Paralympic Athletes Set to Compete in Penn Relays

April 23, 2009, 12:16 p.m. (ET)

IMAGINE FOR A moment closing your eyes and running 10 feet. Try squinting to the point where you can barely see, or your vision is blurred and you're running full speed for 100 yards. Not knowing when or where to stop. Not knowing if you're even running straight. Feel uncomfortable, uncertain? Feel like you're drifting to where you're about to fall and have to put your hand out to navigate?

Now you have a general sense of how Josiah Jamison and Royal Mitchell must feel each time they go careening down a narrow corridor at world-class speed. They can feel the crowd. They can sense the excitement. They just can't see it.

Jamison and Mitchell are both 26 and visually impaired. They will be part of a 100-meter race involving the fastest visually impaired sprinters in the country around 3 p.m. tomorrow at the 115th running of the Penn Relays.

They're special.

They're special not because they're blind, but because they're fast - and because of what they both have had to overcome to attain this level.

Jamison is the reigning T12 Paralympic 100-meter world champion (the lower the number, the higher the visual impairment; the range goes from T11 to T13). Mitchell is a two-time gold medalist in the T13 100- and 400-meter dashes in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004.

Both will be taking classes this fall at Penn State. They both train at the Olympic Training Center, in Chula Vista, Calif., with Olympic-caliber runners. They're both very serious about track, with the attitude that they want to be treated as able-bodied athletes.

They grew up 20 minutes apart in South Carolina, but their paths to the Penn Relays were slightly different.

Josiah Jamison carries his gold medal everywhere except into the shower and bed. It's the same Olympic gold medal Michael Phelps and able-bodied Olympians have. Jamison is proud of it. He has it tucked away in a wooden box in his pocket, and will be more than eager to show anyone, if they ask. He is built more like an NFL wide receiver, at 6-4, 195 pounds.

And that might have been his destination, if he didn't suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited condition characterized by progressive degeneration of the retina, resulting in night blindness and decreased peripheral vision.

He was born legally blind, but he wasn't diagnosed until he was 3. His family noticed he began walking into obvious things in front of him. The youngest of eight boys, Jamison was always encouraged by his family to get involved with sports. But that came with a cruel edge sometimes.

One time, his basketball coach pulled him aside during practice and told Jamison the only reason he was on the team was because he felt sorry for him.

"That hurt, because I used to look up to the guy," says Jamison, who competes with a guide runner tethered to him. "I used to wear these protective goggles, and playing basketball, I used to be picked on about my goggles. Other kids would try to throw the ball to me as fast as they could to see if I could catch it, or it would hit me in the face. This created a little bit of a fire, you can say. I used to get into fights. There was a time I wanted to quit school because of that, but I got through it."

Jamison was introduced to track late, in 2003. He used to work out at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind (SCSDB), in Spartanburg. That's when SCSDB athletic director Jack Todd saw him running one day and suggested that he try out for the U.S. Paralympics.

"I was always fast," Jamison said. "I tried football, but my vision is really bad at night, and I can't see anything. It was just a matter of getting a chance to show what I could do."

He did in Beijing last year, running a time of 10.88 to win the 100. He works out regularly in Chula Vista, and is looking forward to coming to Penn State, where he plans on majoring in computer technology and business.

"Growing up with any disability is always going to be a challenge," Jamison said. "To this day, I think back at what that basketball coach said to me. It made me take on a different approach to life."

It's why the gold medal goes everywhere he goes. He just has to feel for the wooden box as a little reminder as to how far he has come.

Mitchell, who lived briefly in the Ardmore and Bryn Mawr areas and attended Delaware County Community College and Harcum College, is Jamison's workout partner.

Where Jamison is reserved and soft-spoken, Mitchell is ebullient.

Mitchell, who is working on a bachelor's degree in recreational therapy, suffers from severe myopia. Jamison can't see in the dark. Mitchell has limited vision during the day.

Mitchell, who is build more like a cornerback at 6-1, 175, endured some of the same ignorance as Jamison. The twist is that Mitchell encountered this at SCSDB, the school for the hearing and visually impaired, before being mainstreamed and transferring into Spartanburg High, where he ran track and played basketball.

"Fortunately for me, I had a family that wouldn't let me be labeled a certain way," he said. "They wouldn't let my vision define who I was, and I had to do the same things the average visual-impaired person had to overcome. I grew up on a farm and had to wake up at 5 every morning to shovel manure like everyone else did. I owe a lot to my family."

Still, Mitchell gets an occasional odd look. He has to read with his nose up against a computer screen or burrow his face literally in a book. People think he's trying to smell the book, his face is that close to it.

This is Jamison's first Penn Relays and Mitchell's third. They both will feel the crowd. They just won't see it.

Mitchell equated running blind to wearing the drug goggles that police use in safety programs to simulate what it's like driving 25 mph intoxicated. That's what it's like running blind. There are equilibrium issues, balance issues.

"It is a challenge running blind," Mitchell said. "Realistically, there are some things I know I can't do. Running is something I know I can do."

What drives him now is winning at the Penn Relays. While Jamison and Mitchell competed in different classes (T12 and T13) at the Paralympic Games, they will run against each other here.

"We're all working out, trying to get an edge on each other, but this race is more about bragging rights, and right now, Josiah is the man," Mitchell said. *

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