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Meet Marla Runyan, The Only American To Compete At The Olympic And Paralympic Games

By Stuart Lieberman | March 21, 2016, 6:20 p.m. (ET)

Only 11 athletes in history — not including sighted guides — have competed in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Marla Runyan is the only one of those athletes to come from the United States.

Marla Runyan competes in the women's 5,000-meter final at the U.S. championships June 20, 2003 at Cobb Track and Angell Field at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

Originally from Santa Maria, California, Runyan has Stargardt Disease, a degeneration of the retina that left her with a hole in the center of her vision, which means her eyesight is no better than 20/400 and she is legally blind.

A sprinter, Runyan began her international sports career by focusing on events specifically for visually impaired athletes and was highly successful. She won four gold medals at the Barcelona 1992 Paralympic Games, taking the title in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter distances, as well as the long jump, in what was back then the B3 class. Not to mention, she also competed in cycling at those Games.

Runyan also aspired to compete in the Olympic Games, but failed to qualify at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, finishing 10th in the heptathlon.

She did, however, add a fifth Paralympic title to her name at the Atlanta 1996 Games, winning the pentathlon, as well as taking silver in the shot put.

Runyan then decided to switch over to distance running, moving from San Diego to Oregon, and she hired a new coach. Within three years, she won her first major able-bodied title, finishing first over 1,500 meters at the 1999 Pan American Games. The following year, she finished eighth in the distance in her Olympic debut at the Sydney 2000 Games.

The hardest thing for her about taking part in the Olympic Games wasn’t necessarily her competition, she said, but rather not being able to see the clock or the lap counter.

Runyan also transitioned to road racing, finishing as the top American and fourth overall woman at the 2002 New York City Marathon, while posting the second-fastest debut time ever by an American woman.

She closed her career on the international stage by representing the United States in the 5,000-meter at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, a year before having her first child at age 36.

Following her competitive running career, she released her autobiography, “No Finish Line: My Life As I See It,” and married her coach, Matt Lonergan.

Today, Runyan is a spokesperson and ambassador for Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts, a prestigious institution whose most famous graduate is Helen Keller. She is also a digital accessibility services team leader for their technology innovation division, Perkins Solution.

*While Runyan is the only U.S. Paralympian to compete in the Olympics, Paralympic athletes have also participated in exhibition events at the Olympics in both alpine skiing (1984) and track and field (1984-2004). U.S. athletes won 14 medals in those exhibition events, including two golds.

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Marla Runyan