weekend Edition, Blindness Not Enough to Sideline California Teen (Nov. 6, 2011).
Posted January 8, 2012