Noah Malone competes in the men's 100-meter and 200-meter races at the 2018 Desert Challenge Games.
Noah Malone listens as his track and field coach standing two feet away calls out words like “halfway” and “15.”
This is a system Malone has devised with his coach to help the teenager run the anchor leg for his 4x100-meter team.
Legally blind, Malone can’t see his teammate running the third leg, so his coach gives him updates on the race. How quickly is his teammate approaching? Is he less than 15 meters away?
Malone waits for his cue to start running. As soon as he hears his coach yell, “Fire!” he darts toward the finish line and any other landmarks he can vaguely make out with his 20/600 vision.
“I walk the track before every meet just to know where the finish line is and different things like that,” he said.
Malone tries not to overthink it, though. While his vision is blurry, he can still see the white lines painted on the track. Most of all, the high school sprinter is fast.
Malone’s mother noticed her son was quick when he was running around the backyard at age 10. He’s now a 5-foot-10, 154-pound junior who has aspirations of medaling at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 and someday running for a Division I college track team.
“Ever since I was introduced to the Paralympic world last year, that’s really been my ultimate goal, to get there,” Malone said. “I’ll be 18 once Tokyo comes around and that would be amazing if that happened.
“I’m really trying to drill my times down to make that happen.”
At this point, Malone could be competing against himself in Tokyo. His personal best of 10.70 seconds in the 100-meter would have earned him a gold medal in the T12 classification at the 2016 Games in Rio.
Racing alongside teenagers who likely had never heard of the eye condition known as Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), Malone took fourth in the 100 at the Indiana high school track and field state tournament in June.
He finished two tenths of a second away from a state championship in the 100, and he placed fourth in the 200 with a time of 21.71 seconds.
“It’s really motivating,” Malone said of the prospect of winning gold at the Paralympics. “It’s also very humbling because that opportunity is there, so I don’t want to mess it up. I don’t want to take it for granted.”
Malone was 13 when he was diagnosed with LHON, a rare, inherited form of vision loss. He initially didn’t notice any problems, and he assumed it would take a long time for his vision to digress.
However, within two to three months, Malone had lost half of his vision.
“I was just like, ‘Oh, this is nothing. I’ll be fine,’” Malone said. “But then once track season came around, it was a whole new story because I probably lost half of my vision at that point.
“I had to make a lot of adjustments my first track season running visually impaired. It was a big difference.”
While Malone’s running style didn’t change, he could no longer do some of the workouts that had become routine for him in practice. He couldn’t train anymore with mini hurdles because he couldn’t see them on the ground.
Malone attends two schools, spending the first half of the day taking classes at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Indianapolis. He then leaves around noon and rides a bus for 30 minutes to Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers, Indiana.
Malone was unfamiliar with the Paralympic movement until last fall when he received a phone call from Cathy Sellers before she retired as director of U.S. Paralympics Track & Field.
A teacher at the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired knew Sellers and had told her about Malone. Sellers called his family to introduce herself and tell them about the Paralympic Games.
“Honestly, I didn’t know too much about it. I was still competing against able-bodied athletes and people with sight,” Malone said. “So I really didn’t have any idea about anything like that.
“I wouldn’t say it was a shock to me, but it was just an eye-opener just how many opportunities are out there.”
Only a few months later, in February, Malone was training at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California.
Since then, he has worked on his technique, tried to become more explosive and started lifting weights for the first time in his life.
“There’s just different training that I’m putting in this year that I haven’t done in the past,” Malone said. “I’m just looking at it differently, looking at training differently.”
He can see his future just fine.