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"You say I should stop; I'm going to keep going:" Vision disorder doesn't stop Highland runner Lewis

Updated: Sep 28, 2021

HIGHLAND -- Arguably the best quality Garrett Lewis has is his stubbornness.

"You say I should stop, I'm going to keep going," the Highland junior said. "I'm the kind of person to say, watch me."

Lewis was born with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a rare type of inherited eye disorder that causes severe loss of vision at birth. He also has nystagmus, a condition of involuntary eye movement.

"I remember going to the eye doctor when I was 5 or 6," said Lewis, who is legally blind. "I can tell a person from about 200 feet away, but even as close as we are apart, two feet, it's still hard for me to tell features. (My parents) always told me I had a thing, but they never framed it that it was going to stop me from doing anything. I've never been told I can't do something."

That includes distance running, a path his brother Ethan, a Highland graduate at Wabash College with the same sight impairment, first charted. First-year Trojans coach Christian Zendejas, who also ran for the Trojans, guided Ethan during a race at Lemon Lake.

"My dad was always big into baseball, but we couldn't play baseball, so we started looking for other things," Lewis said. "Through the (town) chamber (of commerce), we found a martial arts dojo. I've been doing it since I was 4 or 5. It was great for my confidence, believing I can do things."

In middle school, he began working out and running, trying to track for the first time in seventh grade and cross country in eighth grade.

"I jumped a little bit, but it wasn't the greatest," Lewis said.

Lewis didn't need a guide during track since the surface is flat and consistent, but he had one when he started cross country. Once he got into high school, teammates Vinny Bovino (2019) and Mateo Garcia (2020) became his primary partners.

"Mateo was in National Guard Reserves," Garrett said. "He had to be at training so he started working more and didn't have as much time."

That's when Tom Cunningham, a former Griffith runner whose wife Andrea is the Highland girls coach, stepped in.

"I've been around here and there the past five, six years," Cunningham said. "I showed up to watch a meet (last year) and Andrea was like, you're going to run with Garrett. I was like, OK, are there any special instructions? It was just stay out in front of him a little bit. I usually try to stay three to five meters ahead."

Cunningham became Garrett's full-time race guide this season.

"He's great at picking up when I'm speeding up or slowing down, calling out, turn left there, rough footing, how much distance I have until a turn, uphill, downhill," Lewis said.

Even with the assistance, he has had a few mishaps over time.

"Most places I know, I'm good to get around," Lewis said. "When I don't know a place, like Chicago, I have a mobility cane. My parents have been great about that, too. At practice, I'm usually with a few guys, ahead or back. I kind of drift. When I'm more focused on keeping going, things will kind of pop out at me, and I just won't notice someone's there. I'm lucky not to have had too many incidents. My freshman year, before we ran a meet, we were by the fence and bike path, and a cyclist comes flying down right into me. There's a sign over on the course that I hit at least once a season. I bump into a tree once in a while."

The tree, he jokes, is OK.

Coming off a personal-best 23:00.6 in Saturday's Highland Invitational, Lewis is again vying for a spot in the lineup in the upcoming tournament series. He ran in the sectional and regional last season.

"Garrett's up there with the top guys," Zendejas said. "He just comes in and puts in the work. Rain or shine, he'll give me the best Garrett I've seen. If he doesn't make it, he'll still be here training hard as an alternate. I knew Garrett was a go-getter. If I give him something at practice, a certain time, he's going to do it. Every day, I ask him, are you ready for this? All I hear is yes. He goes out and does it. He's not going to let anything stop him. He brings the best out of this team. I want guys who aren't afraid to challenge themselves and Garrett's a great role model. He embodies the best of us."

Though Garrett's vision limitations requires accommodations, Zendejas strives to make his experience as similar to everyone else's as he possibly can.

"Every guy here is a Trojan XC member," he said. "What I love about the program is alums coming back and helping. Everyone wants to help Garrett, but in reality, Garrett's helping us. He's shown us way more than we think. I have big expectations for him for next year."

More than the running, it's the camaraderie of being a part of a group that Lewis likes the most.

"The team is awesome," he said. "You ask any guy here why they run, it's 100 percent the people. You learn to love running after a while, but you come out and you stay because of the people."

Highland's Garrett Lewis, center, runs cross country even though he is legally blind. The Trojans junior is pictured with coach Christian Zendejas, left and his race guide, Tom Cunningham.

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