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 eye as a young kid from a getting hit in the eye, so he was used to living with some vision loss.
He completely lost his vision at seven years old. He went blind when doctors tried to fix Lofton’s retinal detachment through surgery but couldn’t.
“It helped me be more independent because I had to relearn everything I used to be able to do from scratch,” Lofton said. “Because you have to use your hands and your other senses to learn.
“I guess that made me a bigger, stronger person.”
Lofton is strong enough and big enough to be the face of the wave of blind students joining more athletic teams at FSDB. Longtime athletic director Donna Johnson said he is a “magnet” for other blind students – on and off the team.
“He’s just an amazing person and such a nice person inside and out,” Johnson added.
Lofton's magnetism could be just what Johnson and the athletic department needs to increase blind athletes’ participation in sports.
Johnson has done the best throughout her tenure to be present in both the blind and Deaf departments, encouraging every student to participate in athletics — to let them know they are at a place that will do anything it takes to allow them to compete if they want to compete.
“It’s just making that connection and showing the blind students that we support them just as much as we support our Deaf students,” Johnson said.
Johnson has staff from the Deaf and blind departments who coach the team, to connect the students to someone with whom they are familiar. Assistant cross country coach David McFee is Deaf.
McFee and the Deaf runners serve as guides for the blind athletes during practice. Tutak said it’s really a family atmosphere.
Lofton would like for more of his FSDB family, his blind peers, to compete in more sports.
“I can be an inspiration by showing them my time and how I improved over the season – how I’m getting better and better,” Lofton said. “By this year I want to drop [my time] under 30.”
Last week, he ran a 32.25. His third meet ever.
The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind is a tuition-free state public school and outreach center available to eligible pre-K and K-12 students who are deaf/hard of hearing, blind/visually impaired or deafblind. At FSDB, students learn how to do more, be more, and achieve more, fulfilling our vision of preparing them for a lifetime of success. FSDB gratefully accepts private donations to support vital programs that directly benefit students and are not paid by state general revenue funds. To inquire about enrollment eligibility or schedule a campus tour, contact Parent Services at 904-827-2212 voice or 904-201-4527 videophone. For more information about FSDB, visit www.fsdbk12.org.