Uncommon Sense:  Sensory Impairment Doesn’t Slow Ike Junior


By Scott Spruill
"The Yakima Herald-Republic" - Originally published September 27, 2007, reprinted with permission

Last week in a Columbia Basin League junior varsity race at Pasco, Ivan decided not to follow and not to wait. In a field of 82 runners, he broke away early and never trailed.

For a cross country runner, there’s a lot to admire about Ivan Alfaro. He’s an extremely hard worker, never complains about a tough workout, pushes the pace when others let it lag and improves with nearly every race. Last week, in fact, the Eisenhower junior won a junior varsity race by 48 seconds. Coach Phil English loves a grinder like Ivan, a dedicated kid who smiles and sweats through an afternoon of drills and intervals and comes back the next day ready for more. Competitive, willing, attentive. To see Ivan run a race - as he will in Saturday’s 34th Sunfair Invitational at Franklin Park - is to see a confident youngster unafraid of a challenge and a risk. But what you won’t see is how this doesn’t even scratch the surface, how running nearly out of breath up steep hills is no real adversity at all. Ivan is completely deaf, can’t speak and is limited to 20-percent vision. His condition is known as Type 1 Ushers Syndrome, which makes it likely he will one day lose his vision entirely.

Diann Rockstrom, a Yakima School District teacher of the deaf who has worked with Ivan since kindergarten, remembers well her concerns when he moved across the street from Wilson Middle School to Eisenhower. Ivan has always been strong in selected mainstream academic classes, notably math, but all his courses have required one of the district’s signing interpreters. Understandably, his limited ability to communicate fostered a sheltered and isolated personality in his younger years.

“Ivan has always been a model student - very attuned and very hard-working,” Rockstrom said. “But he was very much a loner in middle school and I absolutely thought he would struggle at Eisenhower. I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, he’ll just get lost.’” It was a jolt, to be sure, but he found something simple that widened his circle and set in motion a complete change in his being. Running. Ivan had tried track and field in middle school and decided to give it a shot in English’s program. “He was interested in sprinting but we thought distance running would be something he could handle,” English recalled. “But the first time he ran a mile it wasn’t under seven minutes. He was very average and he obviously had some serious obstacles.” But to Ivan, none of that mattered. He was running and that was unfiltered and pure. No special needs, no interpreters, no help. Just running. And one thing quickly emerged - Ivan had endurance. He enjoyed track season so much he decided to go a step further and join the cross country team as a sophomore. At Sunfair last year, in one of his first experiences racing for three miles, Ivan placed 68th out of 283 in the sophomore race. Last spring he shaved two minutes off his 1,600-meter time and ran 10:15 for 3,200 meters. “His improvement is just phenomenal,” English said. “From where he started, running 7:15 for a mile, to now. He’s right on the edge of making the varsity (top seven) and we have a very good team.” Each week English posts workouts and Ivan studies and memorizes them. An interpreter typically attends the beginning of practice to relay any additional information. Occasionally the coaches will write a message down for Ivan because he does very little lip-reading but, for the most part, he’s been assimilated into the program just like any other. “He fits right in with his personality. He’s funny, and he messes with us,” senior leader Cody VanDeBrake said. “A lot of times he pushes the pace in workouts - he’s improved like a madman. I don’t think a team could have more of an inspiration.”

Ivan memorizes workouts and course routes and finds ways, both formal and informal, to communicate with coaches and teammates. For his restricted vision, he focuses the tunneled scope of his sight directly in front and tries to maintain a gap of couple strides on the nearest runner. This is how he compensates for those missing or partial senses while running. But they don’t necessarily represent the greatest obstacles he faces. Because of his lack of hearing, Ivan’s balance control is always in question. The perfectly flat, lined and contained environment of a track is one thing. The uneven, undulating nature of a cross country course is quite another. “On a wide-open course he’s OK,” English pointed out. “But on a tight, narrow course it’s a concern. A big field with a large pack of runners can be difficult for him, too.

With no peripheral vision and shaky balance, he has to be aware and careful. And yet for this challenge, Ivan does what he always does. He adapts and overcomes. And dismisses any such concerns as no big deal. “We worry about him on the course but when I see him in a race now it’s nothing like it was last year,” the coach added. “He would wait and let everybody go ahead before, but now he’s so much more confident and aggressive. He’ll even throw an elbow when he as to.” Last week in a Columbia Basin League junior varsity race at Pasco, Ivan decided not to follow and not to wait. In a field of 82 runners, he broke away early and never trailed. “I was excited, and just really felt ready to go,” Ivan said through a signing interpreter before a recent workout. “There were a lot of hills but I just put my head down and worked my way up and down. The last mile - that was the hardest.” Such a simple thing, but with rich rewards. “I like how it makes me feel,” he said. “It’s just wonderful to run.”

Type 1 Ushers Syndrome - the worst of three levels of the disorder - is congenital so Ivan has never been able to hear. The onset of retinal deterioration started in fifth grade and he’s in soft denial concerning his possible blindness, according to Rockstrom. But he does acknowledge it. In addition to his current load of Algebra II, Washington history, English and reading, he is taking a Braille class. “It’s likely he could lose his vision entirely but nobody knows for sure,” she said. “It could happen when he’s 20 or when he’s 40. Or he may be fortunate enough to keep his vision. Nobody can tell.” It’s an unmerciful piling-on of hardships for any 16-year-old to endure. But those close to him are astonished by his courage and grateful for the way running has drawn him out. Ivan is on schedule to graduate in two years and he’s interested in attending college with the hope of one day teaching the impaired.

“There’s no question the running has done it - he’s empowered by it,” Rockstrom said. “I’ll admit we were all worried when he started, almost panicked about it. But look at him now, such a totally self-confident young man. “He inspires and amazes us all.”  ~

This article was reprinted with permission from the author and the Yakima Herald-Republic.  

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