BOSTON — When competition in the heptathlon (a seven-event "decathlon" for women) commences today in the June 14-23 US Olympic track and field trials in Atlanta, Marla Runyan must quickly come to grips with a challenge that no other athlete trying to make the United States team faces. She is legally blind.
The opening event of the heptathlon is the 100-meter hurdles. Runyan's rivals will look down their lanes before the starter's gun and see 10 hurdles; Runyan will see none. For her, the first hurdle in particular is a leap of faith - faith in the hours and hours of practice she's put into mastering the technique of making a fast start.
"The first goal of learning how to hurdle is to learn how to get out of your [starting] blocks and run eight strides and make it over the first hurdle," she says. "If you're not running at your top speed you're not going to make it to the first hurdle, so you have to have a lot of courage to run as fast as you can and jump over something that is 33 inches high that you really can't see when you start running. It only comes into view as you approach it."
Runyan says that spectators don't detect anything unusual when she runs, for once the race is cleanly under way, the important thing is to establish a three-stride rhythm between hurdles. "When I come off one hurdle I can see the next one, but not beyond that," says the El Cajon, Calif., native.
Runyan explained this and other aspects of competing in the heptathlon at a recent Atlanta media seminar hosted by the US Olympic Committee in Atlanta.
While hundreds of reporters attended sessions for stars like sprinter Michael Johnson and gymnast Dominique Moceanu, few showed up to interview Runyan and wheelchair basketball player Mark Shepherd, who will compete in the Paralympic Games, for the physically disabled in Atlanta shortly after the Olympics (Aug. 15-25).
"One of our big challenges has been to raise the public's awareness and support," Andy Fleming, president of the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee, has said. In Runyan, the Paralympics have the type of crossover athlete who can help bridge the gap of understanding and appreciation that sometimes separates sports for the able-bodied and disabled.
Runyan is at home in both arenas. She won four gold medals at the Paralympics in Barcelona four years ago, taking firsts in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races and the long jump. She also holds seven world records in track and field in B3 events, a classification for one group of visually impaired athletes.
In competition against sighted athletes, she also has done well. Last year she placed third in the heptathlon at the US Olympic Festival, becoming the first disabled athlete to win a medal at the festival. She moved to sixth in the national heptathlon rankings.
Runyan says participation in the Paralympics is very important to her, partly because she wants to learn from other disabled athletes who find themselves "under this huge umbrella label of disabled. I don't know anything about wheelchair racing, for example. It's also a comforting atmosphere. People are aware of my vision situation. I'm not expected to see something I can't."
If she places among the top three at the US Olympic trials, Runyan would become the first blind American athlete to compete in the Games. Currently, however, her best heptathlon score would place her well behind the top contenders for the US Olympic team, including world record holder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
Runyan's best event is probably the 800-meter run that concludes the two days of heptathlon competition. The other events are the high jump, shot put, 200-meter run, long jump, javelin, and hurdles.
The javelin presents Runyan with possibly her greatest challenge in scoring points in this cumulatively scored competition. She has the strength to throw farther than the 120 feet that is her average, but she says she lacks the throwing background sighted athletes often have.
She doesn't like to dwell on what might be different if she hadn't lost her vision as a youngster. "When I'm competing I don't give my vision a thought because I can't think of it as an interference or a disability," she says. "I have trained for this event and have trained hard. Your attitude is what determines the ultimate outcome."
Runyan ran track for four years at San Diego State University and has benefited from high-quality college coaching. She eventually would like to teach deaf-blind children or work with deaf-blind adults at the Helen Keller National Center.