Darkness can be paralyzing.
Think about when a blackout occurs. The initial reaction is to freeze and the next move is usually hesitant until your bearings are found or the lights come back on.
For 17-year-old Aria Ottmueller the darkness never ends, but her persistence and willingness to fight instead of succumb to a disability is a shining beacon that is getting brighter by the week.
The Valley Christian junior was born completely blind because of optic nerve hypoplasia, a medical condition arising from the underdevelopment of the optic nerve. She gained some sight (20/200) at age 4, only to lose 50 percent of that in the eighth grade (20/400).
It doesn’t exactly align with standing at the end of a runway with a pole vault in one’s hands.
Yet she was neither paralyzed by fear nor hesitant. In fact, she was one of the best competitors at Queen Creek High School on Monday.
Despite the fact that she can’t see at all while running down the runway, not to mention the fact that she’s only had about six practices, Ottmueller finished third at the Southeast Valley Championships by clearing 7 feet.
“What she does is amazing,” said Valley Christian senior captain Colin Lowney, who cleared 12-7 this season. “She’s had a couple of scary moments, but she is an insane jumper. I thought she was crazy last year and told her no way. I told her she was going to have to run about 40 feet with a pole and put it perfectly into a box that’s 1 feet wide and 3 feet long.
“She was like, ‘I can do that.’ It’s so scary to think about what she does. I don’t know how she can do it.”
Ottmueller set a personal best mark on Monday and proved that her state qualifying mark of 6-feet-7 for Division IV last week wasn’t a fluke, but a starting point.
“I wanted to try it because I have a horse jumping and gymnastics background,” she said. “I know what it is like being in the air and I love that feeling. I just wanted the chance because I knew I could do it once we figured it out.”
Ottmueller’s debut last week was a year in the making. She pestered Valley Christian coach Dan Kuiper every chance she could about the opportunity. The answer came back, “No chance.”
Again and again.
“I was setting him up to do it this year,” she said with a smirk. “I figured I’d see what they thought about it. He said no, but I told him I bet I get to do it next year.”
And maybe what the Valley Christian officials should have realized, considering she was already inspiring people when she’d fall and get back up as a long distance runner, was that Ottmueller doesn’t take kindly to the idea of being told she can’t do something.
She didn’t care about the liability issues. It was something that could be worked out in time. Trojan pole vault coach Perry Fraley was on board from the start. Ottmueller knew she had the support of her parents, who haven’t treated her any different than her three younger siblings.
It was just a matter of convincing others, and that just might be Ottmueller’s specialty.
“What they didn’t realize was how persistent Aria is,” said her mother, Maria Giordano. “She does not let anything rest. You never know what you can do unless you try. I never want to hold any of my children back in anything.
“She is probably one of the most positive-minded people I’ve known and she emulates the saying, ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail.’ Aria has the courage to do anything regardless of whether she is going to fail or not.”
Ottmueller, who’s approach to life was described as reckless abandon by her stepdad, Gary, is not failing on the runway, although it took some time to get to this point.
Raising the bar
Fraley said they started out with two steps in the sand pit. Eventually Ottmueller moved to the runway, but she would just run through to the mat instead of jumping. Once she showed the ability to repeat the technique and commit the movement to muscle memory it was pushed back 3 feet incrementally until about the 30 feet (or eight steps) she’s at now.
“She has an uncanny feel for where she is at,” Fraley said. “Being blind most of her life she’s had to adapt to it. The big thing was trying to get her to let go of the pole at the right time. I told her as soon as you start to feel you are as high as you are going to get then let go.
“She is quite the thing, and I am amazed at some of the things she has picked up.”
When Ottmueller gets ready to take the runway, Lowney puts her in the proper spot, making sure she is straight and in the middle of the runway. She can differentiate the runway from grass but not colors. Once she is comfortable, Lowney steps away and she raises the bar.
She may wobble now and again until she gets her bearings. Then once she gets completely comfortable, Ottmueller takes off and her sight completely disappears. The only thing guiding her are instincts and faith in her training.
She gradually picks up speed as the pole starts to angle down before hitting the right spot more often than not.
The pole bends, but her confidence never gives.
Ottmueller finishes the vault and lands on the mat. The cross bar might or might not stay in place. Regardless of the outcome she raises ready to go again without hesitation.
“She always says, ‘How can I be afraid of what I cannot see?’ and I am like, ‘Well I can see it and I’m afraid,’” her mother said. “I know how hard the real world is because as a parent you are sensitive to it. We cry with her and there are times when I close our bedroom door and I rant to Gary because the world isn’t kind. She has had to overcome an awful lot, and she still does.”
Just don’t tell Ottmueller that.
“I remember losing (some vision) and I wasn’t going to let it keep me from doing things I wanted to,” Ottmueller said. “I’ve always just gone for it. It’s the same with pole vaulting. Next I want to clear 7-6 at state and come back next year and get up to 9 feet.
“I have to do things differently, but that’s OK. I never want to have to wonder whether I could do something, so I just do it.”
• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.