BRISBANE, Australia -- Marla Runyan has difficulty reading all the inspiring responses she has received since becoming the first Paralympics athlete to make the U.S. Olympic team.
"I like the aspect of being an inspiration," Runyan, who is legally blind, said Thursday. "I've been totally shocked by the reaction I've received, not only in the United States but from around the world.
"A boy in Turkey wrote, there was an e-mail from Israel, there have been phone calls from Argentina, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Brazil. "This is the most positive thing I've gotten out of this for just running a race."
The 31-year-old Runyan has been legally blind she was 9. She has been participating in sports since that time and been in track and field for 14 years.
She became one of the great success stories of the year in any sport when she made the U.S. team in the 1,500 meters, finishing third at the Olympic trials at Sacramento, Calif., in July.
The cards, letters, phone calls and e-mails have been overwhelming and heartwarming since that impressive performance.
There was an e-mail from a woman who has Stargardt's disease, the same affliction as Runyan. The woman said she had taken about an hour to read about Runyan's story, and was so moved she felt she had to write.
Another e-mail came from a girl in Chicago, also with Stargardt's, who is going for her second postgraduate degree. Runyan plans to meet with her after the track season.
Numerous letters have been received from people requesting that Runyan become their coach.
Still another came from a woman in Tennessee, whose 13-year-old son has Stargardt's but wanted to be a skateboarder and asked his mother for a ramp so he could practice.
"She said no," Runyan said. "Not with your vision. Then, she saw my story, and she told her son, 'Go get the ramp.' "
While Runyan tries to read all her e-mail, she struggles.
"I have a voice output system on my computer and enlarged letters on the screen," she said. "I try to scroll. Sometimes, I have only three letters on the screen. Finally, after a while, I give up."
Runyan has continually shown that being blind is not a total handicap.
She competed in gymnastics and soccer until she couldn't see the ball any longer. She then switched to track and field, and excelled as a high jumper at Camarillo (Calif.) High School, and as a heptathlete -- the demanding seven-event discipline -- at San Diego State.
In the heptathlon, she was twice ranked in the top 10 in the United States and placed 10th at the 1996 Olympic trials. At the trials, she set a heptathlon record for 800 meters of 2 minutes, 4.70 seconds, convincing her to drop the multi-event competition and become a middle-distance runner.
Knee and foot surgery kept her out of competition for the next two years, but she came back in 1999 and won the Pan American Games 1,500 and finished 10th at the World Championships.
In June, five weeks before the trials, Runyan damaged tendons in her left leg when she jumped in the way of a child on a bicycle during a training run. Knowing she had overcome bigger challenges, Runyan knew this wasn't going to deter her from competing at the trials.
Sports was Runyan's early release from studies.
"I struggled in the classroom," she said. "Everything was very laborious. When I went outside and played sports, I felt as if I could do as well as everyone else."
Despite her visual impairment -- her vision has deteriorated to 20/400 -- Runyan is able to navigate with most runners.
"I can run around or pass people," she said. "There's no threat of bumping into someone I didn't see. The biggest challenge is to keep track of someone who is about three seconds ahead."
Runyan doesn't expect any sympathy at the games, where she figures the racing will be "fast and tactical -- a combination of both."
"I don't expect any mercy, no mercy whatsoever," she said. "They're not going to say, 'Go ahead, Marla.' That's not going to happen."
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