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Blind high school runner, and her team, are a sight to behold

BILL PLASCHKE

Simi Valley Royal High senior Alyssa Rossi, blind since birth, is able to compete thanks to the help and sacrifices of teammates.

February 22, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

At the end of another tough week for teamwork, with major leaguers lying and NBA stars feuding, they ran alone.

In Simi Valley, across a grassy field in the lengthening shadow of nearby hills, they ran together.

Two girls, side by side, stride for stride, connected by the stretched cotton of a gray belt and the giant arms of innocence.

One girl is blind.

The other girl is teaching the rest of us to see.

One girl, Alyssa Rossi, born without vision, is the newest senior runner on the Royal High track team.

The other girl, Nicole Todd, is the sophomore teammate making this possible.

Rossi runs a mile, Todd runs with her, gently guiding her with the gray belt that is connected to a thicker black belt around Rossi's waist.

When Rossi slows, Todd forsakes her own training schedule and slows.

When Rossi speeds up, Todd runs even faster to watch for bumps and curves.

When Rossi grows breathless and has to stop, Todd stops too, even if the sophomore could use more work.

"At first I wondered if this was the best thing for me," Todd said. "Then I realized, this is not about me."

She smiled, and you want to wrap the sports world in this smile, one born of the basic instincts of teamwork, one that glitters with the very best of sport.

Since Royal High began training several weeks ago, many teammates have shouldered that assignment, and shared that smile.

One girl will guide Rossi from the locker room to the track. Another will run with her around the huge sports complex. Another will run with her on the street. Another will accompany her in sprints.

For the last several days, her full-time partner has been Todd, but before that, seemingly everybody helped.

"Let's see, I don't know last names yet, I don't know all their voices yet, but I do remember those who have been here for me," Rossi said. "There's Nicole, Leah, Lorely, Shayne, Cory, Carly . . ."

The list goes on and on, Rossi giggling with each name, unearthed treasures on this most unexpected of journeys.

"It's really an awesome thing, because it must be really hard for them," Rossi said. "In fact, I bet it's just as hard for them as is it for me."

She shook her head.

"I've always been blind, but I know they've never had to do something like this."

Yet from the beginning, they have done it voluntarily, raising their hands and grabbing the belt and connecting her to themselves and their world.

"This just shows you that kids get it," said Jay Sramek, the Highlanders' innovative coach. "Kids understand how important it is to include someone. Kids just understand what it means to be a team."

Sramek also understands, because he says there was a time he didn't.

Several years ago, he dismissed an autistic runner from one of his teams because of liability concerns. When Rossi phoned him in the fall to ask to join the cross-country team for the first time, he had the same fears.

Then a couple of months later, he saw her singing in church, thought about the autistic child, realized he had another chance to fill a student's dreams, and changed his mind.

"I heard her voice and I felt like it was God talking to me," he said. "Right then I said, I'm going to make this happen."

Rossi had run before, in her first two high school years at Lancaster Desert Christian, but her main partner had been a teacher.

Since transferring to Royal in her junior year, she had encountered resistance in attempting to run again.

"When I said I wanted to run, the people here were kind of like, 'What?' " she recalled. "They just weren't sure how I'd do it."

So when Sramek finally invited her to tryouts, she was thrilled, but worried.

"I knew I would need other students to help me, and I knew I would slow them down," she said.

But she quickly realized that, in terms of perspective, she had come to the right place.

Not only are Sramek's teams good -- undefeated in the Marmonte League last year -- but they are accomplished in the classroom, with the highest GPA among sports teams on campus.

And they have these funny little rules. If you don't say "please," you're cut. If you don't say "excuse me," you're cut.

Sramek routinely eliminates kids from tryouts if their attitude doesn't match their speed.

"I want them to know it's about more than sports out here," he says. "We also learn about ourselves."

So it was no surprise to him that, during the first team meeting, after he described Rossi's needs, one girl immediately raised her hand to volunteer to help.

"I couldn't imagine what she's going through," sophomore Leah Calderon said. "If she was willing to do this, then I should be willing to help."

Soon they all fell in line, taking turns with the new girl, who will be given the same assistance when she runs the 800 and 1,600 meters in competition when the season starts.

Some girl will give up her race to run Rossi's race. And they can't wait.

"I was out there with her the other day, and I closed my eyes for two seconds, and I freaked out," Todd said. "I'm like, how does she do it? Why does she do it? And how could we not help her?"

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