Matt Simms photo Langley Middle School eighth-grader Luke Gandarias (left) competes in cross country despite being blind since the age of seven. To his right is guide runner Cedar Rossel, a student at South Whidbey High School.

Never slowing down; blind eighth-grader competes in cross country

Langley Middle School eighth-grade cross country runner Luke Gandarias has goals just like everybody else.

He wants to be fast. He wants to improve. And he’s determined not to let being blind slow him down. Not by a long shot.

“His attitude is awesome,” said Andy Davis, assistant cross country coach. “He wants to be every bit as good as he can possibly be; he’s like any other competitive athlete where he just wants to keep getting better, better and better.”

Gandarias completed his second season with the Cougars in October, finishing 24th overall at the Cascade Conference Championships after running the course in 12 minutes and 24 seconds.

Gandarias went blind at the age of 7 due to a condition known as hydrocephalus, which is the buildup and pressure of fluid in the brain. Gandarias said most people have between five to 15 pounds per square inch of fluid pressure in the brain; he had 50. It crushed his optic nerve and caused him to lose his vision. It also resulted in deafness in his right ear.

He has 20/2800 vision in one eye, but cannot see out of the other.

Guide runners helped Gandarias navigate the courses by running either at his side or a pace behind him and warned him of upcoming obstacles or changes in the path. He uses his instincts and reaction time to keep from stumbling on rocks and other things that his guide runners couldn’t warn him about. Guide runners this season have included Cedar Rossel, a student at South Whidbey High School, Matt Simms and Walter Van Selow.

As a seventh-grader, Gandarias was focused on learning the trails, gaining a rapport with his guide runners. This season was about improving his mile time to under 5 minutes and 50 seconds and passing other runners with efficiency. Because he is deaf in his right ear, it’s imperative commands are given in his left ear, he said.

“If they’re behind me, they may shout to my right side and then I’ll miss what they say, which is really critical especially when you’re trying to pass someone,” Gandarias said. “If they’re saying somebody’s elbow is swinging at you, you really don’t want to get hit with that.”

On more than one occasion, Gandarias has lost the guide runner accompanying him.

Assistant coach Andy Davis said Gandarias outran his guide at last year’s league meet and was alone until teammate Kaia Swegler-Richmond stepped in. It was just one example of his teammates rallying behind him to help.

“I saw Luke come out [alone] and I got my shoes and I’m ready to go if I needed to, but Kaia was just right there,” Davis said.

Gandarias realized he may have potential in the sport when he finished among the top seven kids in his grade during a timed mile for a physical education class. He has played soccer since he was 3, but he came to terms with the fact that he may have a better future in cross country.

“Running is a solo sport and eventually with soccer, if my vision continues to decrease, it wasn’t going to work for me,” Gandarias said. “So, I thought, why don’t I go try this. I’m already somewhat good at it; maybe not super good, but good enough to at least try. And even if you’re not good, you should still try, but for success reasons I wanted to start out at least moderately good.”

It’s been satisfying to see the development of his skills over the past two seasons, Gandarias said.

“I’m proud of watching my speed and capability as a runner grow,” Gandarias said. “I can’t say I’ve won any awards, because both of my final races of the season where they actually give awards have been a mess.”

Davis felt Gandarias is an inspiration to those around him. Gandarias sees it differently.

“A lot of people find me as an inspiration,” Gandarias said. “They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool.’ No. That’s not how we think about it. Let’s just say that I can do anything and anybody else like me can do anything. Some other blind people just don’t know it.”