Gutsy Athletes Can't See but It Won't Stop Them : Top Local Competitors Go For It All at National Championships for Blind

Times Staff Writer

Her jump of 3 meters was far less than she was capable of, but she shrugged it off. When you pound down the runway into the sun and your eyes, blurry to begin with, are shaking, the harsh glare of the white takeoff line doesn't come into view until the last second. When it does, you leap, ready or not, into the pit.

"I went off the wrong foot, that happens some times," said Kellie Miller, 18, of La Mirada, emerging from the sand--without help, although it was offered--during the U.S. Assn. for Blind Athletes national championships last week at Cal State Long Beach.

This was the "B-2" long-jump. A B-2 is the USABA category for athletes whose vision is not better than 20/600, which means that what the normally sighted can see 600 feet away, she does not see until it is within 20 feet. The other categories are B-1, completely blind, and B-3, persons with vision between 20/599 and 20/200.

From beneath a visor, Miller looked across the bright green field toward trees which, to her, appeared as undiscernible clumps, and toward a blue sky she perceived, due to color blindness, as purple.

Some Understatement

"I'm not a total, but I don't have the best sight," she explained.

A senior at La Mirada High School where she was on the track team, Miller expressed no fear of living in a world that is never in focus.

"Most of the time I get around on my own," she said. "If I need help, I'll ask for it. At night, I use a cane."

Miller jumped again, taking off on the correct foot. The tape stretched to 3 meters, 25 centimeters--about nine inches more than her previous jump.

"My best jump today," she said. "Now I'm tied for fourth."

The only spectators were other blind athletes. One of them, Paul Smith of Compton, was an old friend and the 5-foot, 89-pound Miller accepted his hug.

Smith, a 23-year-old with an athletic build and a demeanor that seemed more outgoing than most of the athletes, could see well enough to detect a flaw in Miller's technique.

"Man, you got to try to get that leg up, Kellie," said Smith, who said he had earlier set the world blind triple-jump mark of 41 feet.

"I get this leg up and this one just trails," Miller told him.

Mind Over Circumstance

"You got good speed goin' down the runway," Smith said. "Just think of jumping up, that's what I do when I run. Do you measure your steps? You do? I don't measure my steps."

"You just go?" Miller asked.

"I just go--I like it because I pick up so much speed," Smith said. "Then I say, 'OK, this looks like a nice spot (to take off from)."'

"I'm not really a sprinter," Miller said.

"You're a distance (runner), that's right, a gold medalist," Smith said with an admiring smile.

Miller won gold medals in the 3-K, 800-meter and 1,500-meter runs. Her time of 12:47 in the 3-K broke the blind national record.

Smith, who also competed in sprints, said he was a B-3.

"I can see people," he said. "No faces, just people. See, this is how I do it. Say you walk down this way, the only way I would recognize you is by your shape and what you have on. I can't do it any other way."

Smith was apprehensive when representatives of the California Assn. for Blind Athletes came to his school when he was in the seventh grade.

"I wasn't really interested," he recalled. "I didn't like running or jumping because of my vision. I didn't feel I could do that kind of stuff so I didn't want to. It scared me a lot. I watched people run, how fast they ran and I was afraid I might bump somebody or somebody might bump me."

But Leamon Stansell of Santa Monica, one of the world's premier blind athletes, talked Smith into joining the CABA, and he has become one of its top performers.

Miller, who will attend Cal State Long Beach in the fall, and Smith have had athletic success against sighted competitors, which has always surprised the runners who could see.

"When I was in high school (Narbonne High in Harbor City) I was scared because I couldn't see real good," Smith said. "They (his competitors) would say, "Well, you know, he can't see so he ain't gonna run that fast."

Then Smith would flash by the other runners so fast they couldn't see him . At Narbonne, he said he ran the 100-yard dash in 10.8 seconds.

Meeting Resistance

But at first his desire to run was met with resistance.

"When I tried out for track and my counselor said I had a vision problem, the coach didn't want to let me run because he thought I'd hurt myself," Smith said.

"So when a person got hurt they put me in because I was the only person left. When they found out I could beat anybody in my school running, they wanted me to run for them."

While Miller waited for her turn to jump a final time and Smith waited for the men's long jump, they talked and kidded with each other.

There was no pressure in the air.

"You don't have to worry about proving yourself to anybody here," Miller said, "because they all have the same problems."

She was getting a little tired of eating sand.

"Just think, after this I can take a nap, a shower, whatever I want," she said.

Learning to Accept

Not seeing really didn't seem to matter to Smith or Miller. They have long since accepted their handicap. "You basically face it by yourself and you either learn to accept it or you don't," Miller said.

And they have developed a pride in their abilities. Miller's T-shirt read, "Blind athletes are out of sight."

Smith always wanted to know what it was like to see. "But as years went by, because of the different opportunities they have for us, I've adapted," he said.

One of the opportunities has been to experience the world, if not see it.

"We get to travel all over," Smith said. If I had total sight, there's no way I feel I'd be able to do that. This summer we're going to Sweden for world international blind games."

They have survived nicely the unkind comments that were directed at them in their younger years.

"I used to be bused from my home to school," Smith said. (The other kids) didn't understand. Instead of asking me, they'd make fun and say, 'He's retarded.' I went and asked my mom If I was retarded, and she said I wasn't retarded, I just had a little vision problem."

On Her Own

Miller said that when she used to come home from school crying, her mother would say, "I'd love to help you but because I don't understand what you're going through, there's nothing I can do." Her mother didn't say that cold-heartedly, Miller said, she just knew she "could never see the world through my eyes."

Miller said most of her friends are sighted.

"They understand," she said, "but every now and then they'll kind of forget because sometimes you function so well and you have to remind them."

But some, she said, don't understand or want to.

"Some people will be real friendly to you until they find you have a problem and then it's like you have a disease that will spread," Miller said.

She jumped a final time--3-30--and that was good for fourth place. She went to shower and returned later with her friend from Long Beach, Stephanie LaCour, who had won second place in the 3,000-meter run. They stood by the starting line as some of their friends take off in a 100-yard dash. "How are they doing," Miller would ask, and LaCour, a B-3, would whip out her monocular and point it toward the finish line.

The late-afternoon sun, as strong as hours earlier, bore down on the athletes. Smith, who was waiting to jump, was nauseated and held his head in his hands. "I get nervous," he said.

But in a few moments, Smith was pounding down the runway, and when he saw the harsh glare, he took off, hitting the pit almost six meters away with such impact that sand flew everywhere. It was a sight worth seeing.

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