Of all the sports played today, pole vault is one of the most demanding in technique and athleticism. So imagine competing when you are legally blind! Not one, but two high school girls have accomplished this daunting and seemingly impossible feat. 15-year-old Charlotte Brown of Emory, Texas and 17-year-old Aria Ottmueller of Chandler, Arizona are both standout athletes who have found out-of-the-box ways to overcome their visual impairment and conquer not just this, but other sports as well.
Brown has very little vision in her right eye, only 20/400 compared to 20/20, which is considered "perfect" vision. Her left eye can at best distinguish between light and dark. However, instead of letting her disability hold her back, Brown and her coach have made creative adjustments to ensure that she flies high over the crossbar.
Because Brown is able to see the difference in the brightness between green grass and the running track, her coach places artificial turf by the edge of the track to indicate her path and help her run straight. Prior to each vault attempt, Brown times her run by counting seven steps with her left foot (14 steps altogether) before planting her pole on the ground. A tape affixed to the ground helps her determine the spot from where she launches herself into the air.
Aria Ottmueller also has 20/400 vision and can only perceive vague shapes. She makes up for her lack of vision with a pre-vault routine similar to Brown's. Her coach lets her know when she has placed herself at the right place in the middle of the track. Then, Ottmueller counts her steps and relies on muscle memory to determine when to put her pole down.
Not only are Brown and Ottmueller able to pole vault, they are vaulting higher than many of their sighted counterparts. This past May, Brown made it all the way to the Texas State Championships, where she finished in eighth place. That makes her the 8th best high school pole vaulter in all of Texas and one of the nation’s preeminent amateur athletes. Her best vault is an impressive 11 feet, six inches.
Ottmueller's path to success is even more astounding. Unlike Brown who began when she was in seventh grade, Ottmueller's first attempt at the sport came in May of this year, when she qualified for the Arizona State Championships. After just a month of practice, she managed to clear an astounding seven feet, six inches and place 6th!
According to the two athletes, their parents and coaches were initially hesitant to let them participate in such a challenging and risky sport. But Brown and Ottmueller convinced them with their tenacity and fearlessness. The best part is that Brown views her impairment an asset because she believes that while sighted pole vaulters may get dizzy or be scared of heights, being up in the air and flipping over 180 degrees seem like normal movements to her.
Brown and Ottmueller's athletic success does not end in the pole vault pit. Ottmueller runs long distance on her track team, rides horses, and was once even a gymnast. Brown is a sprinter and runs the 100 and 200 meters in track. She also showcases her speed and athleticism on the school’s cross country team where she gets help from her teammates who wear bells on their shoes to guide her along the route.
Since Brown and Ottmueller attend regular public high schools, they must adjust in the classroom by employing Braille and magnifying devices to assist in reading and writing. Despite having a busy extracurricular life, both excel in their studies. The talented teenagers are role models on and off the track. They have taken the saying 'never say never' to a whole new level, inspiring athletes and students of all ages to overcome their struggles and take on the impossible.