Q&A: First legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympic Games

A conversation with Marla Runyan

Marla Runyan standing in front of Perkins Tower

Perkins spokesperson Marla Runyan talks about her journey from competitive athlete to teacher and spokesperson.

Marla Runyan, the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympic Games, joined the Perkins community as a Secondary Program teacher in 2013. Starting this spring, she’s also serving as a Perkins spokes­person, inspiring audiences around the U.S. with her story. Diagnosed with progressive vision loss as a child, Runyan went on to compete in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics and become a three-time national champion in distance running. She recently talked to Perspectives about her journey from competitive athlete to teacher and spokesperson.

How has your visual impairment affected your life?

When I was 10 years old I was diagnosed with Stargardt disease and failing vision. I remember how the expectations around me just fell. Like anything I did was okay. I felt it from my parents and my teachers. That angered me. And I took that and turned it around and I became this very competitive, “I’m going to show you what I can do” kind of person. No one would have ever imagined that I was going to make an Olympic team!

I always look back on that time, and I think, a diagnosis is not a prognosis of how you function as a person, because your functioning relies on so many other variables – on your self-determination, your personality. I would not want to limit the potential of a child based on whether they’re blind, or have additional disabilities. It’s more about leaving that possibility wide open, to find out who they are and what they can do.

Do you see yourself as a role model?

I hope so! I’m honored to be seen that way. To me, being a role model goes beyond just how someone participates in a sport. I don’t traditionally ever give up on things, and my determination is what might make me a good role model. The fact that I ran in the Olympics is an outcome of that determination.

What life lessons do you share with your students?

There are two main things that really are important to me. The first being self-determination – empowering students to make decisions about their own lives. The second part is technology, because I can say as a person with a vision impairment that I wouldn’t have two master’s degrees if it wasn’t for technology. It’s such a gateway to communication and education and independence.

How important are sports for children who are blind?

It’s hugely important. It’s essential that they have physical activity in their lives. Think about sports. Not only is it just the physical part of sports – you’re active, you’re healthy – but there’s a huge social component. The other incredible benefit of sports is self-determination. It’s all about goal setting, and accomplishments, and problem-solving. You get very empowered through sports when you start doing things you didn’t know you could do. I know the difference sports made in my life. It’s immeasurable.