AUSTIN, Texas – A legally blind 15-year-old pole vaulter cleared three heights at the Texas state championship but failed to win a medal.
Charlotte Brown of rural Emory Rains High School was one of the top qualifiers in girls’ Class 3A with a height of 11 feet, 6 inches. Her best vault of Saturday’s final was 10-6 and she missed on three chances at 11-0 before leaving the track to a standing ovation from several hundred people watching her event.
Brown was born with normal vision but developed problems while an infant. She has no depth perception, sees no color and cannot distinguish shapes. Her range of vision is similar to looking through a tiny straw. She reads Braille and will get a seeing eye dog next month.
Also Saturday, 17-year-old legally blind vaulter Aria Ottmueller was scheduled to compete in the Arizona state meet.
Brown is able to vault by using intense concentration on her approach to the pit, counting her steps and listening to coach Derek Smith yell when he tells her to launch. She places an 80-foot strip of dark, artificial turf next to the running lane to create a light/dark contrast she can follow to keep her running in a straight line.
Brown easily cleared her first three jumps at 9-6, 10-0 and 10-6. The problems began when she clipped the bar with her left elbow on her first attempt at 11-0. After missing her next two jumps, Brown ultimately finished eighth among nine competitors.
The winning height was 12-9 by meet favorite Kally Long of Wimberley, last year’s silver medalist.
After bowing out, Brown slightly slumped her shoulders and got a hug from coach Derek Smith, who had been allowed to stand to the lane to bark out the number of Brown’s steps as she approached each jump. Several of her competitors shook her hand or hugged her as she left the track.
Brown shrugged off the defeat as simply not being at her best.
“I’m still happy because there’s a couple of hundred kids who didn’t get to be here. It’s a privilege to even get to come. I’m one of the top nine in the state, so that’s motivation to come back here and win state,” Brown said.
Brown, whose story attracted national attention in the days before the meet, said she woke up Saturday excited about the meet but wasn’t nervous. But she also noted she had never vaulted at the University of Texas track and perhaps wasn’t quite comfortable in her first state meet.
Although she really couldn’t see the crowd of more than 10,000 at the stadium, she could hear them as fans cheered races going on just a few yards away and the announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers.
At one point, the track announcer told the crowd he would be quiet during Brown’s vault attempts to help her concentrate. Each time she prepped to jump, the crowd near the vault would be silent.
“They did a good job of keeping it down and helping me. I’m used to blocking stuff out,” Brown said. “It’s something I’ll have to deal with when I come back here.”
After she was done, Brown’s father, Ian, rolled up the strip of artificial turf and packed up the weights used to hold it down. Ian Brown said his daughter will be disappointed by the loss but motivated.
“She’ll probably want to vault tomorrow and start thinking about the future,” Ian Brown said. “I’m not disappointed in the least. She got here.”
Later Saturday, Brown was scheduled to receive a special spirit award from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Brown said she’s aware people are starting to look at her as an inspiration for athletes with disabilities.
“If I can inspire people by doing what I think is easy, that’s awesome,” she said.