It’s a new challenge for Charlotte Brown, which is to say just another chance to emerge from the pack.
But the 17-year-old high school senior, who has gained national attention throughout her track and field career for overcoming her failing eyesight to become one of the best pole vaulters in Texas, must now contend with some possible elbowing on her way to the medal stand.
In preparation for a spot on the Purdue University track team next year, where she has been invited to try out as a walk-on, Brown, who is now totally blind, said she will add middle-distance events such as the 800 meters and possibly even the long jump and high jump to a repertoire that has included pole vault and sprints.
With typical humor, Brown said the prospect does not intimidate her.
“I always say the only thing more scary for a blind person than pole vaulting is a blind person throwing the javelin,” Brown said. “There probably wouldn’t be a crowd for that. …
“Doing pole vault makes you not so nervous for other events. So I’m more excited and less hesitant.”
Brown’s fearlessness aside, however, Emory Rains High School coach Jeff Lester said the 800 presents special challenges.
“One thing that makes the 400 appealing is we can keep her in Lane 1 and she can stay in Lane 1,” said Lester, whose team will open the season Thursday, weather permitting. “But for the 800 [which begins with a mass start], she’s going to have to pass people and move, and her strategy is going to have to be to come out in front and stay in front. It offers a whole new dynamic.
“[But] she wants people to know her not just as a vaulter. She takes lot of pride in her ability to run.”
Brown’s confidence stems in large part from other senses so heightened that she can feel the raised paint on the lines of a basketball court through her shoes, recognize her coach from a football field away by the sound of his pants rustling and identify the smell of her favorite sports drink flavor through the plastic bottle.
She is far more concerned about fading after the first 600 meters than she is about bumping into fellow runners or being bumped into herself.
“I can hear people’s heartbeats and steps. I’m aware of their breathing. I can tell who my teammates are by how they run,” she said. “It’s rare for me to run into people.”
Beyond that, her aim is clear.
“My goal is still to win a state championship in pole vault,” said Brown, who finished in a tie for fourth place in the Class 3A state meet last year after finishing eighth as a sophomore, and said she’s shooting for the 14-foot barrier (the state meet record is 13 feet, 9 inches).
“I would love to break the state record … and I would love to win a state championship in more than one event,” she said.
Brown is well-versed in accomplishing the unexpected, learning first to pole vault and run with the aid of contrasting colors, then, when her eyesight failed further two years ago, to compete with the help of beepers and her guide dog, Vador. But it was while sitting out much of last season after sustaining a deep gash to her shin while doing box jumps that she said she could see her future.
“I was really grateful to my coach to let me go to all the practices and meets because even though I couldn’t compete, I could still be around my teammates and I got to coach some of the vaulters,” she recalled. “It was a good experience and I think I realized at that moment that I could do this for a living.
“I want to combine psychology and exercise physiology because to be a coach, you have to understand how the brain works and what athletes think about.”
Lester said Brown’s desire not to make it “a me show, which she could do,” is only one of the things that make her an effective leader and future coach.
“I think she brings a whole other dynamic to the field of coaching, a whole other set of eyes, that I will never experience because it’s based on the other senses we take for granted,” he said.
Brown called it “fate” when she lost the remainder of her vision toward the end of her sophomore year.
“I wound up getting Vador not even two weeks after I realized I was losing the rest of my sight,” she said. “For me, it was the moment when I realized there’s a plan here and things are going to work out.”
Having had nearly two years to get used to the high-pitched beeper system, which guides her down the runway and around the track, Brown said she is better adjusted than ever.
“It’s actually easier having no vision than very limited vision,” said Brown, who will alternate running the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters and the mile relay. “When we had the carpet and still trying to hang onto the contrast, it was so difficult and so nerve-wracking. To rely on hearing the beeper was a better solution and has allowed me to focus more on the event and not so much on where the grass is and where the track is.”
If she makes the team at Purdue, she will join her brother Lachlan, now a sophomore hurdler for the Boilermakers and a former high school teammate. She also has an older brother, Gannon, who attends Colorado State.
“Purdue is a great academic school and I wanted to go to the best place I could get in academically,” she said. “But to go to the same school as Lachlan … it’s kind of a rare thing to compete in college sports with your brother and we’re very close, so I’m really excited.”
Lachlan also made the team as an invited walk-on, and Charlotte said she will follow her brother’s example.
“My mentality will be what it has always been,” she said. “Someone may beat me but they’ll have to bleed to do it.”