Hi-Lighting Benefits of USA Blind Athletes and The Achilles Track Club

Dialogue Magazine  Spring 2000 issue

Sports – Mainstreamed or Special Events?

by David Block

Ardmore, Pennsylvania

One obvious goal for people with visual disabilities is to be mainstreamed into everyday society. Mainstreaming visually impaired athletes into sports events recently made national headlines when visually impaired runner, Marla Runyan, originally of California who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, made the U.S. track and field team. Her accomplishments make it seem that mainstreaming is the route all blind athletes should take. Yet, there is still a need for some blind and visually impaired athletes to compete in sanctioned events, such as those hosted by The United States Association of Blind Athletes, USABA, and by The International Blind Sports Association, IBSA,some of the time.

For nearly ten years, I have interviewed blind and visually impaired athletes. Some of them told me that they preferred competing in events exclusively for blind people because they felt less awkward and didn’t feel as if they stood out. Others told me that coordinators of most sports competition were apprehensive about allowing them to compete. Although barriers of apprehension and trepidation on the part of the event coordinators and coaches are less present than 20 years ago, blind athletes sometimes still prefer sanctioned events (designed for blind athletes)because they often get tired of constantly having to prove themselves at the mainstreamed events. Some athletes, including me, have been complimented for being so courageous to compete like everyone else. At events designed for blind athletes, participants can just be athletes. They don’t have to prove themselves.

In November of 1999, I went to Mexico City to cover the Pan Am Games. One of my objectives was to find out from various USABA athletes the benefits they found from competing in mainstreamed events versus events exclusively for blind athletes.

Mexico City was one last tune-up prior to the Paralympic trials. Many countries were represented by the athletes.

(NOTE: Sanctioned sports for blind athletes have three categories: B1, B2, and B3: B1 athletes are totally blind. Some can see light and shadows, but none can recognize a hand. B2 athletes can recognize a hand and have a visual acuity of up to 20/600. B3 athletes’ visual acuity ranges from 20/600 to 20/200.)

In Mexico City, Richard Ruffalo, 48, was second in javelin, fourth in the discus, and fourth in the shot put. In the past, Rich has won Paralympic gold, yet one of his biggest thrills was winning the javelin contest in a 1985 New Jersey Masters Championships for sighted people.

“I walked onto the field with 11 guys,” said Ruffalo. “They were sad that here’s a blind guy throwing. I won. They were impressed that I won. They stopped looking at me as a blind person and started looking at me as a person.”

When Ruffalo was in high school in 1968, he was unaware he had retinitis pigmentosa. “I just thought I needed glasses,” said Ruffalo. He was on the track, football, and basketball teams. At Montclair State University, in Montclair, New Jersey, his vision worsened. “People would tell me to eat more carrots and wear thicker glasses.” He finally realized he was going blind when he hit a woman pedestrian while he was driving his car one night. “I’m glad I didn’t kill her, but I had nightmares about that for years.”

Losing sight was difficult for Ruffalo. “I’ve been letting out my frustrations on a punching bag for nearly 20 years.” In the early 80s, he got involved with sports after learning about the Association of Blind Athletes, NJ, which is under the umbrella of USABA. He is a B1 athlete. Ruffalo has taught biology at Belleview High School in New Jersey for over 15 years. He coaches sighted kids in shot put, discus, and javelin throwing. “Although I can’t see, I know the mechanics of those events. When someone is throwing during a practice, I’ll have a teammate watch his arms, I’ll have another teammate watch his legs, and they’ll tell me. Then I take the information they gave me, and give the student throwing suggestions on how to improve.”

Joe Aukward of Bethesda, Maryland, lost his vision several years ago from retinitis pigmentosa. The 38-year-old said that he loved to compete from the time he was a young boy. “I loved playing basketball and I always loved to run.”

When he first lost his sight, Joe ran recreationally with his wife and later learned about USABA. “It was great learning that I could extend my competitive career, simply by running with a guide runner.” In Mexico, Aukward, a B1 athlete, was second in the 100 meters and second in the 400. It was his first time winning medals at the international level. “I won those medals for my kids.”

Aukward, a budget analyst for the Department of Defense, runs in Masters Competition in North Carolina. “I usually finish in the top three.” Aukward on dealing with fully sighted competitors who are unaware of his potential,comments: “It’s more of a curiosity than anything. People come up to me and say, ‘How do you run with a guide? Show me.’ They don’t realize how easy it is to guide as long as you have the foot speed. When some of the younger sprinters see me before a race for the first time, they think I won’t be competitive. They don’t realize I’ve been running track a long time. A lot of people ask me questions. I don’t mind because it helps them appreciate what I’m doing.” Although Aukward likes the mainstreamed track meets, he values the USABA races because all the competitors are blind.

Lisa Banta, 20, learned about USABA from the Association of Blind Athletes in New Jersey. She had been on her high school track team. “My vision problem didn’t make a difference because I did well in track and that’s what really mattered,” said Banta. When she first went out for track in high school, she refused to be discouraged. “I wanted to participate and I got tired of hearing people say that ‘disabled people couldn’t do much.”

In Mexico, Banta, a B2 athlete, won gold in the discus and gold in the javelin. It was the first time she won gold at the international level. Banta on comparing college meets to USABA events: “I get more pumped competing with USABA, because everyone there is so determined. No one takes anything for granted.” Now, she throws the shot put and discus for Allentown College.

Two other USABA athletes earned gold medals in Mexico: Ed Munro (B3) won gold in the pentathlon and Asya Miller (B3) won gold in the shot put and javelin.

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Both expressed similar sentiments about enjoying USABA events more than competing in events for non-disabled athletes.

They like the wholesomeness of USABA competition. For them, the atmosphere is special. No one takes anything for granted and the people are just grateful to compete.

Marla Runyun is currently training in Eugene, Oregon, for the Olympic Trials this July. She did not compete in Mexico City.

“I was always good in sports, so people didn’t notice that I had a vision problem,” said Runyan. She has Stargardt Disease, which causes the central vision to deteriorate. She has been completely mainstreamed into sighted competition. She always liked to run competitively, and while she was running for San Diego State University, she learned about USABA and the Paralympics. In the 1992 Paralympics, she won four gold medals: 100 meter, 200 meter, 400 meter, and long jump. In the 1996 Paralympics, she won gold in the pentathlon. These accomplishments were not her high point. “The Paralympics as challenging as college meets,” Runyan said. “I liked the Paralympics because of the social environment. It was nice not being the only one there with a disability.” Runyan’s track career gained momentum in the summer of ’99 when she placed tenth in the world in the 1500 meters world championships in Seville, Spain, an event for non-disabled runners. She set her best time for 1500 meters. Now she is on the U.S. Track and Field Team. How did she go from Paralympian to potential Olympian? “I started following my instincts more,” said Runyan. “Until recently, I was doing pentathlons, field events, and sprints, but those events were like chores. Now I’m a middle distance runner and I no longer run because I feel I have to run. It’s now just a part of me. I shouldn’t have been doing these other events.” Although Runyan left her mark in events designed for blind athletes, she emphasizes that she is a completely different runner now and is much more competitive. “I’m a lot happier now,” said Runyan.

In addition to USABA, another organization specifically for disabled athletes is the Achilles Track Club. It focuses on getting people with all kinds of disabilities involved in running. In 1965, Dick Traum lost his leg. He was standing behind his car at a gas station when a driver hit him. His leg had to be amputated. Eleven years later he ran his first 26-mile marathon. “At the time, there weren’t too many people with disabilities running marathons,” said Traum. “I remember kids would see me try to run with one leg and they’d ask, ‘Are you the six-million dollar man?’ I’d say, ‘No. I’m the one million dollar man.'”

In 1982, Traum wanted to start a running club for people with disabilities. He sent out 1100 letters to members of the New York Road Runner’s Club (NYRRC), asking them to tell people with disabilities about Achilles and to come to the first workout. The late Fred LeBow, creator of the NYC Marathon and then NYRCC president, waited with Traum to see who would come. “We said that if three people showed up, it would be a success,” said Traum. “Only two people came to the first workout; Fred smiled and I smiled and we said, ‘It’s a success anyway.’ “

Achilles’ membership grew slowly through word of mouth. “If we saw someone who was disabled, we’d say, ‘How about joining Achilles?’ ” Achilles expanded into other countries. In the mid ’80s a reporter from Poland learned about Achilles, and wrote a story about it, which compelled people with disabilities there to start an Achilles chapter. Then the Russians learned about Achilles. At the ’99 NYC Marathon, there were over 300 disabled runners representing Achilles from 37 countries, including Vietnam, and New Zealand. Traum said that Achilles gives blind runners the chance to socially interact with their guide runners.

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A case in point is Cyril Charles, originally of Trinidad, who now lives in New York City. He had a severe vision problem until 1989 when Achilles was involved with a medical project, transplanting corneas. The cornea transplant operation enabled Charles to see almost perfectly again. “I am now a guide runner for Achilles because I remember when I used to need guides to run races. I’d feel very frustrated if I couldn’t get one,” said Charles.

There is a need for both Achilles and USABA. USABA holds separate sports events for blind and visually impaired people, and their long-term goal is to encourage their athletes to compete in the sighted world. Achilles believes that placing athletes with disabilities alongside non-disabled athletes in races helps them to relax, have fun, and feel like “one of the gang.” In turn, the non-disabled athletes become enlightened about the capabilities of the disabled athletes.

For further information about Achilles, write to Dick Traum, 42 West 38th Street, New York, NY 10018, or call 212-354-0300.

For USABA information, write to USABA, 33 North Institute Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80903; 719-630-0422.

About the Author: David Block is a freelance journalist and documentary producer. Every year he runs the New York City Marathon with Achilles.