Thursday, October 20, 2011

NEWS: Blind athlete making history with dog

by Rob McCurdy
originally posted @ Mansfield News Journal Oct 15, 2011

Lexington, Kentucky, USA -- Sami Stoner has yet to cross the finish line in first place, but she has won over fans while trying.

In the process, she's become a champion for teens with challenges.

Stoner, who is legally blind and a runner on the Lexington girls cross country team, is believed to be the first high school athlete in Ohio to compete with a guide dog.

"How could anyone in cross country complain when you look at what she is doing? It's powerful stuff," Lexington head coach Denise Benson said.

Yet, that powerful example almost wasn't allowed to happen.

Historic precedent

As with anything pioneering, Stoner's quest was initially met with resistance.

"We had a hard time getting her approved through the OHSAA," Lexington assistant coach Anne Petrie said. "(Athletic Director) John Harris went above and beyond to get Sami a dispensation."

In order for Stoner to compete in events sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, a waiver was needed. Harris made the phone calls to the organization's Columbus office and was denied.

But he wasn't going to be denied. Harris continued to appeal to Dale Gabor, the director of cross country and track and field for the OHSAA, each time hashing out ways to safely allow Stoner to run.

"To be very honest and be what the OHSAA stands for, we want to accommodate any kids with disabilities," Gabor said.

When OHSAA commissioners told Gabor it was his call, it didn't take him long to search his soul.

"As I told John, she already has a handicap. She doesn't need another one, so let her run," Gabor said of the decision made in September. "We have to do what's best for kids, and we either stand with them or we don't."

Gabor's waiver came with conditions. Stoner has to wait 20 seconds after the start of the race before she can run. That's to assure the dog doesn't get spiked or inadvertently knock another runner over. Stoner can pass other runners, but she can't impede them with the dog. She is to be a non-scoring competitor, and if finish chutes are deemed too small, she cannot cross the finish line with the dog for the same reasons she can't start with the field.

"We agreed full-heartedly," Harris said. "What's happened to her isn't fair, but she's such a positive example for everyone, and it motivated me to get this done."

Gabor, who has been around the sport for decades, believes Stoner is a trailblazer, possibly the first blind cross country runner to compete with a guide dog. He thinks she exemplifies the purpose of interscholastic sports, which is to broaden horizons and teach life lessons.

"The example she sets for those kids is phenomenal," Gabor said.

The funny thing is Stoner didn't set out to be a role model, just a runner.

"I don't run for time or place or anything. I run because I love it," she said.

Running with blindness

Like dozens of kids at Lexington, Stoner ran cross country in junior high, and she enjoyed the sport. However, in eighth grade, her vision began to worsen.

"When she started having eye problems, I thought that part of her life was over," her father Keith Stoner said. "It took eight or nine months to get the diagnosis, and as you can imagine, the Internet is a wonderful thing and a scary thing."

Stoner and his wife, Lisa, were trying to figure out what the problem was and what kind of future lay ahead for their daughter. When they finally got the diagnosis, it was a worst-case scenario.

Sami had inherited Stargardt disease, a juvenile form of macular degeneration that robs children and teens of their central vision. She would soon be legally blind, although she retains some of her peripheral vision.

"I was devastated. You have hopes for your kids, and a lot of it has to do with the things you see. It was a tough time for all of us," her father said.

Stoner's only question for doctors was whether she'd ever get to drive a car.

"She was pretty down," Keith said of the answer she received. "She was 14 at the time. She's now 16 and a lot of her friends are getting licenses and it's hard. She has a lot of wonderful friends and they are so good about picking her up and including her."

One thing Stoner could do is run.

"When she ran in ninth grade, we wondered how she would do it," Benson said.

Stoner ran with a companion runner. Hannah Ticoras became her guide, telling Stoner to watch for this root or that rut as they ran side-by-side.

The two became so close, members of the team began referring to them as Hami, a good-natured combination of Hannah and Sami.

But Ticoras graduated in 2010 and Stoner's eyesight continued to fade, leaving many to wonder if she had a future in running competitively.

Enter Chloe

In the uncertainty arose an opportunity.

"Sami mentioned it to me as early as last spring," Keith Stoner said. "She had a man come up from Columbus to work with her and he recommended her for a guide dog, and they're pretty restrictive about that."

Founded in Columbus, Pilot Dogs has been training guide dogs for the blind since 1950. It's a private, nonprofit charity that requires a recipient to undergo an extensive screening process.

One of Stoner's first questions was whether she could learn to run with the dog.

"There are individuals that do it and have run marathons. It's her dog, but we caution against it," Pilot Dogs director Jay Gray said. "The concern is not every individual is capable of it. It is very rare."

Stoner had to spend four weeks this summer living full-time at Pilot Dogs, learning how to use her guide dog, a golden retriever named Chloe. Fortunately, Stoner's and Chloe's trainer was an avid runner.

"Her and Sami hit it off and they worked closely together," Keith Stoner said. "They didn't run enough because they had a lot to learn, but they did run."

Stoner needed to work her way up to run distance races, and so did her year-and-a-half old compatriot. Chloe ran up to a mile for a week, then up to two miles for a week-and-a-half, then the three miles for cross country.

"It took a while for Sami and the dog to get conditioned to run that far," Harris said. "I had complete faith that Chloe could function in this. My concern was with Sami and her safety and well-being. If you see them compete, they are basically one runner, and it's hard not to get emotional."

Benson was ecstatic for Stoner.

"I coached her for three years, and I could see how hard it was getting for her (to see), so I was excited about the opportunity Chloe would give her as an athlete," the head coach said. "I was counting down the days until they could get back home together."

When they did return, practices could be trying for Stoner. The dog is trained to come to a stop at all curbs, which makes running in town a difficult process.

There were other rules that had to be followed. Benson printed out a list of do's and don'ts with the dog and gave them to the team and parents. Chief among the rules is no one is allowed to pet or address Chloe while the harness is on.

"At first it was a little awkward, but now it's just a part of Sami and it is how it is," Benson said.

Running with Chloe

Running cross country for a sighted runner can be harrowing. The ground is uneven and any number of sticks, ruts, roots, stones and bumps can knock a runner out of a race with an injury.

"It's scary," Stoner admitted. "You have to have a lot of trust, and good ankles help, too."

It's one thing coaching a runner with two legs, but what about one with four?

"We had to teach Chloe a certain gait," Petrie said. "If you watch Sami and Chloe run together, you'll see Chloe almost trot. What's interesting is Sami is guiding the dog, really. The dog is following Sami's commands. The dog is not pacing Sami; Sami is pacing the dog."

At times, Stoner looks as though she's running with her eyes closed, but she's really using what's left of her peripheral vision to see her next step. Meanwhile, Chloe looks straight ahead to make sure all is clear in front of the duo.

"I'm just trying to stay focused to keep her focused," Stoner said. "I thought she would go toward the people cheering, but she barely looks to her sides. She just keeps amazing me."

Cross country races can be chaotic, with fans crossing the running path, people yelling and other dogs brought by spectators running about, but Chloe just runs, and so does Stoner.

"I think she's geared toward racing now, which is very cool," Petrie said.

Cross country courses aren't always marked well, so it's important that they get a trial walkthrough before a race.

"She kind of gets a feel for how the course goes," Stoner said. "While we're running, she leads me around roots and stuff, and when she turns, I can feel it in the harness so I can just kind of follow her so she can find a clear spot.

"It looks a lot harder than it really is."

It looks uncomfortable for Stoner as she hangs onto the harness across the dog's back with her left hand and holds a leash with her right hand, so she's essentially running with little arm movement.

"Anyone who thinks it's helping her needs to try to run with one arm while holding onto a dog. It's hard to run with a dog," Benson said.

But Stoner has adapted.

"In the last race her paw got scuffed up, so I didn't do the cool down with her. I was running by myself, and I thought I was going to fall over. I felt so off balance. It's just something you get used to," Stoner said.

Last year while running with her companion runner, Stoner ran a 31:19 at Ontario. A year later with Chloe, that time dropped to 30:24 while giving away 20 seconds at the start. Stoner may have started last, but she didn't finish last, passing seven runners on the course at Marshall Park in late September.

"It's a very good feeling," Stoner admitted through an aw-shucks smile.

A champion

Chloe has become not only an accepted member of the team, but of the school.

"She just sleeps through all her classes," Stoner joked. "I'm a little bit jealous, but it's all right."

Harris said the dog goes unnoticed, lying by Sami's side until it's time to switch classes. In the hallway when it's busy, Chloe acts as a wedge between the crowd and Stoner to make sure no one inadvertently bumps into her.

Stoner is enjoying the high school experience. Petrie and Benson, who taught her science and math respectively in that trying year as an eighth-grader, marvel at her spirit.

"She's just an incredibly brave young lady," Petrie said. "She gets great grades. I also coach her in Destination Imagination, a creative problem solving group. It's more of an academic team, and I've coached her for four years in that. She is so creative. She writes songs. She acts. She's very modest and won't tell you that."

In the early stages of the disease, teachers would make special copies for Stoner with enlarged high-contrasting print. Now she works exclusively off an iPad.

"She does the same things as any student. She's just doing what she can to equalize the playing field," Benson said. "She's such a wonderful young lady, and she's not letting her disabilities dictate who she is."

And that's been the case in cross country.

"Each and every day, that's what my job is -- to coach," Benson said. "She doesn't want to be treated any less. She has goals for the race.

"She is able to do this sport, and that's what is so great. Sami has ability. And I think she can get to 24 minutes."

Stoner admits this is a learning year with Chloe.

"We're just hoping to keep on racing and hopefully keep breaking our times. We're just trying to do our best. Hopefully, next season we can just keep getting better," she said.

Keith Stoner, who is a member of the Lexington school board, is grateful to Benson and Petrie for all their work with his daughter and her dog. He appreciates Harris for his tenacity in getting her waiver and the OHSAA and Gabor for granting it. Most of all, he's thankful for everyone's acceptance of Sami and the school's understanding of her plight.

"It's a great message," he said. "She's never going to be up front getting a medal, but as far as my wife and I are concerned, she wins every race.

"I'm thankful that puppy was brought into our lives."

That puppy turned a teen-aged girl into a champion.

Word List:
  • to win over: to persuade someone to agree with you or to be friendly to you
  • pioneering: done for the first time using new methods
  • quest: a long difficult search
  • hard time: difficult time
  • dispensation: official permission to do something that people are not normally allowed to do, especially from a religious authority
  • waiver: an official statement or document that says a right, claim, or law can be officially ignored or given up
  • denied: to not allow someone to have something
  • to hash out: to discuss a plan or agreement in order to agree about the details
  • impede: to make it more difficult for someone to do something or more difficult for something to happen
  • trailblazer: someone who is the first to do something or to discover something
  • phenomenal: extremely impressive or surprising
  • worst-case scenario: a situation that is the worst one that you can imagine
  • peripheral vision: side vision; what is seen on the side by the eye when looking straight ahead.
  • devastated: feeling very shocked and upset
  • arose: to exist or start developing because of something
  • to undergo: to experience something, especially something that is unpleasant but necessary
  • extensive: involving a lot of details and information
  • screening process: tests done to check someone
  • avid: very enthusiastic about something you do regularly
  • harrowing: extremely frightening
  • duo: two people who work together
  • chaotic: happening in a confused way and without any order or organization
  • scuffed up: to scrape or scratch something
  • wedge: something used to divide or separate
  • inadvertently: not deliberately, and without realizing what you are doing
  • marvel: to show or feel surprise or admiration
  • to dictate: to influence or control how something is done
  • tenacity: quality of being very determined and is not willing to stop when they are trying to achieve something