Courageous vaulter is an inspirational sight

Courageous vaulter is an inspirational sight
US pole vaulter Charlotte Brown, 17

The dog in the photograph is the only clue that this girl is different. The dog is sitting alongside the athlete on the third-position place on a podium. Both their necks are turned, tilting towards each other in an eloquent gesture of oneness and affection.

The dog is the one who leads the girl, 17, on her walk through the lay-out of the vaulting area. Then he sits and watches and maybe yawns as she grasps a long pole, runs, counts her steps, listens for a beep, plants a pole and vaults into the unknown.

Or, to be precise, 3.50 metres last week. Which won her bronze at a Texas state high school athletics meet and got them both onto that podium. The dog's name is Vador and he is a seeing-eye dog. The girl's name is Charlotte Brown and she leaps into a sky whose blueness is lost to her. She is a pole vaulter of blinding brilliance who cannot see.

Pause. Imagine.

Blind and pole-vaulting. To sprint 24m down a runway and not see anything. To plant a pole in a box you cannot distinguish. To rise into darkness and light. To invert and curve over a bar you cannot sight. To descend and not know where. To have a pole or bar fall on you and not see it coming.

Can you imagine?

Sean Lim, for all his fine gifts, can't. He, Singapore's first man to vault over 5m, is guided by sight. "First, I need to see where I am heading. The pole has to be centralised in the box. In the air I have to see where I am. Am I far from the bar? It's a gauge of where you are in midair."

It makes perfect sense. It's also why Lim, tough and tensile, laughs ruefully when I ask what would happen if I blindfolded him and then asked him to vault.

"I'd be very disoriented. And really scared." Lim paints a rugged picture of an event that is the high church of athletics. A pursuit "technical" and "intricate", a feat "thrilling " and with a "fear factor". To look at it is to marvel at its elastic athleticism; that Brown does it without looking is to be inspired by her flight of faith.

This is a story that is a blend of sports' most glittering parts: Of amateur work ethic and not superstar whining, of spirit not salaries, of humanity not hype. This is a tale of inclusiveness in a divisive planet, of officials - as Melissa Isaacson wrote in a superb 2014 article on espnW - who never thought that Brown's disability meant no ability.

This is a chronicle of invention where every obstacle finds irresistible solution. Laurentia Tan, Singapore's profoundly deaf Paralympic rider, can't hear music yet learnt through feel to work out if she was behind or ahead of the music. Brown conversely focuses on sound, using a beeper to guide her to the planting box as two coaches - one who whistles - stand close by to orient her. After seven strides of her left foot, she plants the pole.

This is a yarn of parents who prefer to fight, not to fold. As her father Ian told Isaacson: "We have a whine-and complain-free household... We all go through obstacles at work, school, home. Everyone has something. This is her something."

This is a story of an athlete who arrives from a historic tribe, whose members stand as a validation of humankind's obstinate beauty. The great middleweight Harry Greb boxed in his later years with only one eye, and Zach Hodskins (basketball), Bethany Hamilton (surfing) and Natalia Partyka ( table tennis) all compete with a single arm.

Neroli Fairhall, paralysed from the waist down after a motorcycle accident, won archery gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games while gymnast George Eyser won multiple medals, including the vault, at the 1904 Olympics on a wooden leg.

We try not to compare these stories for to rate one higher is to dilute another. And yet Brown astonishes us because the loss of sight, the dissolving of the world before us into nothingness, seems terrifying. The very idea stills us and yet Brown soars. Enough for Lim to say: "I feel inspired. She does it without seeing and yet we are scared of things we don't have to be scared about."

After cataracts as a child, Brown's sight deteriorated till she can now see only light and dark shades. Vision lost but resolve unshaken. Two years ago she jumped 3.23m, last year 3.35m, now, who knows? Yet in her every vault lies a message: this is not some pity exhibit, this is a competitor. Who just happens to bring her dog to the field.

"This story really wasn't about me," Brown has said. "It was about everybody that struggles with something." It was also about how we choose to look at the world. Seeing is believing is a cliche we often repeat, as if nothing is possibly real unless it is there before us. But Brown's beautiful lesson to us is that by believing in herself, she has seen that nothing is impossible.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on May 19, 2015.
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