Charlotte Brown finished fourth at the Texas high school Class 3A track and field championships. But she received a louder ovation than any of the other eight pole vault finalists.
That’s because Charlotte Brown is blind.
Yes, you read that correctly.
A blind pole vaulter.
What were her parents thinking? “They said, ‘You’re going to do what?’” Charlotte told Melissa Isaacson of ESPN.com. “Then, they said, ‘We’ll let you do it, but have you thought about how?’
“I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m practicing counting the steps’ and they said, ‘Well, okay.’ They never said, ‘We can’t let you do that’ and I’m grateful for that.’
“We never told her no,” her mother, Stori, told ABC News. “We never told her she couldn’t do something, that we weren’t going to sign her up for an activity or sport.”
But, come on, the pole vault?
“I said, ‘I have some concerns,’” her father, Ian, told Isaacson. “And she was like, ‘Great, now get out of the way! Dad, if you’re 12, 13 feet in the air and falling through the sky and something goes wrong, good vision will not help you!’”
How can you say no to someone with Charlotte’s attitude?
“I think a disability is something that stops or limits you from being able to do the things that you want to do,”
Charlotte told ABC News. “This story isn’t about me. It’s about all people that struggle with something. I think everyone struggles with something in life. This was my something.”
Barely four months old, Charlotte underwent her first surgery to remove infant cataracts. In second grade, she had intraocular lens implants. The successful surgery extended her field of vision to 10 feet.
But with two older brothers who played every sport, Charlotte had no choice but to be drawn into sports herself.
As her vision deteriorated, her other senses became keener. She could feel the lines on a basketball court through her shoes. She could tell what kind of candy bar someone was eating by the sound the wrapper made. She could pick out her favorite flavor of sports drink by the smell of the bottle.
Track soon became her first love. She was allowed to run in the inside lane, because she could distinguish between the grass infield and the track. But pole vaulting required an entirely new set of guidelines. Especially when Charlotte’s vision failed again a year ago. She went from legally blind to totally blind.
“As soon as I noticed my vision decreasing, at the end of my sophomore year, I thought, ‘What’s next?’” Charlotte told Isaacson. “What’s going to make it a little easier? It’s like when I started thinking about getting a guide dog and using Braille. I wasn’t looking at it because I was losing my vision. It was a matter of ‘This doesn’t work, so let’s figure out what else we can do.’”
So here’s how Charlotte does it. Her guide dog, Vador, leads her on a walk through the pole vault area. Charlotte memorizes the route from the landing pit to her starting point, which she marks with the lid of her chalk container.
She’ll tap the lid with her foot to make sure she’s in the right spot.
Then she sprints down the runway, 27 yards.
“Eventually, you just gotta pull the trigger, and you gotta go.” she told Isaacson.
Charlotte counts her strides down the runway, every time her left foot hits the ground. On the sixth stride, she lowers her pole. On her seventh, she plants it. Into a planting box only 23 inches wide at the front, 16.5 inches wide at the back and 8 inches deep. How does she hit it?
Beepers. High frequency beepers which only Charlotte can hear. One beeper is placed between the mats behind the planting box. One coach stands at the rear of the mats, whistling to keep Charlotte centered. Another coach stands to the left of the mats, counting her strides and spotting her.
“We were sitting on the couch one day recently, and Charlotte asked me, ‘Dad, if you could have one wish, what would it be?” Ian told Isaacson. “I didn’t hesitate. I said, ‘I’d give you my eyes.’ And she hesitated even less and said, ‘I don’t need them.’ And you know, she really doesn’t.”
“There are a lot of things to admire about Charlotte,” added her coach, Jeff Lester. “But the most important thing is her teammates love her.”
So does Jeff’s 9-year-old stepdaughter, Hallie, who is legally blind.“She thinks I’m the coolest thing,” Charlotte told Isaacson. “It’s great to think that if she had any doubts about ‘if
I can do this or not’ I can tell her that it doesn’t matter.
“She’s learning at a very young age, like I did, it doesn’t make you who you are, it just happens to be part of you.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times.