The sky's the limit for blind pole vaulter

Blind pole vaulter sets the bar high
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Story highlights

  • Charlotte Brown developed cataracts in both eyes at 16 weeks old
  • In sixth grade her vision deteriorated and she was declared legally blind
  • Brown learned to pole vault in seventh grade and now competes for Purdue University

Charlotte Brown lost what little sight she had by the time she entered high school. Blindness didn't stop her from pursuing her dream of pole vaulting. In her senior year, she won bronze at the Texas state high school championships. Today the 18 year-old pole vaults for Purdue University. The opinions in this article belong solely to the author.

West Lafayette, Indiana (CNN)I take the bus to class like every other student. I walk through the dining courts like another face in the crowd. That's how I like it.

Charlotte Brown put her nickname 'NDNC' on the back of her cleats.
Those who know me call me Charlotte, but those who know me well sometimes call me "NDNC," which stands for "no dog no cane." I was given this nickname by assistant track and field coach Chris Huffins because, despite being blind, I don't walk with a cane or a dog like most visually impaired people.
    Purdue University assistant track and field coach Chris Huffins discusses strategy with Brown.
    Most people don't realize I'm blind. I memorize my environment very well. I create a blueprint in my head for each place I go to avoid running into things. It's not a bulletproof plan. I do occasionally crash into things, but I have learned to laugh it off!
    There are many reasons I can fly "under the radar" and pass for a sighted person. First, I have very acute hearing. I usually listen to the footsteps of the person walking in front of me, so I don't trip over objects. If I hear the person move to the right, I assume it's because there's an object in the way, so I move to the right as well. I do this all without the person ever knowing.
    I know there's an assumption that when one sense worsens, another gets better. That has been true for me, but it definitely didn't happen overnight. I have worked very hard on it. I have trained my ears to listen to people talk from far away and listen to how they walk so I can know who they are before they even speak to me.
    My sense of smell is also heightened. That's how I shop. I can smell drinks through the cap before they're opened and candy bars through the wrapper.
    In addition, I have a very sensitive sense of touch. I lost what vision I had before I learned Braille, so I started to be able to feel the actual ink on a regular print page. I played basketball my freshman year in high school because I could feel the lines of the court through my shoes. It took a lot of practice, but I got the hang of it!
    As weird as it sounds, a lot of days I forget I'm blind.
    Brown and her two older brothers were raised in an active and whine-free household.
    My parents and two older brothers never treated me differently. Everything was always a competition: racing to the top of the stairs or in the pool. My parents never sat my brothers down and said, "Take it easy on Charlotte. She can't see." They just treated me like a normal sister. They pushed me around and I definitely fought back! I think we made each other tough.
    We grew up in a whine-free household. My parents never said, "Can you do that?" It was "How are you going to do that?" I have always had that attitude. I've never known anything different.
    Since losing my sight completely I've had to make adjustments in my life, but they are all minor in hindsight (no pun intended). I use a computer with speech software that reads everything on the screen. My calculator works the same way. Fortunately, both come with headphones so the whole class doesn't have to hear what I am doing!
    Being blind has taught me how to be lighthearted, conquer my fears and, possibly most importantly, laugh. Laugh at myself, laugh when I run into things, laugh with friends.
    If being blind is the worst thing to ever happen to me, I'd say I got pretty darn lucky!