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MacNeil Overcoming Many Hurdles In Spot

Regina Leader-Post, Canada
Wednesday, April 25, 2007

By Julie Folk

Imagine closing your eyes and running full-tilt at a waist-high barrier, knowing you have to pick the perfect moment to take your last step and jump over it.

That's what Ashley MacNeil does every track practice.

MacNeil, a 13-year-old member of Excel Athletika, decided to try jumping hurdles this year, even though she was born visually impaired. She can only see straight ahead with her left eye and is blind in her right eye.

"At the beginning, I can only see one long hurdle," she said. "When I start going, once I'm about a step away I can't see them at all anymore."

MacNeil has been a member of Excel Athletika for two years. She concentrated on the long jump and the 60 metres race in her first year. After trying hurdles, the fearless competitor decided the discipline wasn't that hard and began training.

"We just started doing some drills, and I found it easy, especially as soon as I figured how many strides to take (between hurdles)," said MacNeil.

Terry Mountjoy, head coach of Excel Athletika, recruited Cougar hurdler Jason Stewart to coach high school hurdlers this season. Stewart is available because he's sidelined for a year with a torn Achilles tendon.

"Hurdles are such a tough thing to do, even when it's easy to see them, and she's just not scared to do anything," said Stewart.

He successfully created programs to allow MacNeil to jump over her challenges.

"At first I didn't even know that she couldn't see the hurdles, she never said anything to me, but I could tell there was something off," said Stewart. "So what I had her do was do the steps in her head, and then when she had done those steps, she just had to trust herself that that was what she had to do. She's just really brave and she got it right away."

MacNeil began training for the 60m hurdles by working out stride length without the barriers in place. After that she progressed to jumping on to a mat to determine height. She has since moved on to the real thing.

"I ran into the hurdle like ten times," she said with a laugh, unfazed by the bruises her sport can bring. "And I crashed one time in practice. It hurt a little bit, but it was hilarious, the hurdle went flying."

What does make MacNeil nervous is that while she's ready for the hurdles, she can't predict where her competitors will be.

"If it's a large group and I'm in the middle of it, it's sometimes nerve-wracking because they might trip me, since I can't see their feet, "she said.

But while MacNeil may have crashed in practice, she's jumping ahead of many others with full sight in competition.

MacNeil placed third, then second, in Excel Athletika's December and January competitions, the Friendship Games and the Janis Festival, both of which included athletes from all of Saskatchewan.

"I don't directly coach Ashley," said Mountjoy, "But I've been struck from afar, looking at results, and saying, 'Wow, this is impressive.' Maybe we should use the same techniques with all our hurdlers so they learn to do things properly."

With results like MacNeil's in regular competition, Mountjoy said he would be interested to see how MacNeil would do in Paralympic competition.

But it's not only track and field MacNeil is interested in. In addition to hurdling and long jump, MacNeil is also a gymnast and a wrestler.

Learning the stride for hurdles came easy for MacNeil, who had learned the same sort of technique for vaults, uneven bars and balance beams. The longtime competitor is also a member of Pile O'Bones wrestling club, where her father coaches and her brother is a fellow wrestler.

"My better sports are still gymnastics and wrestling," she said. "But I've been doing them since I was five, while I've been in track for only two years."

Paralympics and the regular track and field program have begun to integrate, providing MacNeil with great opportunity, although hurdles are not an official Paralympic sport. Neither is wrestling but the rules have been adapted for the visually impaired. And there is a huge push for gymnastics to become a Paralympic sport as well.

As the W.H. Ford student moves on to Winston Knoll High School next year, she plans to stay involved in all her sports. And with a competence in other Paralympic track events, as well as an ability to compete in regular events, MacNeil has a bright future ahead of her.

"She's just not scared to do anything," said Stewart. "Nothing holds her back, she has limitless possibilities."

Taken from http://www.canada.com/reginaleaderpost/news/sports/story.html?id=cc56f86c-b8 8e-4e72-854d-cafdaf15d3e0.

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