Except for bits of light and shadow, Angie Fuentes cannot see. Still, the Seneca Valley junior showed up to her Germantown school on a sticky afternoon in August to practice a sport known for its punishment, that wrecks athletes who can’t keep their balance or bearings.
Fuentes can’t participate in cross-country without the aid of a running guide who serves as her eyes on race day and who runs the approximately three-mile courses alongside her while they both hold onto opposite ends of a baton. But the El Salvador native doesn’t think of the slippery rocks or downed limbs in her path as dead ends. In her mind’s eye they are openings, opportunities for every stride to be a step of faith, testaments that the spirit is more powerful than the impairment.
“When I’m running, I feel freedom,” Fuentes, 17, said. “It makes me stronger.”
Fuentes, who was born blind, spends hours each week with Seneca Valley Coach Jordana Ashe practicing biomechanics, physical movements that come more naturally to sighted runners. While Fuentes walks, Ashe takes hold of Fuentes’s body and maneuvers it to make her back leg and opposite arm lift and drop at the same time. “That’s the hardest thing for a visually impaired student, to get their arms and legs totally in sync,” says Gina Schmid, a certified orientation and mobility specialist in Montgomery County.
The No. 5 runner on a six-member team, Fuentes is looking to put it all together in personal-best time Thursday at the Maryland 3A West Region championships, her final meet of the season. Her top time so far came almost two weeks ago when she finished the 3.1-mile course at the Montgomery County championships in 32 minutes — 10 minutes faster than she was at the season opener in September.
Fuentes, the oldest of five children, is a trailblazer at Seneca Valley. Athletic Director Jesse Irvin says he can’t remember another visually impaired student ever running cross-country for the school and he believes Fuentes is the only blind runner who has participated in the large invitationals the Eagles have traveled to in Maryland and in Virginia this season. There was some initial hesitation in letting Fuentes compete, Irvin says, but he grew more comfortable after observing her attitude toward the sport. “She was serious,” he said.
Fuentes, who uses Facebook to plan trips to the mall with her friends, is as plucky in practices and races as she is away from the sport. The honor roll student is currently learning how to get around her community on her own, figuring out how to cross busy intersections like the one near her home off Frederick Road by using a tactile map, walking stick and the sounds of passing cars. Her mother, Karla Fuentes, and stepdad, Alejandro Contreras, say they haven’t made any modifications to their home for her.
“There are no differences,” says Contreras, a firefighter who met Angie when she was 14. “We walked with her room by room, telling her where stuff’s going to be. She takes a shower, gets dressed, makes her own breakfast.
“We try to involve her in stuff that we do. She helps out with the dishes, cleaning the bathroom, even cooking with us. And it’s worked. I’m very proud of my girl.”
Fuentes, who has memorized where all of her classes are and exactly how many steps it takes to get to each one, isn’t the only one feeling her way through this season. Ashe, who was an assistant at Rockville last year, was at a loss when she first started to train Fuentes. “I didn’t know any other coaches who coached a student who is vision impaired. I had no one to talk to,” she said.
So Ashe, who runs with Fuentes at least half the time during practices, made it up as she went. She and associate coach Zachary Jackson made pairing Fuentes with a guide a top priority, and they needed to find someone with a patient and encouraging temperament whom Fuentes could trust absolutely while charging around trees, under branches and up steep hills. They turned to Jackson’s son, Nick, a junior at Seneca Valley who is not on the cross-country team, but who runs indoor and outdoor track.
Fuentes complained of sore and tired arms after running the first few meets while holding onto Nick’s forearm, so Ashe decided to switch to the baton. Then she wrapped the baton in rubber bands to make it easier to carry when their palms got sweaty.
“At the beginning I didn’t know if she was going to be able to make it,” said Karla, who originally was going to send Fuentes to a school for the blind in Baltimore before Fuentes balked at the idea. “And for the people at the school, it’s a challenge for them. But it’s very nice to see all the people when you go to her races. They don’t know her but you can see on their face that they are excited and so impressed to see Angie running. They support her. Whatever she wants to do, we support her.”