Published: Nov 17, 2011 04:35 PM
Modified: Oct 18, 2011 07:14 PM
Runner makes no excuses
Senior succeeds without sight
CARY - The Grace Christian senior strides hard with a forward lean and determined look as he finishes the 3.1-mile cross country race.He clocks a time of 19 minutes, 3 seconds, establishing a personal record. He places fourth overall and third among his teammates to help the Eagles win the team title in the Carolinas Christian Conference finals on Friday at the WakeMed Soccer Park.As Jacob O'Conner catches his breath, he grabs a water bottle. He joins an informal huddle with teammates, saying he's happy with his PR but disappointed he didn't break the 19-minute barrier.Later, a teammate who finished out of the scoring joins the huddle and expresses disappointment. O'Conner, leaning over and offering a pat on the back of encouragement, says, "That's OK, bud."Unless someone told you, you wouldn't know O'Conner was born blind in one eye and legally blind in the other. And that's just the way he wants it."I've been living with this for 18 years," O'Conner said. "I can't be feeling sorry for myself for 18 years. It's something I've got to live with."It's vision he's lacking - not heart.O'Conner was born 14 weeks premature and as a result suffered from Retinopathy of Prematurity. ROP isn't fully understood, but the eyes don't develop due to the premature birth.The way O'Conner describes it, "I can see someone on the street, but I can't always see who it is."But from an early age, O'Conner's parents, Harry and Karen, raised their first-born child "not to use his vision as an excuse he couldn't do something."As O'Conner grew older, he displayed a passion for sports. Both parents are N.C. State University graduates, and Harry says with the pride of a father as well as an alumnus, "He's a huge N.C. State fan."But when the time came that Jacob wanted to take part in neighborhood football, basketball or soccer games, his parents reminded him the doctors said he couldn't play sports involving a ball.Jacob, though, was quick to identify a contradiction."He said, 'You're telling me not to make excuses for my vision, but at the same time you're saying no ball sports,'" Karen recalled.The ban was thus lifted, although he agreed to wear goggles while playing ball sports. However, Karen added this caveat: "I told him, 'You're smart. Now let's get those grades up.'"O'Conner wants to be just one of the guys, and it's an identity he's thrived with at Grace Christian after a difficult year in seventh grade at Leesville Road Middle School. He was being singled out, sometimes cruelly at that stage in life when kids can be cruel with any kid.Over the summer, Jacob informed his parents he didn't want to return to Leesville Road, and they enrolled him at Grace Christian as an eighth-grader."After his first week," Karen recalled, "he said, 'Mom, I love this school. I don't think they even know I'm blind.'"Grace Christian senior Bob Hauser says the only time O'Conner isn't one of the guys is when he stands out as a team leader."I've known Jacob since eighth grade, and it's been cool to see the confidence grow in him," Hauser said. "He's a great teammate. He never says anything negative. Before the (conference finals), he was telling me 'You're going to get in the top seven.' I told him, 'No, I'm not.'"Hauser finished sixth in 19:44.As a big brother, O'Conner plays that role with 20-20 vision.His sister Hannah, a junior at Grace Christian, played volleyball for the Eagles until she decided to follow Jacob into cross country this fall."I saw how much fun he was having, and I thought I'd give it a shot," Hannah said. "We're really close. He's my best friend."His younger brother Matthew, a fifth-grader, likes to have a friend come over so Jacob can throw football passes as they defend each other. Matthew also plays one-on-one basketball games with Jacob."He tells me the way to get better is to play someone better," Matthew said.O'Conner was on the swim team last winter, but this year he plans to either join the varsity basketball team or accept cross country coach Charlie Murphy's invitation to be a JV basketball assistant coach.But O'Conner and the Eagles aren't finished with cross country season. Grace Christian is among the favorites to win the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association 2A state title on Oct. 28 in Charlotte.O'Conner's times have improved by more than a minute and he has supplanted Hauser as the team's No. 3 runner behind Ian McPherson and Alex Dolwick.One reason is he's become familiar with the courses and their wooded stretches. Tree roots and low-hanging branches are no longer the obstacles they once were, although Murphy said no matter the mishap, "He's always comes out of the woods running hard."Hauser, though, adds it's mostly work ethic."I used to be faster than him, but he's outworked me," Hauser said. "I don't have any excuses."That's the way O'Conner wants it.
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