Written by Matt Wixon
Wixon: Emory Rains' Charlotte Brown runs, jumps and pole vaults - yet she's legally blind
Editor's note: This column originally ran on April 1, 2012.
AUSTIN — Charlotte Brown reached behind her, grabbed the baton and took off down the track Friday night. Fans at the 85th Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays saw the freshman, with her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and her pink shoes leading the way, run the anchor leg of Emory Rains’ 4x400-meter relay.
Brown, however, saw almost nothing. She’s legally blind.
The thousands of fans at Mike A. Myers Stadium didn’t know it. Neither did the girl whom Brown chased down on the final lap to help Rains finish fourth in its preliminary heat.
But, yes, Brown is legally blind. The 14-year-old has 20/400 vision in her right eye, which she describes as “looking through a coffee stirrer, and then making it blurry all around.” Everything also looks flat, so she can’t discern if something is 20 feet away or inches from her face.
And that’s what she sees with her good eye. Her other eye senses only light and dark through a tiny pinhole field of vision.
“The left eye is for decoration,” she jokingly says to people. “It’s just there to keep my face symmetrical.”
And yet Brown runs the 400 in 62 seconds and anchors a relay. Incredible.
But hold your amazement. Brown also runs cross country, plays basketball and high jumps. Most amazing, or so it would seem, is that Brown holds the Rains school record in — seriously — the pole vault.
“She’s an inspiration,” said Jeff Lester, who is Rains athletic director and coaches the football and track teams. “She also wanted to do hurdles, but I told her it would be better to worry about one obstacle in the pole vault than 10 hurdles. She understood that.”
Brown understood it, but she doesn’t necessarily accept it. To her, any obstacle is just like a hurdle on the track. It’s meant to be cleared.
“Her mom and I have never said ‘can’t’ and we’ve never said ‘why,’” said her father, Ian Brown. “We’ve only asked, ‘How?’”
Early eye troubles
Charlotte Brown usually has an answer. But unfortunately for the high-energy, ultra-competitive athlete, nobody has an answer for her blindness.
At 16 weeks old, Brown had eye surgery to remove cataracts. She could see after that, but not well. In second grade, she had intraocular lenses implanted that allowed her field of vision to extend eight to 10 feet in front of her. She saw well enough to attend public school in Plano and began competing in summer track meets along with her older brothers, Lachlan (now a junior at Rains) and Gannon (a sophomore).
But when Brown was in sixth grade, about a year after the family moved to Emory, her vision deteriorated. She was diagnosed with unexplained vision loss.
“Some of the best eye surgeons in the country are in Dallas,” Ian Brown said. “They’ve done dozens and dozens of tests and there’s no real explanation.”
Brown’s vision doesn’t seem to be getting worse, but she’s learning braille to be prepared for the possibility. She still attends the same classes as her fellow students and has large-print textbooks and a magnifier at the school that allows her to blow up text on to a large computer monitor. She has trouble reading text that’s smaller than 48 point, about the size of a typical newspaper headline.
Brown has other tools and gadgets to help her keep pace academically, but she does more than keep up. She gets straight A’s.
It’s the athletic accomplishments, however, that are the most stunning.
Help from teammates
In the fall, Brown competed in cross country with the help of bells attached to her teammates’ shoes. She followed the sound of the bells to stay on course and ended up qualifying for the Class 3A Region II meet. Brown and her teammates joked about being asked if the bells were in honor of the Salvation Army bell ringers.
In the winter, Brown was a guard on the junior varsity basketball team. She often guarded the player bringing the ball up the court, locating her by the sound of the dribbling. Brown could tell by the sound pattern when her opponent was crossing over her dribble, and that’s often when she made steals. She even scored after steals, seeing enough through the “coffee stirrer” in her right eye to get near the basket and make a layup.
Basketball did offer some awkward moments. Brown committed some unintentional hard fouls when she lost track of an opponent. A turnover sometimes left her wondering for a moment if she was on offense or defense. And although she can catch the basketball when thrown to her, she needs to know that it’s coming.
“Every once in a while, if they forgot to call her name, she’d get pegged in the face with it,” Ian Brown said. “But that didn’t slow her down.”
It’s hard to slow her down. In the seventh grade, Brown got some bumps and bruises when she fell while running the stadium bleachers in a physical education class. The teacher said Brown didn’t have to run the bleachers again, but she insisted.
“She never fell again,” said Stori Brown, Charlotte’s mother, “and she beat everyone at bleachers from that point forward. She’s very competitive.”
That’s especially true in track and field, the sport that offers the fewest limitations. If Brown has some reference points to get her from the start to the finish, the playing field is level. She doesn’t have to see to go fast.
Brown can’t see the lines on a track, so she always runs in the innermost lane, where she can be guided by the color contrast of the grass-track border. It’s easier when the track is black, but at Myers Stadium, the reddish-brown track blended in more with the green grass. Brown was able to use a black drainage gutter on the inside of the track to guide her.
Brown can only run the third or anchor leg in the 4x400 relay because it allows her to stay in the inside lane, but handoffs are no problem. A teammate yells her name and sometimes snaps her fingers.
“My teammates are great,” Brown said. “They really help me a lot.”
But not in the pole vault. Brown is out there on her own, vaulting herself upside down into blackness.
That might be frightening to some people. But this is the girl who last year broke her arm when she slammed into a hurdle mistakenly left on a track. She’s still out there running, full speed, into the unknown.
And this is the girl who had to be talked out of attempting to play for her junior high football team. “They can’t tackle me if they can’t catch me,” she told her parents.
“No,” they said.
Ian and Stori Brown also had some concerns about the pole vault, which their daughter first tried a year ago. You can’t see where to plant the pole, they told her. You can’t see the bar you’re going over. You can’t see the landing pit.
“Do you have any concerns at all?” Ian Brown said to Charlotte. “Because I have a couple.”
No need to worry, Charlotte said. She only has to run straight and fast, just like on the track. The area for planting the pole and the landing pit are always in the same place.
It’s all about math.
“Fourteen steps to the vault. I just count my strides and I go,” she said. “I know when to put the pole down and jump.”
Two weeks ago, Brown did the math and it added up to a school record. The 5-7 vaulter cleared 9 feet, 6 inches, a mark only 6 inches below one of last year’s state-qualifying heights in 3A.
Brown’s goal is to qualify for the state meet in May, but she’s only a freshman. If not this year, there will be more opportunities. And if not in the pole vault, then perhaps in the 400. Or maybe in the 100 hurdles, which she’s still interested in trying.
Sure, there are 10 hurdles. But she can get over them, she said. It’s all about the math.
“If I can count the steps to the hurdles and the hurdles are all the same distance apart,” she said, “I could do it.”
There’s probably no way to stop her from trying.