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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

A Sight to See

Bunch Shows the Way for Blind Thousand Oaks Teammate Rosso

April 08, 2001|ERIC SONDHEIMER

NEWBURY PARK — It was event 28B on the 50-event schedule, a nonscoring 800-meter run for junior varsity boys. There were 26 entrants from Thousand Oaks, Newbury Park and Agoura high schools.

No one would have blamed spectators for taking a restroom break. The judges at the finish line didn't use their stopwatches to keep time.

But those paying attention witnessed a remarkable example of sportsmanship.

Running side by side were junior Jim Rosso of Thousand Oaks and freshman teammate Michael Bunch. Rosso used his right hand to touch Bunch's left arm throughout the race.

Spectators and athletes clapped as the two came down the final straightaway in last place.

"Run, Jim, run. Go, Jim, go."

By then, everyone had figured out the obvious: Rosso is blind and Bunch serves as his guide.

They finished the two laps around Newbury Park's dirt track in 3:31, more than a minute behind the winner.

Rosso has never beaten anyone, but he doesn't run to finish first.

He doesn't run to impress college scouts.

He doesn't run to get his name in the newspaper.

He runs so he can be with friends and participate in high school sports.

"Actually, it feels great," Rosso said. "What's going through my mind is how good am I doing? The turns are tough. What's real good is getting encouragement from my teammates."

Blind since birth, Rosso gets around Thousand Oaks with the help of a cane. He tries to memorize paths to and from class, but that doesn't protect him from obstacles.

"I've walked into poles a lot," he said. "That's not fun at all."

In junior high, he started participating in 5K runs with his father. When he arrived at Thousand Oaks, his mother asked if her son could compete in cross-country and track. Administrators were initially reluctant because of liability concerns, but the school district agreed to hire paid college students as his guide during races.

This year, Coach Robert Radnoti had no paid guides, so he asked for volunteers among his athletes. Bunch quickly stepped forward.

Bunch was one of Thousand Oaks' best freshman cross-country runners and had a class with Rosso.

But why would he volunteer to sacrifice time from preparing for his own races to help a blind student who had no chance of winning?

"It's not right having to pay somebody to run with him," Bunch said. "You should do so out of kindness. If somebody tries to hand me a paycheck, I'm not going to take it. Besides, he's my friend. Why not help a friend?"

Bunch constantly talks to Rosso during races, trying to encourage him. He runs as fast as Rosso can handle.

"He'll rub his arm against mine," Bunch said. "If he wants to go faster, I'll go faster and I'll keep up that pace until he wants to slow down."

For Thousand Oaks students, seeing Rosso run is almost taken for granted. But those watching him for the first time marvel at Rosso's courage and admire Bunch's unselfishness.

"In all the meets and sporting events I've seen, I've never been touched so much," said Tony Miller, a spectator who saw Rosso run two weeks ago in a dual meet against Westlake.

Radnoti wants as many Thousand Oaks students as possible participating in track. He thinks Rosso fits in well.

"He's got incredible energy and great spirit, and those are two of the things we're trying to cultivate in our students," Radnoti said.

As for Bunch, Radnoti said, "So many kids are worried about their own times and own performances and Michael Bunch just says, 'I want to do this.' "

Rosso can't see, but he's teaching others to see high school sports in a different light.

"It doesn't matter if you win the race or not," Bunch said. "If you try and help somebody to do their best, it's worth it."

Rosso's father, Bob, is grateful Thousand Oaks has given his son the opportunity to compete.

"It gives him a sense of belonging," he said. "He hasn't won any races and we don't reasonably expect him to, but that's not the point."

The point is to compete to the best of your ability.

*

Eric Sondheimer's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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