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Blind athlete competes for Sycamore alongside sighted teammates

SYCAMORE – Stephannie Baccay’s blindness doesn’t keep her out of activities that other high school students enjoy.

Baccay, a junior at Sycamore High School, is on the Spartans’ girls track and field team. She goes swimming, rides roller coasters, takes in movies with friends.

Baccay was born vision impaired. She used to be able to see light, but now can only sense shadows.

She’s been part of Sycamore’s track program since her freshman year, where she competes in the 100-meter dash, shot put and 4x100 relay.

“I always thought if you had a seeing disability you wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things,” said Lindsay Cooper, a junior on Sycamore’s track and field team and a friend of Baccay. “But with her, being friends, she does everything pretty much [as if she could see].”

Because she is assisted by another person, the races Baccay runs against her opponents are exhibition matches. They do not count toward the team standings in the meet.

In the shot put, Baccay does not need assistance, so when she throws it is not an exhibition event. She holds on to a teammate’s elbow up to the cement slab, gets audio cues to the board and throws, hears her mark or scratch and exits. 

Sycamore coach Joe McCormick said her shot put distance has improved about three feet from last season.

Previously in the sprints, Baccay would run on a tether – a long line attached to two poles that kept her on the track. She would have to pull the line, which would slow her down.

Now, Cooper guides her. Baccay grabs on to Cooper’s arms and the two run the race together, with Cooper telling her what place she’s in, who’s in front of her and how fast she needs to go.

Baccay and Cooper’s new system has fared much better than using the tether, and McCormick said Baccay’s times have improved with Cooper guiding her.

“It’s actually a lot better, because with a tether I had to drag the thing. It doesn’t move automatically on its own so I had to drag it, it kind of made my speed slower,” Baccay said. “I felt like I could achieve more if I ran with a guide. I could tell, some of the meets I’d run with a guide, my time would be better [than] if I were running with a tether. ... With a guide it’s perfect. I just feel more secure and feel like I’m not going to trample myself or fall over or anything.”

Extra opportunities?

Last school year, the IHSA began programs for students with disabilities. The sports offered are cross country, bowling, swimming, and track and field. However, they are open only to disabled students who use a wheelchair (with the exception of swimming), and Baccay is not eligible.

According to IHSA associate executive director Kurt Gibson, there were two girls who participated at the IHSA State Meet for disabled students last season. No boys participated.

“It’s certainly a step forward. I’m hoping the IHSA will step forward again. Whether that will happen before Stephannie graduates, I don’t know,” McCormick said. “I don’t know what the populations of blind participants are. I know when schools come in for indoor meets and they see her, she’s certainly an inspiration, not just for our team but every team we come across.”

Gibson said the programs were started because one of the IHSA”s member schools had a disabled swimmer and wanted the organization to look into offering programs. The IHSA formed a committee and ended up organizing programs for the four sports. 

“There’s always talk of [expanding]. Our committee has begun to ask themselves where they think the next tier of events might be,” Gibson said. “Actually, there’s some talk of maybe looking at offering what are called unified programs.”

Much like students with learning disabilities were incorporated into classrooms in the 1990s, unified programs are athletic teams where disabled and able-bodied athletes compete together. Gibson said soccer is one sport where unified programs could compete.

Regardless of whether Baccay is able to compete in a disabilities program in the future, she feels she’s been an inspiration to her teammates and others involved in track. She remembers a meet where another person came up to her and thanked her.

“I remember this one time, this one guy comes up to me and he’s just like, ‘You’re my hero.’ I’m like, ‘Thank you so much,’ “ Baccay said. “It just feels good to have someone come up to you and say those words and be impressed that I can do it without fear or hesitation.”

And she enjoys running in regular meets with her peers.

“I like competing in the normal meets,” she said. “I like being like any other sighted person, you know. I do everything that I possibly can, that a sighted person could do.”

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