On Sept. 6, Meg Shermer and Kristine Tardiff hustled toward the finish line of the Greg Wilson Classic cross country meet at Johnson County Community College.
“We’re almost there,” Tardiff said, running step for step with Shermer.
“I think your ‘almost there’ isn’t the same as my ‘almost there,’” Shermer joked back.
Soon enough, though, the two crossed the line. Their time didn’t put them at the front of the pack, but Tardiff still credits the event as one of the more emotional and gratifying finishes in her running life.
As the two finished the race, each held the handle of a specially made guide tether. Shermer hasn’t been able to see since she was a young child, but with the help of teachers like Tardiff and her teammates on the Indian Hills cross country team, she’s been able to compete alongside her sighted peers.
“It was an amazing experience,” Tardiff said. “I was really blessed to be a part of that and experience it with her. Whether she realizes it or not, it changes us to be able to support her.”
More opportunity for Meg was one of the reasons the Shermers moved from Ozark, Missouri, to Westwood this summer. When Indian Hills opened sign ups for cross country, there wasn’t much doubt that Meg wanted to be on the team.
“I’ve always loved running,” she said. “I was in a running club when I was in third grade, and it’s just something I’ve always been into.”
But chances to participate in sports alongside sighted students haven’t always been abundant. So Meg’s mother Aundrayah was blown away by the support of the district and administrators at Indian Hills when Meg registered.
“There wasn’t even a question,” she said. “They said, ‘Meg wants to go out for cross-country? Okay, what do we do?’ Nobody freaked out. It was just, ‘We’re going to figure out what we need to do. We’re going to make a few accommodations. We’re going to make it happen.’ No big deal.”
On the first day of practice, Mark Craig, the district’s mobilization orientation specialist, showed up with the guide tether he’d constructed to help Meg run: A stick with two handles on it, one for Meg, and one for a guide. Craig and the coaches asked the team if there were any volunteers who wanted to learn how to be a guide. Several hands shot up. Since then, Meg has had more than a dozen different guides among her peers and the coaches.
The system isn’t flawless. Working with different guides during practices over the weeks, she’s run into a fence and tripped over curbs.
“The rule at our house is ‘no blood, no foul,’” Auydrayah said. “She’ll say to me, ‘No blood, no foul, right?’ And I’ll have to say, ‘Well…there is a little blood.’ But it’s okay!”
But as the weeks have gone on, the guide system has gotten better and better. Tardiff and the other guides have learned how to communicate the terrain to Meg in ways that help her navigate during their training runs. They’ve found that attaching a time to each description helps both Meg and the guide work around obstacles — “We’re going to turn right in 10 seconds,” for instance, or, “There’s a low branch coming up in five seconds.”
Still, there are stumbles. On Tuesday she had a band-aid on a freshly skinned knee.
“It just makes me tougher,” Meg said.
“She shakes it right off,” Tardiff said. “You know, everybody has got their own obstacles. It’s really inspiring to see her overcome hers every day.”
On Thursday, Meg will participate in her third meet, running at SM East. Just a few weeks into the season, though, the fact that she isn’t able to see seems secondary to the fact that she’s a member of the team, just like all of the other students.
“We’re a team,” Tardiff said. “We all support each other.”
“She not a visually impaired cross country runner, now,” said Aundrayah. “She’s a cross country runner who just happens to be visually impaired.”