Event gives blind students rare chance to run without aid

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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Little sneakers slapped the ground, pigtails bounced and parents cheered — the sounds of any school track meet.

Except for this announcement: “Clear the track, so the kids won’t run into you!”

These athletes wouldn’t see someone blocking their way.

The Washington State School for the Blind on Thursday staged its annual track and field meet, as it has since the late 1980s. About 130 students from all over Washington and Oregon came to compete against -- and spend time with -- their peers.

For many, it was the first time running without the aid of a sighted helper. The Vancouver school has a railing that runs around the inside of the track. Students can run a hand along the rail while they dash around the 200-meter oval. Athletes also competed in shot put, long jump and high jump.

Runners on the track take off in a staggered start. They compete against the clock, not against each other, so each can run on the inside lane next to the rail.

A sense of trust

Some of the younger kids -- or those whose disabilities slow their stride — round the track slowly, yet are clearly exhilarated by the sensation of running unaided.

“There’s an aspect of confidence and trust in this,” said Dean Stenehjem, the school’s superintendent. “They’re running without knowing what’s in front of them.”

Some runners fly by, the left hand barely touching the metal rail.

Alfredo Castaneda Garcia runs with long strides during the 200-meter dash. His hand hovers above the rail, his fingers just making contact.

He’s on his home school’s track team in Hillsboro, Ore. There, he runs the last leg of the 4x100m relay, holding a tether attached to a sighted athlete.

But running unaided is not unusual for him anymore — Alfredo has attended to the Vancouver track meet for the last 12 years.

“I like that I can always improve and collaborate with other team members,” Alfredo said.

After graduating from his Hillsboro high school next month, Alfredo will come to the school for the blind for its transitioning program, he said.

Others were still new to the experience.

Alijah Murray, 7, bounced along the track with his father, Jacob, jogging along on the infield. The Mur

rays came from Tacoma for the event. Alijah has been excited about the meet for weeks, his father said.

Alijah has circled the track at his school in Tacoma, with the aid of a few girls who “mother him,” his mother, Rachelle, said with a laugh.

The young boy couldn’t comment on his experience of running alone for the first time. He was busy playing with new friends after the race.

“Getting the kids together and networking with other parents — this is excellent,” Rachelle Murray said.

Sensory learning

The day wasn’t just about running and competing. The youngsters learned about animals, too.

The basement of the Vancouver school holds a Sensory Safari — taxidermied animals. If you’re unable to see a picture of a lion, a warthog or an antelope, how can anyone’s description ever do the real thing justice?

In the exhibit, students can learn what the exotic animals look like by touching. There are headsets for audio lessons and plaques in Braille. The permanent exhibit is a donation by the Safari Club International Northwest Chapter.

And above ground, students experienced another animal up close. Two gentle giants from Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas mingled with the athletes.

“Holy smoke!” said Jesus Ortiz, a 17-year-old from Hillsboro. “This is a llama?”

His hands ran over the sheared back, then wandered to the shaggy mane. His friend, Jesus Reyes, commented on the llama’s soft hair. But Ortiz took his hand and guided him to the soft tuft on the llama’s head.

“No, you haven’t felt anything,” Ortiz said. “Go up here, man!”

‘That blind girl’

The Vancouver school is a state agency, and is the only school in Washington or Oregon devoted to serving those with severely impaired vision. It offers programs to students all over the state. But that doesn’t replace being among kids who know what it’s like to be blind.

Arianna Jordan, an 11-year-old from Spokane, grinned ear to ear after running the 200 meters.

“That was cool,” she said.

She’ll have regular access to the track soon. Arianna will be a student at the school for the blind next year. Her mother is moving the family to Vancouver, just for the school.

There are only four or five other blind children the family meets at school events back home, said Georgia Tarrant, Arianna’s older sister. The young girl gets singled out.

“Yeah, I’m tired of being called ‘that blind girl,’” Arianna said in a defiant tone.

Starting in September, she won’t have to worry about that.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.