U.S. Paralympics Tra... Features ‘I Wanted My Athleti...

‘I Wanted My Athleticism To Be The Quality That Defined Me, Not My Vision Impairment’

By Sheridan Powell | July 22, 2020, 7:20 p.m. (ET)

Marla Runyan crosses the finish line of the women's 5000 Meter Run Final during the U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials on July 12, 2004 in Sacramento, California.

Shayne Culpepper and Marla Runyan cross the finish line of the women's 5000 Meter Run Final during the U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials on July 12, 2004 in Sacramento, California. 

Marla Runyan has always been an athlete. From a young age she was involved in sports - everything from soccer to gymnastics. But when she was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, which would cause her to slowly lose her sight with the degeneration of her retina, she had to make a choice. When she became unable to see the soccer ball, she made the decision to take up running. 

“I feel like I was born an athlete so not doing a sport wasn’t an option - I needed to be doing something, so I chose track.” 

It was in high school that Runyan first competed, where she participated in a wide variety of events. She continued with her track career at San Diego State University, competing in sprints, the heptathlon, the javelin throw and everything in between. Runyan maintained enough residual vision that she could run without a guide, which allowed her to compete both in high school and at the collegiate level against fully-sighted athletes. 

In the early 90s she was introduced to the Paralympic Games, and qualified for the Paralympic Games 1992 Barcelona.  There she took home four gold medals - in the 100m, 200m, 400m and the long jump. Four years later she added to her collection with medals in both the pentathlon and the shot put. It was after the ‘96 games that she decided to take on the challenge of qualifying for the 2000 Games. 

“I felt that to become the best runner that I could be, to be competitive as I could be and to reach my potential, I need to compete against the best runners in the US and in the world.” 

So the next four years of Runyan’s life were dedicated to that challenge. She relocated, changed coaches, even changed events. After a career of sprints and mid-distance, she started running distance. She cites 1999 as the year that launched her into her professional running career. That year she qualified for the IAAF World Championships and finished 10th in the world, and won the gold medal in the 1500m at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg. And just a few short months later, she qualified for her first US Olympic Team. 

Runyan remains the only ambulatory (on-foot) athlete to compete in both the Paralympic and Olympic Games. But the title wasn’t what she was chasing.

“That wasn’t really what motivated me, it wasn’t even really something I thought about. My focus was very simple: how fast can I run?”

And fast she ran. By 2001 she had won her first of her eventual three consecutive 5000m National Championships. A year later, she added national championships in both  road 5K and 10K to her resume as well. She continued to compete until retiring in 2006. 

Since then, she has pursued a variety of different interests. She returned to school to earn a second master's degree, taught in special education, and worked at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. It was there that she was introduced to what is now a major passion of hers - digital accessibility. When explaining digital accessibility, Runyan put it very simply. “Everyone is familiar with the ADA and has a general understanding that we have legislation and policies around our physical environments and making sure they are accessible to everyone. The purpose of digital accessibility is to be able to apply that same concept but to the digital world.” 

Paralympic athletes don’t want you to see and focus on the fact that they just happen to have an impairment, they want you to see who they are as athletes.

People like Runyan with vision impairments use assistive technology to use the internet every day - using things like screen readers and screen magnification. Individuals with mobility impairments use keyboard only navigation. But some properties and products still remain inaccessible to people using assistive technology, making everyday tasks like working at a job or paying bills difficult. Runyan has dedicated herself to advocating for legislation and policies for digital accessibility, as well as helping institutions learn how to build accessible digital products. She also works as the Para athlete manager for the Boston Marathon, where she manages the para athlete programs and divisions. 

“This has been an amazing position, because I feel like I’ve been able to apply my personal experience as both a Paralympian and an Olympian as well as my education background and my accessibility knowledge and bring it all together and put it towards creating programs and competitive divisions for our para athletes around the world.”  In the nearly 14 years since her retirement, Runyan has been able to watch the Paralympic movement grow, evolve and improve. With each new sport and each record broken, she sees para athletes pushing boundaries and taking the sports themselves to a whole new level. 

As the Games continue to grow, Runyan stresses the importance of the presentation of the games. “Paralympic athletes don’t want you to see and focus on the fact that they just happen to have an impairment, they want you to see who they are as athletes. That’s what I always wanted - I wanted my athleticism to be the quality that defined me, not my vision impairment."

Related Athletes

head shot

Marla Runyan