SYDNEY, Australia -- Marla Runyan looked across the track, watching a mix of shapes and colors tumble around each other like the endless patterns of a kaleidoscope. It was useless to try to figure out what was going on, she knew, but she was having a hard time standing there doing nothing, just waiting for a bunch of other athletes to decide her Olympic fate.
A few minutes earlier, she had placed sixth in a semifinal heat for the 1,500 meters, and while only the top five finishers advanced to the finals automatically, she knew she still had a chance to qualify on the strength of her time of 4:06.14. It all depended on how fast the runners in the other heat finished, and if she could only see them, she might know something already. Instead, all she could make out was a blur.
Finally, as Runyan heard the pounding footsteps in front of her begin to slow, she spun around to ask a French television crew to decipher the bright yellow numbers on the scoreboard at the edge of the stadium.
"They told me what the time was, and I knew I was in," Runyan said, reaching to her head to pluck out a strand of her short brown hair and hold it up between her fingers. "It was by that much, by a hair, by the skin of my teeth, but I'm in. This is incredible."
That Runyan, the Californian who only began running the 1,500 a year ago, advanced out of the semifinal heats Thursday night and into Saturday's final was certainly impressive, but it wasn't nearly as deft a feat as Runyan's simple walk up to the starting line. Legally blind since a degenerative disease robbed her of all but her most peripheral vision, Runyan can see only vague blobs of color as she runs around the track, a condition that had previously relegated her to the Paralympic Games.
For years, that had been enough for Runyan -- she won gold medals in a host of sprints as well as the difficult heptathalon -- but in 1996, just hours after finishing one of her events in Atlanta, she decided she wanted something more. She wanted to be in the Olympic Games. The regular Olympic Games.
Her four-year odyssey since has been grueling as she has switched events, switched coaches and even switched locations, moving from San Diego to Oregon, but as she walked off the track Thursday night, it all seemed more than worth it.
"By me making the Olympic team and getting into the finals, it's saying, 'Look, we can do it -- (the Paralympians) are not that far from an equal level," said Runyan, 31, the first Paralympian to ever compete in the Games. "I've got nothing to lose on Saturday, so I'm just going to run my heart out. I'm really proud of myself. I'm going to run with the best of the world, and I'm going to enjoy it."
This entire Olympics has been one big adventure for Runyan, whose race preparations have often been clouded by the difficult navigation of the most menial tasks. Runyan had to learn by feel which door led to her room in the athletes' village, since she can't read the number posted next to the frame. She had to sit on her bed with a magnifying glass for 2 1/2 hours one night, because she couldn't figure out how to work the buttons on her cellular phone.
The roadways and bus stops have been daunting and the cavernous athletes' cafeteria has been downright terrifying, its maze of buffet tables turning each meal into an obstacle course. One afternoon last week, Runyan was practically moved to tears as she tried to get some broccoli. Three times, she took a spoonful of a green blob of vegetables on a tray in front of her, and three times she had to throw out her portion because she had mistakenly grabbed something she hadn't wanted.
Runyan said she has learned to ask for help more often than she used to -- a kitchen volunteer eventually helped her locate the broccoli -- but that she still feels best when she is out on the red turf of the track, moving strongly through her lane.
"Running on the track is one of the few areas in life where I can really do things independently," she said. "It gives me a sense of strength to be on the track. I really feel free out there."
In Thursday night's semifinal heat, Runyan started strong, even leading at one point as she tried to improve on a shaky performance in Wednesday's preliminary round. As the meters slipped from beneath her feet, she began to lose ground to some of the other runners, but by then she had positioned herself well enough to at least be in contention down the stretch.
She knows that on Saturday, she won't be a favorite for a medal. In fact, she might finish dead last. But she will be there.
"I didn't realize that I would reach so many people by doing this, but the letters and e-mails I've gotten have been truly amazing, and I'm starting to get an idea of what this means," she said. "I started to feel the pressure, and then I thought about it and turned it around into an opportunity.
"I have an opportunity to show the world and all the kids out there losing their vision what their life can be like. Now there's a girl who's legally blind, and she's in the Olympic final. I hope parents out there will say, 'I'm going to let my child be whatever she wants to be.' "
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