Visual impairment : Blind since nine years
Marla’s vision was normal until she was about nine years old. When she was in the fourth grade, she first noticed that something was wrong with her vision because she couldn't see the chalkboard at school very clearly. She also had trouble reading her books and had to hold them about an inch from her eyes so she could read the print. Her parents took her to an eye specialist; it was there that she learned that she had Stargardt's Disease, an irreversible form of macular degeneration. With the uneasy but unwavering support of her parents, she has refused to let her disease limit her dreams. Despite her severely impaired, ever-worsening vision, Marla rode horseback and learned to play the violin. But she found her true calling in sports.
Marla says that she has always been a runner. Whether she was just running with her dog or running while playing soccer, she never really started running; she just never stopped running.
In addition to soccer and running, Marla was also interested in other sports. During the 1976 Olympics, when she was only seven years old, Marla was glued to watching gymnasts on TV. She imitated the Olympic gymnasts as she pretended to do balance beam or floor routines. Sometimes she would walk around on her hands and practice doing the splits. She would finish each "routine" with her toes perfectly pointed and her hands high above her head, as if to take a bow to the imaginary audience.
It wasn't until she was 11 years old that Marla ran her first race. She ran the 75-yard dash against a bunch of boys and got really upset because she came in second place. But, that didn't stop Marla from running; in fact, it inspired her to try even harder.
She went to college at San Diego State University, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts and her Master of Arts degrees in Education, specifically the education of children who are deaf or blind.
In everything she did, she tried hard and gave it her best shot. But, even with that mindset, Marla never suspected that she would run in the Olympics one day. Running was something she did for herself; it brought about a sense of accomplishment and just seemed to fit in with her personality. However, after years of running races and training and with support from her mom and dad, Marla did run in the Olympics. In 2000, she became the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympic games. She ran the 1,500 metre race and ranked as the eighth fastest female runner in the world.
A gifted and natural athlete, Marla began to compete in the unlikeliest event of all: the heptathlon, the gruelling women's equivalent of the decathlon, consisting of seven events: the 200 metre dash, high jump, shot put, 100 metre hurdles, long jump, javelin throw, and 800 metre run. In 1996, she astonished the sports world by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials, in which she broke the American record for the heptathlon 800. It was then that she decided to concentrate on her running.
Four years of intense effort paid off: in 2000, she qualified for the US Olympic team by finishing third in the 1,500 metres. Marla ran in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where she proved to be the eighth fastest 1,500 metre female runner in the world. She was the top American finisher – the highest women's placing for the United States in the event's history.
In February 2001, she broke the U.S. indoor track record for the 5,000 metre race by running that distance in 15 minutes and 7 seconds. U.S. Olympian Marla Runyan is a middle-distance runner, which means she runs competitively in races that are 800 metres (half a mile), 1,500 metres (almost a mile), 3,000 metres (almost 2 miles), and 5,000 metres (a little over 3 miles) long.
Marla said being in the Olympics is almost an unreal experience. But, she also realised that sometimes it's the process of working toward your goal that is the most important thing. The work you put into your goal can be even more important than reaching your goal. Marla said that it was quite an honour to compete for the United States, but her sense of personal achievement was even more rewarding.
Marla became an inspiration for others who have vision impairments and an inspiration for everyone to go for whatever they want in life. Marla is running and winning races all over the United States today.
Marla does not consider her vision impairment a disability on the track. She says it can make a race more difficult, but, "like everything in life, I prepare myself and practice so I know what to expect."
Marla says her motivation to keep running comes from her desire to find her potential. She wants to know how fast she can run certain distances. Winning is not her goal. Most of the time she likes to concentrate on what she can train her mind and body to do.
Marla says, "Get out there and enjoy life! Play hard but have fun. Don't allow others to discourage you. Don't listen to negative influences. Believe in yourself and show others what you can do. Only YOU can find your potential. Others are just spectators.