Guide Dog Helps Turn Teen Runner Into A Champion

6 years ago

File this under Pretty Awesome.

Ohio cross country runner Sami Stoner has yet to cross the finish line in first place, but she has won over fans across the nation while trying.

In the process, she's become a champion for teens with challenges.

Stoner, who is legally blind and a runner on the Lexington girls cross country team, is believed to be the first high school athlete in Ohio to compete with a guide dog.

The Mansfield Journal writes that while Stoner sets a powerful example, she almost wasn't allowed to compete. The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) had concerns about setting a precedent and initially denied the request.

The school's Athletic Director, John Harris, appealed the decision and addressed safety issues that were raised.  Eventually Stoner received a waiver albeit with a list of conditions.

Stoner has to wait 20 seconds after the start of the race before she can run. That's to assure the dog doesn't get spiked or inadvertently knock another runner over. Stoner can pass other runners, but she can't impede them with the dog. She is to be a non-scoring competitor, and if finish chutes are deemed too small, she cannot cross the finish line with the dog for the same reasons she can't start with the field.

Dale Gabor, the director of cross country and track and field for the OHSAA, believes Stoner is a trailblazer, possibly the first blind cross country runner to compete with a guide dog. He thinks she exemplifies the purpose of interscholastic sports, which is to broaden horizons and teach life lessons.

Stoner may not have set out to be a role model, but her love for running has turned her into one.

Stoner hasn't always been blind. In fact she ran cross country in junior high as a sighted runner. However, in eighth grade, her vision began to deteriorate.

It took months to finally got a diagnosis, and when it came it was a worst-case scenario.Stoner had inherited Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration that robs children and teens of their central vision. She would soon be legally blind, although she retains some of her peripheral vision.

The teen's life changed dramatically since she lost her sight but one thing Stoner could still do was run. While her friends were getting their driver's licenses, a milestone Stoner would have to forego, she hit the trail. At first she ran with a companion, who warned her to watch for roots and ruts as they ran side-by-side. But her guide graduated in 2010 and Stoner's eyesight continued to fade, leaving many to wonder if she had a future in competitive running.

Enter Pilot Dogs. Founded in Columbus, Pilot Dogs has been training guide dogs for the visually impaired since 1950. It's a private, nonprofit charity that requires a recipient to undergo an extensive screening and training process.

Stoner spent four weeks over the summer  living full-time at Pilot Dogs, learning how to work with a golden retriever named Chloe. Fortunately, Chloe's trainer was an avid runner and over the summer they worked on conditioning together.

Harris, who was responsible for getting Stoner the waiver that allows her to run with  the team says " If you see them compete, they are basically one runner, and it's hard not to get emotional."

Running cross country for a sighted runner can be harrowing. The ground is uneven and any number of impediments can knock a runner out of a race with an injury. What's interesting about Stoner is that she is guiding the dog, really. The dog is following her commands. Chloe is not pacing Stoner; Stoner is pacing the dog."

"It's scary," Stoner admitted. "You have to have a lot of trust, and good ankles help, too."

One of the most difficult adjustments is having to hang onto the harness across the dog's back with one hand and hold a leash with the other, so Stoner is essentially running with little arm movement. But she  has adapted and even flourished.

Last year while running with her companion runner, Stoner ran a 31:19 at Ontario. A year later with Chloe, that time dropped to 30:24 while giving away 20 seconds at the start. Stoner may have started last, but she didn't finish last, passing seven runners on the course at Marshall Park in late September. And according to prep runners site Ohio Split, she continues to improve.

Stoner is enjoying the high school experience. Her coaches, who also taught her science and math  in that trying year as an eighth-grader, marvel at her spirit.

Stoner admits this is a learning year with Chloe. And her dad, Keith, is thankful for the opportunity.

"She's never going to be up front getting a medal, but as far as my wife and I are concerned, she wins every race."

While Stoner may be the only high schooler to compete with a guide dog, blind runners are not without precedent in the competitive world. Another notable case of an athlete with Stargardt's is US distance runner Marla Runyan, who, in 2000, became the first legally blind athlete to make the US Olympic team. Runyan, who lost her vision at age nine, previously won seven Paralympic medals and finished eighth in the 1,500 meter finals, the top finish by an American.

Runyan's mother once told her, “Marla, there is nothing you can’t do, but everything is going  to take you twice as long.”  And she was right.  It was also going to require twice as much effort.  If Stargardt’s taught Runyan anything, it was how to work hard and to never give up. She was driven to prove herself as a student and an athlete, to dispel myths and misconceptions that she could not be successful. Runyan advises others with disease:  "Don’t lower your expectations.  Don’t place limits on their potential."

I don't know if Stoner has ever met or talked to Runyan but the two obviously have a lot in common.  Both have proven that just because you can't see the finish line,  doesn't mean you can't cross it.  And that's advice anyone can take to heart.





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