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Runyan's Race to The Final Is a Very Close Call

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Marla Runyan is the first Paralympian to participate in the Olympic games. She finished eighth in the finals of the 1,500 metres. The following article is re-printed from the Washington Post, September 29, 2000.

SYDNEY, Australia -- Marla Runyan looked across the track, watching a mix of shapes and colors tumble around each other like the endless patterns of a kaleidoscope. It was useless to try to figure out what was going on, she knew, but she was having a hard time standing there doing nothing, just waiting for a bunch of other athletes to decide her Olympic fate.

A few minutes earlier, she had placed sixth in a semifinal heat for the 1,500 meters, and while only the top five finishers advanced to the final automatically, she knew she still had a chance to qualify on the strength of her time of 4:06.14. It all depended on how fast the runners in the other heat finished, and if she could only see them, she might know something already. Instead, all she could make out was a blur.

Finally, as Runyan heard the pounding footsteps in front of her begin to slow, she spun around to ask a French television crew to decipher the bright yellow numbers on the scoreboard at the edge of the stadium.

"They told me what the time was, and I knew I was in," Runyan said, reaching to her head to pluck out a strand of her short brown hair and hold it up between her fingers. "It was by that much, by a hair, by the skin of my teeth, but I'm in. This is incredible."

That Runyan, the Californian who began running the 1,500 only a year ago, advanced out of the semifinal heats Thursday night and into Saturday's final was certainly impressive, but it wasn't nearly as deft a feat as Runyan's simple walk up to the starting line. Legally blind since a degenerative disease robbed her of all but her most peripheral vision, Runyan can see only vague blobs of color as she runs around the track. The condition had previously relegated her to the Paralympic Games.

For years, that had been enough for Runyan -- she won gold medals in a host of sprints as well as the difficult heptathalon -- but in 1996, just hours after finishing one of her events in Atlanta, she decided she wanted something more. She wanted to be in the Olympic Games. The regular Olympic Games.

Her four-year odyssey since has been grueling as she has switched events, switched coaches, and even switched locations, moving from San Diego to Oregon, but as she walked off the track Thursday night, it all seemed more than worth it.

"Making the Olympic team and getting into the finals is saying, 'Look, we can do it [the Paralympians] are not that far from an equal level,' " said Runyan, 31, the first Paralympian ever to compete in the Games. "I've got nothing to lose on Saturday, so I'm just going to run my heart out. I'm really proud of myself. I'm going to run with the best of the world, and I'm going to enjoy it."