By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Traversing sometimes treacherous terrain over Empire prep cross country courses is tough enough when runners can see rocks, muddy patches and looming hills.
Branden Walton runs varsity as a Windsor High freshman despite such limited vision he struggles to see far or near.
One of the Jaguars’ best takes on yet another new challenge at today’s North Coast Section finals, in Hayward. Wearing black shades and glowing green Nike racing flats, Walton will attempt to tame another unfamiliar course, in the rain, no less.
“It’s about setting goals and accomplishing them. I wanted to make the varsity team this year and I accomplished that. I have improved throughout the season,” Walton said before a recent practice.“I trust myself and my ability not to hurt myself.”
Since age 4 when diagnosed with Rod-cone Dystrophy, Walton has learned to compensate for his disability.
“He’s incredibly resilient. He just powers through,” said Windsor coach Pete Stefanisko.
Losing the use of rod and cone cells in the back of his eye reduces Walton’s central vision and causes severe symptoms of glare and photosensitivity. Walton’s ability to see at distance is near blindness and marginally better up close without his singlasses.
Walton’s condition has remained stable with specialists checking on the progress several times a year at Stanford and UC San Francisco. No medical procedure is yet available to reverse the damage. There is potential for Walton’s vision to worsen.
None of that deters the determined Walton in school or sports.
“I don’t want to be treated different by anyone. I am who I am and the issue with my eyes does not define the person I am,” he said.
In the classroom Walton requires accommodations to participate and keep up with lessons. To read, books and handouts have type nearly twice the size of typical printed material. For the past two years Walton has used an iPad to take pictures of chalk board lessons and read text books.
The sunglasses Walton has worn since fourth grade ease nearly blinding glare. Without the protective lenses Walton’s sensitivity to light is like having a 200 watt light bulb in front of him.
One plus of the sunglasses — Walton has a cool look for high school.
“The first year of high school is going good,” he said. “I face the same challenges each year, material not being large enough to see. This year has added a lot of work on the Internet and computer that has added another layer of difficulty for me. I am adapting to my new challenges.”
Sports have been an outlet to ease many frustrations. Basketball and soccer have given way to running in high school.
“Running takes me away from everything. That’s why I started,” Walton said.
Taking up running in fifth grade, Walton discovered a passion for cross country a year later at Windsor Middle School, where he also ran track. He has competed in track meets organized by the United States Association of Blind Athletes as well as the AAU Junior Olympics.
Recognizing high school cross country courses were longer and more challenging, Walton trained this past summer six days a week for nearly two months.
The hard work resulted in several medals at the Junior Olympics in Reno. Walton also had a foundation for Windsor High cross country practices.
“I had a pretty good mindset from the beginning,” Walton said. “My body was able to handle it.”
Walton ran his way onto the varsity the first week. His best at Spring Lake this season was just off the Windsor freshman record.
Lowering times in chunks on the famed Spring Lake course, in Santa Rosa, reveals how good Walton can be when he knows a course.
“You have to know how to put your feet in the right spots. Knowing where the bad parts are is real important,” he said. “I have to be careful and make sure I can catch myself if I trip or stumble.”
Heading into the sun on uphill stretches is particularly difficult, forcing Walton to ease the pace some.
“I don’t like to slow down,” he said.
While there were many trips, never did Walton go down. He fared better than runners who could see clearly and fell.
Teammates have helped, both in making him feel welcome, and during meets.
“We didn’t make his eyesight much of an issue. We just encouraged his teammates to warn him to stay to the side and where rocks are,” Stefanisko said. “We’re glad to have him because he’s a top runner.”
While he still has three more years of high school competition ahead, Walton ultimately hopes to reach the Paralympic Games.
A trip to the London Paralympic Games this summer stoked Walton’s passion for running. He and grandfather Otis Walton took in track events over 10 days, awed by athletes and crowds alike at the venues used for the Summer Olympics weeks earlier.
“It was really loud,” Walton said. “There’s a lot of respect for the athletes and what they’re accomplishing.”
Already a strong runner his first year in high school, Walton would like to finish the season strong in Hayward today. His goal is to run in the mid-17 minute range, which would put Walton in the middle of the large field based on last year’s times.
“I always want to prove to myself that I can do something just as well as everyone else.”