Inspiring blind runner emerges as surprising varsity contributor for Michigan cross country squad

Cameron Smith
Prep Rally

There are any number of physical gifts that a runner needs to be successful in a cross country race. He or she needs physical endurance to maintain a blistering pace across a three-mile course. A runner needs tenacity to deal with unexpected physical challenges like sudden hills or a previously unseen root or branch that could trip them up. In connection with that, they need keen eyesight to avoid those obstacles as reliably as possible.

Blind cross country runner Bobby Steele and a guide —
Blind cross country runner Bobby Steele and a guide —

Now one runner is ignoring any reliance on that last physical gift, for a simple reason: He's completely blind.

As reported by The Saginaw News and the Detroit Free Press, Frankenmuth (Mich.) High senior cross country runner Bobby Steele has competed since his sophomore season with the aid of a running guide, thwarting the need that all other runners have for simple sight. When he first began in 2010, Steele competed on the Frankenmuth junior varsity team, but he has since grown into a full-fledged member of the school's varsity team, not to mention one of the most popular and inspiring runners in all of Michigan.

According to Steele, the experience has been incredibly rewarding, even if it wasn't his idea to begin with.

"My dad decided for me," Steele told the News. "I came home one day during the summer and he said, 'By the way, you're running cross country.' I didn't really want to. How many people really want to run 3.1 miles just for the fun of it?

"But I went along with it. It's worked out. It's a lot of fun. I told my dad, 'You should try this too.'"

Steele has shown rapid improvement since he first set out to complete a rugged 3.1-mile course in a competitive meet. The senior began cross country with the simple goal of trying to complete a race in 30:00. He had already got that time down to 26:30 during his first year on the team, and now he's much faster, completing the course at the Tri-Valley League East Division meet in 23:38.

That time is good for mile splits below eight miles, a respectable total for any runner, let alone one who is completely blind and can't see where he is going on a course designed to trip him up with unexpected and ill-timed challenges.

In the process of his incredible improvement, Steele has proven too fast to be led by a single cross country guide, either. Like all blind runners, Steele completes races with the aid of a runner who is trained to go at his pace and lead him safely with a rope. The two don't hold hands, but they are connected by the rope between them. For his first two seasons, Steele's guide was Frankenmuth assistant coach Wayne Kneiper, who had no trouble maintaining his mile times of roughly 10-minute splits.

Now, Steele runs his guides ragged, as one told the Free Press' Mick McCabe.

"You have to talk turns, if there is going to be a change -- uphill, downhill," Jeff Frahm, one of the guides, told the Free-Press. "You spend a fair amount of time talking as well as running. If it gets really narrow through the woods, we have to shorten up a little bit, he might hold on to my arm instead of the tether."

Still, as much as the guides and the sport have done for Steele, he's done just as much for them, too.

"He's become my friend," Knieper told the Free Press. "He's an amazing boy. Always independent; he does everything. You don't help him at all unless it's something strange and unfamiliar. He's smart, witty. I've gotten a lot out of it."

And while Steele may never win a cross country race, his ability to compete as part of his school's varsity squad and beat some other fully abled varsity runners has proven to be inspiring for he and all those around him.

"It's pretty cool, except now there's less people that run my speed," he said. "So, I'm like, 'Oh, I'm doing well in this race. Oh, I'm third from last. Awesome.' "

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