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Out of Sight

Runyan Sets Olympic Standard for Visually Impaired

September 06, 2000|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marla Runyan's phone hasn't really been ringing nonstop since she qualified for the Olympics in July.

It just seems that way to the 1987 graduate of Camarillo High, who became the first legally blind athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team when she finished third in the women's 1,500-meter run in the track and field trials at Cal State Sacramento.

"You have no idea," Runyan said of the interview requests. "I'm really thankful for my agent, Ray Flynn. He's handled a lot of it for me."

Runyan has suffered from a form of macular degeneration--the loss of vision in the center of the eyes--known as Stargardt's Disease since she was 9.

She was the subject of numerous media reports last year when she came from nowhere to win the 1,500 in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada, and finish 10th in the World championships in Seville, Spain. But that was nothing compared to the interest in her story since the Olympic trials.

"I've gotten calls from people in Argentina, France, [Britain], South Africa, Japan and China," she said. "And a friend who lives in Kenya said they were writing stories about me there. They've got plenty of good runners in Kenya. What do they need to write about me for?"

A person is considered legally blind when visual acuity is 20/200 or worse in both eyes and the condition cannot be corrected with glasses, contact lenses or surgery.

Runyan, 31, has 20/300 vision in her left eye and 20/400 in her right while wearing contact lenses for nearsightedness. The images that enter her eyes are focused, but the retinas on the back of her eyes are severely damaged, causing images in front of her to become blurred.

"It's almost like having a hole in the back of your eye," she wrote on her Web site, www.marlarunyan.com. "The hole also causes me to see holes when I look at things. Objects and sometimes people directly in front of me sometimes disappear and then reappear when I shift my gaze."

Runyan's peripheral vision is fine, however.

"My vision is just a circumstance that happened," said Runyan, a spokesperson for several organizations for the visually impaired. "I never looked at it as a barrier."

Runyan's story, perhaps the most compelling on the U.S. track team aside from Marion Jones' bid for a record-tying five gold medals, has gained momentum for several reasons.

First, it's an Olympic year and Olympic stories typically get more play than those in the World championships.

Second, she didn't come up through the track and field ranks as a runner.

She was a 5-7 high jumper at Camarillo. She took up the heptathlon at San Diego State and finished 10th in the two-day, seven-event endeavor in the 1996 Olympic trials before moving to Eugene, Ore., to focus on the 800, the event in which she set a U.S. heptathlon record of 2:04.70.

Finally, she overcame a leg injury to make the Olympic team.

Runyan, who missed most of the 1997 and 1998 seasons because of knee and foot injuries, won the 3,000 in the national indoor championships in March and ran 15:07.66 in the 5,000 in May to move to ninth on the all-time U.S. performer list. But she strained the connective tissue that runs from her left hip to her knee June 8 when she jumped out of the way of a child on a bicycle while running on a trail near her home.

The injury wasn't serious, but it prevented her from running for five weeks.

She did intensive pool and elliptical training machine workouts in an effort to maintain her cardiovascular fitness, but she nearly withdrew from the trials because of her slow recovery.

"I told my parents on July 4 that I wasn't going to run," Runyan said. "But then I kind of caught myself and said, 'Now wait a minute.' "

It was a wise decision.

Runyan ran a season best of 4:06.44 to finish third behind Regina Jacobs and Suzy Favor Hamilton in the Olympic trials on July 16 and figures she can top her career best of 4:05.27 in Sydney.

"I am a little concerned that I broke up the consistency of what I was doing," said Runyan, who severed ties with her coach, Mike Manley, after the trials. "But I still think I can go to Sydney and run a [career best] and maybe it'll be enough to get me to the [12-woman] final."

Runyan's parents, Gary and Valerie, have no doubt Marla will run well because she has overcome obstacles before.

They were devastated when Marla was diagnosed with Stargardt's Disease, but they point out that her condition hasn't prevented her from scuba diving, water skiing or earning a degree in education for the deaf and a masters in education of deaf-blind children.

"Valerie and I decided that we would not put up any artificial or preconceived barriers for her," Gary said. "We would let her find her own starting blocks and her own finish line. And she has."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

MARLA RUNYAN PROFILE

Age: 31

High School: Camarillo

College: San Diego State

Honors: Won 1,500 meters in Pan American Games in 1999. . . . Placed 10th in World championships in 1999. . . . Ranked second in the U.S. by Track & Field News in 1999. . . . Ranked ninth in the U.S. in the heptathlon in 1995 and 10th in 1996.

SYDNEY SCHEDULE

What: Women's 1,500 meters

When: Sept. 27, 28, 30

Where: Olympic Stadium at Sydney Olympic Park

Qualifying: First round, Sept. 27; semifinal, Sept. 28; final, Sept. 30.

Medal Favorites: Violeta Beclea-Szekely, Romania; Svetlana Masterkova, Russia; Carla Sacramento, Portugal; Regina Jacobs, U.S.; Suzy Favor Hamilton, U.S.

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