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Thursday
Oct272011

Teen Blinded by Stargardt's Disease Chases Dreams -- and Guide Dog

Courtesy Sami Stoner(LEXINGTON, Ohio) -- Ohio teen Sami Stoner loves to run.  But when a rare eye disease swiftly stole her vision, the tree-studded trails of cross country running became too dangerous to tackle.

Stoner has Stargardt's disease -- a hereditary form of macular degeneration that causes irreversible blindness.

At first, it seemed running would be yet another sacrifice for the 16-year-old, who will never be able to drive.  But she found her way back into the race with a one-and-a-half-year-old golden retriever called Chloe.

"When one door closes, another one opens," said Stoner, a high school junior in Lexington, Ohio.  "Even if you have a disability or you don't think you can do something, there's almost always a way."

Stoner met Chloe, a specially trained guide dog, in July at the Pilot Dogs facility in Columbus, Ohio.  Tethered by a sturdy harness, the pair endured four weeks of intense training -- first walking and then running under close supervision.

"I've never bonded with even a person like that," said Stoner.  "She knows she has to watch out for me.  I can't imagine being without her now."

Stoner returned to Lexington with Chloe on Aug. 17.  Although Chloe could safely guide Stoner through three miles of uneven terrain, one obstacle required outside help: Ohio High School Athletic Association rules barred Stoner from participating in cross country runs with a dog.

"There's never been a blind athlete with a dog sanctioned to compete," said John Harris, director of athletics for Lexington Local Schools.

Harris urged the association to allow Stoner and Chloe to run.  Eventually, they said yes -- with some stipulations.  Stoner has to start 20 seconds after the other runners.  And while she's allowed to pass them, and she does, she can't impede them.

With the Association's OK, Stoner and Chloe raced the following day on Sept. 17.  In three meets since, the pair has bettered their time.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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