Legally blind high school pole vaulter reaches for the sky

Aria Ottmueller was born blind. She has optic nerve hypoplasia – a congenital condition where the optic nerve is underdeveloped.

Ottmueller eventually gained some of her vision back and since then she’s been very active trying everything from gymnastics to jumping horses to running.

“What you see at 200 feet, I have to be 20 feet away from,” Ottmueller said.

Being legally blind has never stopped Ottmueller from trying new things.

“I listen to a lot of things on my iPad and I read at about a 36 font,” Ottmueller said.

While her vision has decreased over the years starting in eighth grade and is now at 20/400, Ottmueller finds ways to overcome obstacles to be successful as a student at Valley Christian High School in Chandler, Ariz.. She even became a distance runner.

“I actually wanted to work out and I needed something to do in the spring [sophomore year] and I thought I might as well try it,” Ottmueller said.

“If I’m trying to pass someone, it’s really hard because I can’t always tell where they’re at and if someone is right next to me or behind me,” she continued. “I always have to listen.”

Ottmueller, who is a junior, was ready to make the leap into a different sport this year. The 17-year-old wanted to be a pole vaulter.

“I asked if he [Coach Dan Kuiper] would let me pole vault,” Ottmueller said. “He kind of looked at me like, ‘Ha, ha. No.'”

Valley Christian boys and girls head track coach Dan Kuiper finally changed his mind.

“She is a very tenacious and persistent young lady,” Kuiper said. “So we tried to do it in a step-increment process this year and it seemed to work.”

“When you can see a kid start off and doesn’t know anything and they gradually work the process and Aria is a great example,” said Perry Fraley, pole vaulting coach at Valley Christian High School.

“I would grab the pole and just give her the feel,” Fraley said.

Ottmueller eventually got the hang of things and was off and running.

“When I run down, I count my steps,” Ottmueller said. “I can’t see anything when I’m running down to pole vault. I kind of look off into the distance, but by the time I see the bar, I’m already over it.”

“I’m sitting here thinking, if I can get her to get close to 6 feet this year that would be so exciting,” Fraley said. “And just to watch the success of her getting higher and higher and qualifying for state, that’s what it’s all about.”

Ottmueller was able to qualify for the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) state track and field championship after clearing 6 feet 7 inches in a meet last month.

“If she can score points this year, great,” Fraley said. “If not, she’s already accomplished a lot.”

As for Ottmueller, she’s showing others that giving up is not an option.

“You can overcome any obstacle that is in front of you,” Ottmueller said.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Aren’t you afraid?'” And I turn to them, ‘You can’t be afraid of what you can’t see.'”

Ottmueller will be competing Friday, May 10, in the state track and field championship at Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz.