FISHERS, Ind. – Each time Noah Malone arrives at a track meet, he explores the grounds. He locates gates, bathrooms, bleachers, start and finish lines. It is not easy.
Running is simpler. He often gets to the finish line before everyone else because he is faster than everyone else. But he can’t see the line. He is legally blind.
Malone, 5-9 and 143 pounds, is a 15-year-old freshman at Hamilton (Ind.) Southeastern High School. He has some peripheral vision, can see blurry shapes and identify objects from three feet away. Yet he cannot do many of the things he once did. Running is not among them.
Indeed, the track is a sanctuary. The feeling is the same it has always been.
“It’s like you’re in the zone,” he said. “You’re like in a bubble when you’re running. You can’t hear anything.”
He has set school records in the 100 and 200 meters, missed a freshman state record by one-hundredth of a second and run times that would make him a medal contender at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Malone is accustomed to speed, but not like this. He could see, and then he couldn’t.
“It happened so quickly,” he said. “That was probably the hardest part.”
In 2015, Malone ran summer track for the Indiana Storm club, as he has since age 10. He finished sixth in the 100 meters in his age group in the national Junior Olympics at Jacksonville, Fla. One month later, he was back at Fall Creek Junior High for eighth grade.
He could not see the whiteboard in class. It was blurry. To read texts on his cellphone, he needed to zoom in.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, I need glasses,’ ” he said. “There was more to it than that.”
By the end of the school year, he couldn’t see the board at all.
He went to an optometrist but could not get a prescription read on his right eye. His mother thought the machine was broken. He was finally diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which affects the optic nerve. About 100 Americans a year lose central vision to the disease, joining the 4,000 others who already have it, according to LHON.org.
There is no cure.
It is a genetic disorder that can be passed from mother to child. Malone’s mother, LaTasha Sturdivant, has a 46-year-old brother who has been legally blind for about 30 years.
One issue confronting those with LHON is that they don’t seem blind. They can manage. Malone’s father, Kyle Malone, said others sometimes don’t believe his son’s story.
“If you look at me, you really couldn’t tell I was visually impaired,” Malone said. “I just try to do everything normal.”
In eighth grade, he lived a new normal. Teachers emailed him assignments so he could upload them on an iPad and enlarge the type – up to a 45-point font, the size of a newspaper headline. Sometimes they forgot, so he would remind them. Schoolwork took more time.
Astonishingly, he made the junior high team in basketball, a sport he had always played. After a couple of practices, he had to quit. The pace was too fast, he said.
Indoor track was hazardous, too. He ran into hurdles because he could not see them. He stepped on some starting blocks, fracturing his ankle.
Malone pressed ahead, keeping up with studies and track. Over the summer, he qualified again for the Junior Olympics, traveling to Sacramento, Calif. He did not place, but neither did he give up.
“I think Noah getting through eighth-grade year was phenomenal,” his mother said.
Jay Wilson, principal at Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, had heard about Malone before the teen thought about enrolling there.
Wilson’s son, Bailey, was a runner at another Fishers junior high, knew about Malone’s exploits and told his father the sprinter was losing his vision. The son pointed out Malone at the Fishers YMCA, and the principal introduced himself to his mother. Over the summer, Malone attend a camp at the school to familiarize himself with what was offered there.
Then things became complicated.
Malone lives in the HSE district and wanted to go to high school there. He wanted to be on the track team. He needed resources of the school for the blind.
Jim Self, the HSE athletic director, did not need to be convinced Malone had impaired vision. The athletic director heard the freshman’s cellphone buzz and saw him touch his nose to the phone so he could read a text.
“I had tears in my eyes,” the athletic director said. “That’s the moment it got to me.”
Verdict was unanimous: Malone would take classes at both schools and be eligible to represent HSE.
“It was the right decision in a very unique circumstance that may not ever happen again,” Wilson said.
“We didn’t do it because he was fast. We did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Malone’s parents were effusive in praise of collaboration among HSE, the school for the blind and IHSAA. The freshman is transported by bus first to the school for the blind, then to HSE.
Malone begins his day taking physical education, Braille, math, piano and biology. At HSE, he has a resource period and English, then heads to track practice.
In Braille, characters are represented by patterns of raised dots felt with fingertips. It is difficult to master, Wilson said.
“It just seemed impossible to learn,” Malone said.
In track training, some amendments were made. The Royals run in hallways and climb stairs during winter, and they do drills over hurdles. That was out.
Practice can be perilous nevertheless. Malone was once standing in the inside lane, heard a warning that hurdler Madison Norris was approaching and accidentally stepped into Norris’ path. There was a collision but no injury.
“I’m not fully confident while I’m practicing or running. At all,” Malone said.
He is not on relays because he cannot see the incoming runner for the exchange. The Royals might place him on the anchor leg of the 400-meter relay next year, if they can develop an audible signal for when to start sprinting and reach for the baton.
He is a freshman beating, but also trying to fit in with, older teammates. He doesn’t take classes with them and is not in the HSE building most of the day. Before early-season meets, he was off by himself.
Now, he rarely goes anywhere at a track meet alone. He can’t. Teammates accompany him, warm up with him, check in before races with him. Malone said they stand “right by me.”
Best of all, they joke with him. He has warmed up to them, and his teammates to him. He is one of them.
“He’s spent a little bit more time with these guys,” sprint coach Luke Stone said. “They are aware of his talent. That always helps.”
“When someone says I’m an inspiration or that they look up to me, it makes me work harder. It makes me think, ‘Oh, don’t quit,’ ” he said. “It means a lot because I’m just running. It means a lot that something so small could mean a lot to somebody.”
Administrators at HSE and the school for the blind credit Malone’s parents, who are divorced, for supporting him through this journey. The teen has grown closer to his 9-year-old sister, Zion, forming what their father called “a really special bond.”
Evidence of how far Malone has come is a willingness to share his story. It took months before he was comfortable doing so. That is his biggest success, according to his mother, exceeding achievements on the track.
And the track resume is considerable.
Malone’s 200-meter time of 21.74 seconds is .01 off the state’s freshman record, ranks No. 3 among all Indiana sprinters this year and makes him the No. 7 freshman in the nation. Even at age 15, his 100-meter time of 10.80 is fast enough to have won a bronze medal at the Rio Paralympics last year. The world record in the 200 meters for the legally blind is 21.05.
He failed to qualify for state in the 200, but not because he was disqualified. It was because he is a freshman. He let up at the finish of a heat at the Carmel Sectional, was passed by another sprinter and missed the final by .02.
He was distraught over the incident, but it was a valuable experience. There will be so many more to lessons to learn and races to run.
“He takes track very, very seriously. It’s not just something he does,” said Kyle Malone, a former college sprinter at what was then Indiana Central. “He studies it.”
Noah Malone said his vision has stabilized since January. Given natural improvement, and no further decline in vision, he would be fast enough to be recruited by major colleges.
According to the National Federation for the Blind, about 1.3 million Americans are legally blind or visually impaired, and fewer than 15 percent earn a college degree. One runner, University of Hartford’s Chaz Davis, participated in college track and finished eighth in the 5,000 meters at the Rio Paralympics. However, he developed LHON during his college years and not before.
In 2020, Malone could transition from state meet to world stage before running in a college meet.
Sprinting is more explosive than distance running, requiring uninhibited energy release. It is impossible to measure whether Malone has been subconsciously affected, losing not only vision but speed. He is running as fast as he can toward the unseen.
“It makes me wonder, ‘Oh, I can’t run any faster because there might be something at the finish line,’ ” Malone said.
There might be. There might be gold medals.