WMU News

Legally blind Olympic runner may open door for others

Sept. 12, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Marla Runyan has made history by becoming the first visually impaired athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team, and her achievement is not going unnoticed by other athletes with vision problems.

Dr. Paul Ponchillia, a WMU professor of blind rehabilitation, says Runyan's success will certainly encourage other visually challenged athletes and predicts more of these athletes will earn spots on future Olympic teams.

"There's been a pretty major move towards other people trying to qualify, too," Ponchillia says. "We've had two people in judo who have been ranked internationally and got injured."

One of them is a former college football player and weight coach under Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Several visually impaired swimmers also have been in contention for spots on previous U.S. Olympic teams, Ponchillia says, so chances are good that more visually impaired athletes will go to the Olympics.

"There's no question that being the first blind person in the United States to get into the Olympics has to be a shot for anybody who has vision problems," Ponchillia says. "It's just kind of nice having a hero you can identify with."

Ponchillia, who organizes sports camps for the visually impaired, was chosen in 1996 to help carry the Olympic torch from Los Angeles to Atlanta. A visually impaired goalball athlete himself, Ponchillia says the number of visually impaired athletes would balloon if efforts were successful in making goalball an Olympic sport. Similar to hockey or soccer, goalball is a fast-paced sport played by visually impaired or blindfolded contestants using a ball containing a bell.

"We would love to see goalball become an Olympic event," Ponchillia says. "It's played in a lot of countries."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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