HIgh School Runner’s Challenges

New York Times Sunday June 10, 2001

High School Runner Faces Some Unusual Challenges


Published Sunday June 10, 2001


Royal Mitchell is a typical elite high school runner in many ways: He has run impressive races and he won his conference title in the 200 meters in April in 21.70 seconds, qualifying for the national Adidas Outdoor Championships next weekend in Raleigh, N.C. But there is something about Mitchell, who is from South Carolina, that sets him apart. Royal Mitchell is partially blind.


Royal was born with myopia, a condition that impairs his vision, which is close to 20/200. He wears glasses, holds reading material close to his face and can see his coach only if he is within 30 feet; otherwise, he must follow his coach’s voice.


Nevertheless, the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Mitchell considers himself an athlete first, the same as his teammates at Spartanburg High.


“My parents didn’t teach me to be different,” Mitchell said. “I don’t see myself as different. I’m equal to everyone.”


Still, Mitchell’s myopia can present problems on the track.


At the state high school qualifying meet in Columbia, S.C., he finished sixth in the 400 meters in 49.58 seconds, primarily because he thought he had already crossed the finish line. “I know he would have run 48.97, but 10 meters before the finish line, he slowed up and three guys passed him,”


Spartanburg Coach Glover Smiley said. “I told Royal he could have broken 49 seconds.”


Smiley has told Mitchell, who was upset with himself after learning of the mistake, that he is to keep running until Smiley yells “Stop!”


Mitchell attends both Spartanburg High and the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind, where he began running track in 1998.


“Royal was a lot smaller and a lot skinnier then,” said Jack Todd, one of the track coaches at the school for the deaf and blind, remembering when he first met Mitchell. “When he asked if he could join us, I said, `If you can keep up.’ He kept up with us as we ran a two-mile loop, but he was exhausted.” It was just the kind of challenge that inspires Mitchell, who joined the track team.


At Todd’s urging, Mitchell also joined the United States Association of Blind Athletes, and in the summer of 1998, at the Youth Games for the Blind in the Czech Republic, Mitchell won the 400 meters in 59.83.


Then, in October 2000, Mitchell won the gold medal in the 400 at the Paralympics in Sydney, Australia, clocking 50.64 seconds.


Todd then suggested that Mitchell join the Spartanburg High track team because it had a more rigorous training program.


“At first Royal wasn’t sure the other kids on the team would accept him,” Smiley said, “but they accepted him right away. He brought so much enthusiasm and energy to the team.”


This past season, Mitchell was named the team’s most valuable performer.


Mitchell’s ultimate goal is to run in the Olympic Games. Todd and Smiley believe it is possible because Mitchell’s times are competitive with the best high school runners in the nation and his improvement curve has been sharp. The best high school time for the 100 meters this spring was 10.30 seconds, by Dabryan Blanton of Forney, Tex. Mitchell’s best 100 is 11.04, which he ran at the Pan American Games for the Blind, which were held in Spartanburg last week.


Blanton also has the fastest 200 meters this year, 20.37; Mitchell’s best is 21.70. In the 400, Mitchell is farther off the pace; the season’s best time is 46.12 by Darold Williamson of San Antonio; Mitchell’s best time is 49.58.


Mitchell said that his Olympic ambitions were his own and that he had not been influenced by Marla Runyan, the partially blind runner who reached the Olympic final in the 1,500 meters last September in Sydney.


Mitchell, sounding much like Runyan, summed it up by saying: “I don’t look at myself being disabled. Track is track, disabilities or no disabilities.”