When the gun goes off, a slight young girl with a shock of white hair bursts off the starting line. Her legs pump harder as she picks up speed, eventually outpacing her competitors as she sprints furiously towards the finish line. There’s just one problem: She can’t see it.
“I didn’t even know when I was done,” recalls Pam McGonigle. “I just ran.” McGonigle, now in her 40s, has albinism, a rare genetic condition where the body doesn’t produce normal pigment, and has been legally blind since birth (vision problems are a common side effect of albinism). But her lack of vision didn’t stop her from competing against her sighted peers as a cross-country runner in middle school. And it didn’t stop her from being recruited to her high-school track team after the coach recognized her raw ability.
As a high-school student, McGonigle ran unassisted, and often had to slow her pace so she could run next to her teammates; otherwise, she risked running into trees. It wasn’t until she was training for the 1992 Paralympics that she got a guide runner, a sighted person who leads a blind runner along the course.
A generation of visually impaired athletes like McGonigle have proven their ability to compete in a variety of sports—from running to bowling to soccer—but in many ways, the challenges she faced as a child still loom as large as ever. Being blind too often comes with an assumption of being incapable, and never being given a chance to prove otherwise. Rather than integrate visually impaired children with their sighted peers for sports, schools often pull them out of physical education to sit in the library and work.