18 Under 18: Sami Stoner

Lexington (Ohio) junior Sami Stoner is legally blind but competes for the school's junior varsity cross country team with the help of her guide dog, Chloe. Bud Motter

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In his office at Lexington (Ohio) High School, John Harris has a photo of a girl running with her dog. If he's having a bad day, a glance at the image usually improves his outlook. "She's really an inspiration to me," said Harris, the school's student activities director, of the young runner.

Harris is only one of a legion of admirers Sami Stoner has cultivated. A 17-year-old Lexington junior, Stoner is legally blind but competes for the school's junior varsity cross country team with her guide dog, Chloe, trotting beside her.

As an eighth grader, Stoner was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, a form of juvenile macular degeneration that quickly took away her central vision, sparing only some peripheral sight. Although the condition prevents her from driving, it hasn't kept her from running, a sport she took up before her vision deteriorated.

During her first two years at Lexington High, Stoner ran alongside a friend, Hannah Ticoras, who sacrificed her own times to escort Stoner safely from start to finish. But after Ticoras graduated in 2011, Stoner faced a dilemma.

Enter Chloe, an energetic golden retriever Stoner met last summer through Pilot Dogs Inc., a Columbus nonprofit that matches visually impaired individuals with guide dogs. The pair began running short stretches together during their month-long orientation in Columbus, eventually working up to the five-kilometer distance of Stoner's cross-country races.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association at first denied Stoner's request to compete in sanctioned races with Chloe, but the governing body ultimately relented, clearing the duo to debut at a Galion, Ohio, meet last September. Under safety measures agreed upon with the OHSAA, Stoner and Chloe start 20 to 30 seconds after other competitors and must finish outside narrow finish-line chutes, Harris said.

Although Stoner is ineligible to score -- only the fastest seven varsity times count at most meets, she said -- she finished in less than 30 minutes for the first time last fall. She credits trust in Chloe for bolstering her confidence and shaving seconds off her times. "She's always focused on what's ahead of us," Stoner said.

Approaching life with uncommon verve despite her disability, those close to her say, Stoner strives to be a positive role model for other visually impaired people, including a young girl she began mentoring recently.

"I'm trying to get her to see that having vision problems really doesn't limit you at all," Stoner said.