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Running Cross Country with a Guide Dog
Sami Stoner took a life-altering situation and made it hers, determined to finish stronger than she started

Image: Sami Stoner

Lexington, Ohio is a small town of just under 5,000 residents and lies along the Clear Fork of the Mohican River. In this small town lives Sami Stoner, a 16-year-old girl who has been involved in sports since a very early age. In junior high, she decided to give cross country running a try on the insistence of her friends. Despite not enjoying it at first, Sami quickly grew to love cross country and the rest was, as they say, history. While Sami was in the eighth grade, however, it became evident that something wasn’t quite right.

After having experienced difficulty seeing the blackboard in class for a period of time, Sami couldn’t quite understand what was going on with her sight. Throughout the school year, her symptoms progressed quickly and after a variety of tests, she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s that April at the age of 13.

Upon learning the news, the Stoner family was shocked and naturally, Sami was scared about the uncertainty of what her future would hold. With job opportunities diminished and driving a car no longer an option, Sami would have a hard enough time focusing on school which would become increasingly difficult with the newly-diagnosed affliction. With all that said, the Stoners were immediately proactive, searching ways around the diagnosis. They were determined to get through these trying times and vowed to live life as normally as possible. Cross country, however, looked to be out of the question, or so one would think.

Despite her diagnosis, Sami would continue to run. Unfortunately, as the Stargardt’s continued to progress, Sami was finding it increasingly difficult to find solace in her escape. Fortunately in their search to find methods to deal with the Stargardt’s, the Stoners found a mobility instructor who not only helped Sami cope with her affliction but informed her that she would make a good candidate for a guide dog.

During the summer of 2011, weeks before she was set to begin her junior year of high school, Sami met someone who immediately became an integral part of her life.

During her four-week stint at Pilot Dogs training that summer, Sami was introduced to Chloe, a beautiful year-old golden retriever who would go on to help Sami not only find her way around but helped her regain the confidence she thought she had lost just a few years earlier. Once the training with Chloe had concluded, Sami Stoner had new motivation: enjoying life with her new best friend.

Unfortunately, Sami was having a hard time dealing with cross country. During her third week with Chloe at Pilot Dogs, Sami was given permission to run with her new friend and it was as if she never missed a beat. Sami described running with Chloe for the very first time as “one of the highlights of my life.” Speaking of her maiden voyage with Chloe, Sami was simply glowing in recollection:

“Chloe and I would wait until the rest of the group was a few hundred yards ahead, then we would run to them. It was incredible. I have never felt that safe, that exhilarated, that absolute joy in seeing how much fun Chloe was having. It truly made me realize that we could do this, and really showed me that I could follow through with my dreams.”

She knew that the only way she could compete again would be if Chloe was by her side. John Harris, Athletic Director of Lexington Local Schools, called the Ohio High School Athletic Association to let them know of Sami’s choice to run with Chloe. To John’s surprise, the OHSAA said no. But that certainly didn’t deter John nor the Stoner family. For weeks, John worked ceaselessly to get a waiver to change the rules and finally, the director of cross country Dale Gabor agreed, giving Sami her wish to run with Chloe. At the cross country meet later that year, Sami (and Chloe) were able to thank Mr. Gabor in person and furthermore, prove to him that he made the right decision. While she wasn’t officially approved until the day before the meet, Sami has wholeheartedly emphasized what an incredible feeling it was being allowed to run with Chloe at her side.

As much as Sami loves running, though, the same can be especially said for Chloe, “Chloe absolutely loves running, and everything related to it,” Sami explained. “When we cheer, she goes absolutely crazy and cheers right along with us.”

Sami went on to describe the amount of strength it takes her to hold Chloe back when the gun goes off to start the race. As per a rule OHSAA implemented for Sami and Chloe, they must wait 20 seconds after the initial gunshot before they can begin running. Holding an enthusiastic canine back for 20 seconds can feel like an eternity but it makes the run all the more worth it for Sami for Chloe. Once they are off and running, Sami can always count on her partner in crime to cooperate, never pulling away and always remaining at her friend’s side.

As eager as Chloe is on the track, she’s just another dog off it. While she’s off her leash and harness, Chloe tends to follow Sami from room to room and sleeps with her as well. Of course, Sami isn’t Chloe’s only source of camaraderie around the house. The Stoners have another dog, Annie, whom Chloe spends a great deal of time playing with. With Annie, Chloe will help destroy their toys in addition to stealing every sock that she can get a hold of. “She thinks she’s pretty sneaky, but she’s so obvious,” Sami told me describing Chloe’s habit of stealing the footwear of others.

Of course, like any dog, Chloe enjoys her downtime which includes playing in the snow during winter and playing in her baby pool during the summer as well as trying to catch water from the garden hose. Whoever envies the life of a dog has every reason to.

As for Sami, her mission doesn’t stop when she steps out of her running shoes. Away from the track, Sami and her family are actively involved in educating people about Stargardt’s in addition to the Pilot Dogs program. Sami furthers her mission by giving motivational speeches all around Ohio including at schools, Lions Clubs, Boy Scouts of America and various disability groups. Having these opportunities not only gives Sami a chance to meet and thank countless inspired people but to share her own experiences with Stargardt’s and Pilot Dogs.

In her spare time, Sami tutors two visually-impaired children who she has taught the ins and outs of visual aids to as well as how to achieve their dreams by adapting to their disability. It’s also refreshing to know that Sami indeed practices what she preaches. While she and her family are extremely hopeful for a cure (and with so many scientific advancements recently, they should be) they are also realistic. While Sami would love for there to be cure, she is simply not content to sit on the sidelines waiting. Instead, Sami focuses on what she can do with what she has right now and to adapt the best way she possibly can. For Sami Stoner, it’s not about, “Someday, maybe I’ll be able to…” but instead, “How can I do this now?” As far as Sami is concerned, you simply cannot put your life on hold. Instead, you must adapt, go out there and have fun.

After all that she has been through, the obstacles she has had to overcome to do what she loves best, Sami Stoner’s advice for everyone determined to break through the barriers is simple but insightful:

“Whatever obstacle or disability a person has, I hope they see that they can truly find a way to overcome that adversity and follow their dreams. There is almost always a way. Getting to meet some of the kids I give speeches to is an incredible experience because I not only get to share my story but also hear some of theirs as well. Whatever your passion is, it’s just important to not give up.”

When anyone’s dealt the hand Sami was, it’s only natural to become discouraged and when it comes to that, it’s easy to simply throw in the towel and feel sorry for yourself. Even at 13, Sami Stoner knew of a critical golden rule: Nothing worth having in this world ever comes easy. Sami Stoner took a life-altering situation and made it hers, determined to finish stronger than she started.

There was no stopping after the initial diagnosis, no turning back after being initially rejected to run with Chloe and no detriment when told she couldn’t accomplish something due to her condition. Most would have moved on but not Sami. For those who have enough difficulty walking across a pitch-black room, they would admire Miss Stoner for everything that she has accomplished thus far. For anyone who doubts Sami for a second simply has not done their homework and while she’d never intentionally embarrass anyone, whatever Sami Stoner sets her mind to will simply make her critics look foolish when it’s all said and done. Simply put, Sami would never relinquish the experience of having Stargardt’s as it has truly changed her life.

Sami simply could not stress enough how proud she was of the two visually-impaired children she tutors. With that said, I sincerely hope that Sami truly knows the effect she has on her family and everyone she has touched with her incredible story and how proud they are of her. While we’ve been forced to read about politics, the economy and even issues as controversial as gun control, Miss Stoner’s exhilarating saga comes not a moment too soon as she is direct proof that no matter what the obstacle, anything, and I do mean anything, is possible.

____

Ryan Cowley is a writer at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter @RyanACowley.

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