Legally Blind Runner Competes in Sydney

Sept. 30, 2000 -- Middle-distance runner Marla Runyan didn’t win gold in Sydney, but she accomplished just what she set out to do: Compete in the final of the women’s 1,500-meter race.

Runyan, the first legally blind athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team in any sport, finished eighth out of 12 runners with a time of 4 minutes, 8.30 seconds.

Nouria Merah-Benida of Algeria won the race in 4:05.10. Violeta Szekely of Romania won the silver and Gabriela Szabo of Romania won the bronze.

Runyan’s teammate and three-time Olympian Suzy Favor Hamilton, who was attempting to win her first medal, exhausted herself in the lead and fell on the last turn. She completed the race but finished last and was taken off the field in a wheelchair.

Former High Jumper and Paralympian

Runyan has an incurable retina condition called Stargardt’s Disease. During a race, she can only see the track peripherally and views other runners around her mainly as streaks of color. She says she identifies her competitors primarily by their hair — a long blond or a short brown ponytail, for example — and their running styles.

Runyan has had the disease since she was 9 years old. While special contact lenses help, they only correct her vision so far, from 20-800 to about 20-300.

She has competed in track events since her youth, after she was no longer able to see a soccer ball. She competed in the high jump at San Diego State University until a coach noticed her sprinting strength and suggested she try running.

In 1992, Runyan competed in the Paralympics, a competition on par with the Olympics that features athletes with disabilities, and won the 100, 200, 400 and long jump. She also 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, the Eugene, Ore., native has focused exclusively on middle-distance running. She posted a narrow victory at the Pan American Games in Canada last summer and came in 10th at the world championships in Spain shortly thereafter.

Runyan finished third at the U.S. Track and Field Trials in July, behind Regina Jacobs and Favor-Hamilton, to make the Olympic team.

Only Wanted to Be an Olympian

While Runyan knew a medal in Sydney was probably out of her reach, making the finals was more than she’d hoped for. She finished 11th out of 12 to make the final cut.

“I have nothing to lose in the finals,” she said prior to today’s race. “I will be … trying to run a personal best, trying to be competitive to the degree I can be.”

She was, indeed, competitive. And now the 31-year-old Runyan has realized her goal of being the top dozen middle-distance runners in the world that competed in Sydney for a medal.

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

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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