AUSTIN, Texas -- The collective groans echoed through Mike A Myers Stadium on Friday afternoon. But the standing ovation that followed for Charlotte Brown resonated much louder.
The blind 16-year-old junior pole vaulter from Emory Rains High School finished in a two-way tie for fourth out of nine competitors in the Texas Class 3A state meet after missing three times at 11 feet, 6 inches. She had cleared 11 feet.
Brown has received national attention since her sophomore year, when she finished eighth at the state meet with a jump of 10-6.
Brown's sight has deteriorated further since then, and she now is barely able to distinguish light from dark and uses her guide dog, Vador, to lead her to the starting line at track meets. She relies on a beeping device to tell her where to plant her pole for her vaults.
Brown then counts her left steps down the 81-foot runway, with head coach Jeff Lester positioned behind the pit whistling to guide her to the middle of the mat, and vault coach Derek Smith standing to the left, also counting steps and spotting. On step No. 7, she plants her vault for takeoff.
But the coaches' positioning, approved by the state's athletic association, as were all of Brown's aids, are mostly insurance for the gifted athlete who has been excelling in a variety of sports throughout her life.
Brown was diagnosed with infant cataracts when she was 3 months old, and her vision has worsened dramatically. At one point she could see to a distance of about 10 feet, but starting in sixth grade she said using her "good eye" was like looking through a coffee stirrer. Last spring, things went dark.
Brown acquired Vador last summer and began relying more on Braille. This season, she vaulted a personal-best 12-6 in practice and finished second two weeks ago in regionals with a vault of 11-3.
"She's super competitive, no doubt about that, and she has athletic gifts," said Denver Stone, the girls' track coach at district opponent Kaufman. "But she has a desire and a will to succeed that is unbelievable.
"The biggest way I can describe it is that everybody knows her from pole vault, but she [also] runs the last leg of the mile relay. We were fortunate to beat her once, but we know we have to have a lead on her because when she's coming down that homestretch and driving her arms, let me tell you, that competitive spirit is impressive. She's a beast."