The winds are changing – ever so slightly – at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind.
The athletic department, ever populated by Deaf students, is getting more interest from blind students. The shift is happening most notably in other sports outside of goalball – which is the most popular sport for blind students at FSDB.
More blind students are participating in track, wrestling and – this year – cross country. A whopping nine of the 13 runners on this year’s cross country team are blind, which is a stark difference from what head coach Anna Tutak has seen during her six years of coaching long distance running at FSDB.
“I think it’s exciting,” said Tutak, who is a physical education teacher in the blind department. “More and more of our students in the blind department are realizing they can run long distances. They can do it. They can try something new and be successful at it.”
Case in point? Khayree Lofton, a completely blind athlete who ran a 36:52 in his first ever five-kilometer race in late August.
Lofton, a freshman, joined the team to stay conditioned for wrestling. He has quickly become one of the team’s top runners.
His rapid success is no shock to Tutak, who teaches him in P.E. He’s that kid in gym class who picks up everything he’s taught and does it well.
“He’s fearless,” Tutak said.
By completing a 5K, Lofton completed a mountain of an achievement for any person – let alone a blind one. And Lofton, who is as straightforward as they come, didn’t hide the struggle.
“I wanted to quit in the first 10 minutes,” Lofton said. “But I just kept pushing myself. I wanted to get under 40 minutes and I did it.”
He was also nervous, which is understandable. It's a nerve-wracking experience for blind people to run.
Track is one thing. Athletes running on a flat, even surface in one cyclical direction. At FSDB, there is a rail around the track that blind athletes can tap to help them stay in their lane and hear other athletes in front of them. Khayree has gotten used to that.
Cross country, however, is on a whole other level. The course direction, terrain and conditions change. Not to mention, runners run for longer times, braving all of those changes repeatedly.
The rail in track becomes a person in cross country. A guide takes the arm of the blind runner, guides the athlete around the course and tells them what’s ahead.
“This [cross country] takes me out of my comfort zone and has me doing something new,” said Lofton, who is more of a sprinter. “That’s fun. Setting higher goals and trying to surpass them.”
After all, he already surpassed the biggest challenge of his life.
Lofton’s transition from having full vision to complete blindness came in two stages. He had already lost vision in one