Kellie Miller, 18, has a hard time distinguishing light colors. She also has trouble seeing details such as printed words or facial features. And at night, she sees almost nothing.
The senior at La Mirada High School has cone dystrophy--an eye disease that impairs central vision, affecting the ability to see color and sharp detail. But that has not stopped the student from pursuing an avocation in which she competes equally against other teen-agers: running on the school track and cross-country teams.
"It's about the only sport I could do," said Miller, who is running five to 10 miles a week as she gets ready for the track season in February. "I always wanted to be in some kind of a competitive sport."
While she enjoyed a jogging class she took in elementary school, it wasn't until she enrolled at La Mirada High that she took up competitive running. A teacher encouraged her to run at a California Assn. for Blind Athletes track meet. She made it to the national meet, where she competed against athletes from 35 states and placed fourth in the long jump and 440-yard run.
That taste of achievement prompted her to try competing in track against sighted runners, and in the 10th grade she signed up for the La Mirada team.
"I like the feeling and . . . the competitiveness. I'm proud of myself that I'm competing on a normal level with everyone else."
Daren Estes, her coach at La Mirada, said the only allowance made for Miller by the Southern Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports competition, is having four people stand at the four corners of the track and yell "curve" or "straightaway" to Miller as she is running.
For three years she has made it to the blind athletes' national meet and will be going again in June when it will be at California State University, Long Beach. Last spring, she took third place in the two-mile race at the high school league finals, which automatically qualified her for the CIF preliminaries. Although she didn't place at the preliminaries, her goal next year is to come in first or second in the two-mile event.
"She (will be) a tough competitor in the league next year for the two-mile," said Estes, adding that because of her size--5-foot-2 and 89 pounds--Miller does best in distance races.
Her best official time for the two-mile is 13:13 but she wants to get it down to the low 12-minute range by the time she graduates in June.
The legally blind student remembers once walking up to the starting line with her cane, handing it to her coach and getting ready to race. The incredulous looks from her competitors were coupled with expressions like, " 'It's amazing you have enough guts to compete with regular people,' " she recalled.
Miller maintains, however, that she is a regular person: "I'm just like them, only I have a slight eye problem."
There have been drawbacks with the eye disease, however. Miller had to pull out of races that were scheduled too close to dusk, when her seeing ability would be even poorer. She also has fallen a few times during races because she didn't see an object in her path.
One of the bigger problems in school, she said, is that her poor vision slows down her reading so that it takes four or five hours to do homework that normally would be completed in two hours. Miller uses a monocular to copy notes from blackboards and a Visual-Tec--a machine that magnifies words 40 times--to help her read.
Despite the slowdown, she has maintained a 2.9 grade-point average and plans to attend Cal State Long Beach in the fall. Miller wants to be a corporate lawyer.
She said her parents, Peggy and Larry Miller, have been supportive. "She's always been a daredevil," Peggy Miller said. "She likes a good challenge." Kellie Miller has one sister, Tammy, 20.
As her dedication to sports grows, however, so does the severity of her eye condition. Cone dystrophy is degenerative and there is no known cure, said Dr. Laurence Fromm, a Norwalk optometrist and one of Miller's eye doctors.
"I don't see as well as I did two years ago," she said. "My eye problem gets progressively worse each year. I'm getting Braille skills so that in case I lose all my vision, I'll be ready."
What would happen to her running if she were to lose her sight completely?
"I'll still keep running," she quickly replied.
Estes agreed. "She really works hard. With the dedication she has, she'll be running a long time."