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Blind Distance Runner Takes Competition--and Life's Hurdles--in Stride

August 21, 1986|BRIAN LANDMAN | Times Staff Writer

Leamon Stansell can't help but shake his head when he hears of other runners staring at him during a race.

"They just don't expect me to be up there with them," said Stansell, 22, of West Los Angeles. "I don't know why, but they all seem to relate appearances with ability."

What his competition sees is a young man, legally blind from birth, running stride for stride with them without relying on guide ropes or any other form of assistance.

"I guess they have some stereotyped picture of what a blind person can and can't do," Stansell said. "But we're not all Helen Kellers."

Although albinism has left him with 20:200 vision (which means he sees objects at 20 feet with the clarity that someone with normal eyesight can see at 200 feet), he hasn't let it slow him.

Stansell has traveled to Canada, Italy and the Netherlands to compete in international running events in conjunction with the U. S. Assn. for Blind Athletes, and he recently went to Sweden for another such competition.

He has run in national events for 10 years, including one in New York City in the summer of 1984 in which he was first in the 5,000 meters, second in the 800 and third in the 1,500.

And he has faced sighted runners while racing at Lynwood High, Santa Monica College and in the 1983 Boston Marathon.

"In the beginning, it's hard to make anyone aware that you can do it," he said. "But I've finally proved that I can compete."

But it wasn't easy.

Stansell said he realized he had ability when he was in the seventh grade at La Mirada Junior High. During physical education class, he began running--and regularly won races--on a two-mile park course that included exercise stations. At the end of the year he won the race featuring the best from the seventh, eighth and ninth grades.

After that, however, he said school officials wanted to ban him.

"They were reacting with fear to something they knew nothing about. They didn't think I could run safely. But I had my doctor's permission and my sight teachers kept nagging and nagging until they (the officials) let me run."

That's not to say Stansell hasn't encountered hazardous situations.

"I've bumped into trees and branches while running cross country, and I've run over snakes in the Santa Monica Mountains. A person behind me would holler 'Look out!'--and then remember that wouldn't help."

But then others have been guilty of similar lapses. Al Higa, track coach at Lynwood High, said he never imagined that Stansell, who transferred there for his junior year, was blind after watching him run for the first time.

"I was surprised when he told me he was blind," said Higa, a special education teacher. "He doesn't look blind. And he doesn't act blind."

Higa said Stansell's handicap merited no special consideration.

"I didn't treat him like he was blind. I treated him as a good runner and good competitor. He was my No. 1 distance runner for two years because he was the best."

Stansell, who operates his own business repairing autos and boats, said his teammates had apprehensions too, just as the junior high school officials had years earlier.

"But once they get over that fear, it's great," he said. "My teammates have always been supportive.

"I can follow them, and as long as they don't make any quick turns I'm fine. It can be scary if there are a lot of people or you're on a narrow road, but I'm not afraid to go fast when I'm running with the able-bodied."

Despite the barriers, he said he never considered giving up running, which has brought him more than ribbons and medals.

"I grew up in an all-black community, and being an albino, people used to make a lot of comments. It got to the point where it almost wasn't safe to walk out the door. But once I started running, people started to respect me."

Winners get respect, and Stansell has been a winner.

During his recent competition in Sweden, Stansell set world records for blind runners in the 5,000-meter race with a time of 15:40 and in the 1,500 with a 4:08. He added a bronze medal in the 800 to those two golds.

He holds the record in the three-mile cross-country run at Lynwood High, according to Coach Higa. One of Stansell's best performances was a 2:01 in the 800 meters. Joaquim Cruz of Brazil ran the 800 in 1:43 to win the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Stansell hopes to improve and one day race in the Olympics.

"It is possible," he said. "Our organization has had people compete in the regular Olympics. I won't reach my peak until I'm 25 or 30, which means '88 might be tough, but it'd be perfect for the 1992 Games."

Stansell, however, will be at the site for the 1988 Games, Seoul, South Korea, for the blind Olympics in the spring of 1988.

In his spare time, Stansell enjoys cycling, snow skiing and swimming. He won six gold medals and a silver and was voted the best sportsman at the Braille Institute Swimming Olympics at Universal City in July.

"Swimming is secondary to track and field," he said. "I'm not necessarily a good swimmer, but I have the strength from running and I know the strokes."

Still, he has had to be more than just good to win acceptance and to overcome the stereotyping.

"Knowing I had to prove something used to be the worst part. But I run because I enjoy. And now I don't care what people's opinions of me are."

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