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Running blind: Leeza LaLonde overcomes disability to compete for Petoskey

Leeza LaLonde has faced a lot of doubt on her journey to become a runner for Petoskey's cross country and track and field teams.

Every step of the way, however, she's refused to take no for an answer.
Despite being legally blind, LaLonde, a sophomore at Petoskey High, competed in five meets for the Northmen this season, thanks to the help of assist runners on the course and her own determination.
"Before cross country, she found a way to figure skate," Leeza's mother, Karen, said. "Leeza just goes out and does things that are utterly amazing, and nothing can stop her once she's set her mind to something.
"That's just who she is, and I'm so proud that she's my daughter."
Coping with an injury

Karen LaLonde adopted Leeza from Russia when she was 3 1/2 years old, one of four girls in the LaLonde family.
By that point, Leeza already had vision problems as the result of a head injury suffered when she was an infant.

"The medical report we received said the injury was caused by encephalitis (a swelling of the brain caused by a viral or bacterial infection), but the doctors we've seen since then have come to a consensus that she either fell or was dropped as an infant, and that caused the injury," Karen said.
The fall damaged Leeza's occipital lobe, the part of the brain that processes the images seen by our eyes and relays that information to the rest of the brain.
That means that although Leeza's eyes are fine, her brain is unable to process and interpret most of what she sees.
"I can see certain shapes, and make out some brightly-colored objects if they're close by," Leeza said. "I don't have any peripheral vision or much depth perception, but as long as I have someone with a bright color in front of me, I can do OK."
Living with her condition allowed Leeza to adjust to it and stay active as she grew older, and she refused to let her disability keep her from living life the way she wanted. 
As a freshman in high school, to help out sisters, Katerina, Rachel and Rebecca, all cross country runners, Leeza became a manager for the cross country team.
It was as she was cheering on Petoskey's runners that Leeza began to develop a desire to compete alongside them.
"I just got sick of feeling like I was sitting around and doing nothing when everyone else was out there working hard," Leeza said. "When I was a kid, I had the best endurance of anyone in my family, and I wanted to see if I could get that back.
"It felt like something I could do, and I wanted to at least try and see if I could."
Chasing a dream
Leeza hatched a plan to prepare herself to join the Petoskey cross country team.
She competed in track and field in the spring to build her experience as a runner, sticking mainly to straight-line events like the 100 meter dash where her lack of peripheral vision was less of a factor.
Then, over the summer, Leeza attended a camp for blind athletes downstate on the recommendation of Charlevoix-Emmet Intermediate School District Visually Impaired Consultant Kim Seaney.
There, Leeza got her first experience with distance running, and also learned several valuable tricks to help her compete, including the possibility of using assist runners to help guide her on the course.
"It was cold, wet and rainy, but I was able to run every morning, so that was great," Leeza said. "They taught me ways to do things like figure out how to stay in your lane on the track, and also about using assist runners."
Armed with knowledge and experience from the camp, Leeza returned to Petoskey and petitioned coach Jim Harrington and Jen Smith for a chance to compete.
Petoskey was wary at first of letting Leeza compete for safety reasons.
"Our main concern was making sure we were doing it safely," Smith said. "It's one thing to run on a track, but in cross country you're dealing with uneven ground, and running downtown and dealing with traffic during practice."
However, after Harrington and Smith found out  about Leeza's hard work over the summer and her trip to the camp, both became dedicated to finding a way to make it work.
"We weren't aware at first of the time and effort she'd put in to make this happen, and once we realized how much she'd prepared for this opportunity, it really changed things for us," Harrington said. "The conversation went from 'should we do this' to 'how do we do this' pretty quickly."
Letting Leeza run cross country meant finding an assist runner to help her, a difficult task when all the assist-running specialists in the state live south of Lansing.
Former Petoskey cross country coach Mikkie Schemanski stepped up and volunteered to fill the position to make it possible for Leeza to compete.
Schemanski, Smith and Petoskey High School teacher Kathy Slack have combined with Leeza's teammates to assist her at every meet and practice this season.
"I run just ahead of Leeza, and my job is to tell her what's coming up next, whether it's a turn, a change in elevation, a hole or a root," Schemanski said. "She's really quick on her feet, and really good at responding when I tell her something.
"We've developed a good feel for each other when she's racing."
Crossing the finish line
Leeza's first race of her career came at the Newberry Invitational on Sept. 13, and she admits she had "a million things" on her mind at the starting line.
"My first thought was to take it easy and enjoy it, but five minutes into the race I really got fired up," Leeza said. "I just wanted to demolish every single hill on the course."
Leeza finished that race in 31:33, taking 63rd overall. As the season wore on, she showed steady improvement, eventually cracking the 30-minute mark with a time of 29:53.8 at the Big North Conference finals on Oct. 14 at Gaylord Country Club.
"She's really no different from any other cross country runner who starts off just wanting to finish and then gets better and learns as time goes on," Smith said. "It's been fun to see her start passing people, and if she keeps improving the way she has, we might need to find someone faster to run with her because we won't be able to keep up."
Just as her teammates inspired her to start running, Leeza's also made a big impression on her teammates as well.
"She's the bubbliest, friendliest person I know, and it's like she's never had a bad day in her life when you talk to her," Petoskey senior Katie Gray said. "If she can wake up every day, get out of bed smiling, and accomplish what she's accomplished, it's hard for us to make excuses for ourselves."
Schemanski said she finds herself in awe at times as well.
"To go out and run forward when you can't see what's coming, that's just sheer courage, sheer bravery," Schemanski said. "No matter what happens on the course, she's going to give it her all and persevere, and it's been amazing to see."
Leeza's already moved past being satisfied with just finishing races. With her junior year on the horizon, she's set big goals for herself.
"I managed to get under 30 minutes this year, which was my goal, so I'm happy with that," Leeza said. "I'm shooting to run at the regional meet by my senior year, and have a shot at going to the state final."
That goal, of cracking the varsity lineup on a solid Division 2 cross country team and competing against the elite in a state final, is a challenging one indeed. 
But, given everything Leeza's overcome already, it wouldn't be wise to bet against her.

This article originally appeared in the Petoskey New Review.
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