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Blind girl pole vaulter 1 of best in Texas

Friday - 5/10/2013, 8:44pm  ET

Emory Rains High School's Charlotte Brown, 15, poses for a photo near the pole vault pit at the UIL State Track & Field meet, Friday, May 10, 2013, in Austin, Texas. Despite being legally blind, Brown is one of the best pole vaulters in Texas and a favorite to medal Saturday in Class 3A at the high school state championship meet at the University of Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

JIM VERTUNO
AP Sports Writer

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- To see the world as 15-year-old Charlotte Brown does, imagine looking through a tiny straw. Strip away all color and depth perception from the pinhole view and use a right eye that can't distinguish shape from shadow.

Now run about 80 feet, counting seven steps with your left foot before planting a nearly 13-foot pole in the ground to launch your body a dozen feet into the air.

That's right. Brown is a pole vaulter. And despite being legally blind, she's one of the best in Texas and a favorite to medal Saturday in Class 3A at the high school state championship meet at the University of Texas.

"I've always wanted to do stuff with adrenaline," Brown said Friday. "Most people think it's crazy to pole vault. I've always just thought it would be lot of fun. I run full speed at a stationary object that I can't see."

Brown is one of at least two legally blind pole vaulters competing for state titles this weekend. Aria Ottmueller, 17, of Chandler, Ariz., is competing in that state.

Brown, who lives in Emory, a town of 1,200 about 65 miles east of Dallas, was born with normal vision but developed cataracts when she was just 16 weeks old. That led to the first of several surgeries on her eyes, including insertion of artificial lenses. Her vision stabilized until she was about 11 when it started getting worse and doctors still have not been able to determine why. She reads Braille.

Despite the disability, she attacked athletics from an early age to keep up with two older brothers. There was even a time she was determined to play football.

"She wanted to play wide receiver," her father Ian Brown said. "So we went in the front yard and tossed the ball around. That's when we decided that not being able to see the ball was a bit of a challenge."

Nothing else has stopped her. Brown runs cross country, where her teammates wear bells on their shoes to help lead her through the course. As a sprinter, she qualified for the state regional finals in the 100 and 200 meters. She runs inside, where it's easiest to distinguish the light and dark contrast between the track and grassy infield to help her stay in her lane.

And until last season, she also played basketball, where she typically guarded the opposing point guard and had a tendency to deliver some hard fouls.

But pole vault requires special timing, balance, strength -- and courage -- to excel and it is difficult enough for someone with perfect vision to master. Ian Brown admits he was nervous the first time his daughter practiced the vault in 7th grade. He was sizing up the landing pit when he asked her a series of questions:

Can you see the bag? No.

Can you see the bar? No.

Can you see the pit? No.

"I've got some concerns here," Brown told his daughter.

"Great," she replied. "Now get out of the way."

"She's utterly fearless," dad said. "To be a pole vaulter, a person needs a bit of daredevil. With her, it's kind of remarkable. The person who should be the most frightened of it isn't frightened at all."

That fearlessness, and a routine honed to perfection, has carried her to the state meet.

To jump, Brown sets a special tape marker 76 feet, 6 inches away from the launching point. Her approach to the bag is measured in 14 steps, but once she starts, she only counts the seven steps with her left foot. That's because it's fewer numbers to think about and she uses her left to plant and launch herself skyward.

From there, it's just a matter of going up and coming down. It's also the one time being blind might be an advantage, Brown said.

"It would be scarier to vault if I could see," she said. "I wouldn't want to look down."

The key for Brown is staying straight on her approach. If she drifts right or left on her approach, she risks smashing into the standards that hold the crossbar she's trying to clear. Mistakes -- and crashes -- have happened, but she's never been seriously hurt. She had one bad flop when she first started training, but shrugged it off by telling herself "now I know what NOT to do."

To keep her running in a straight line, Brown unfurls an 80-foot strip of dark artificial turf next to the lane. That gives her a light/dark contrast that she can follow to know she's running straight.

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