CHANDLER, Ariz. –– Consider that Aria Ottmueller started pole vaulting about six weeks ago, and it’s impressive she will compete Friday in the Division IV Arizona state championships.
Consider that the 17-year-old Valley Christian High School junior was born completely blind and her accomplishment soars to another level entirely.
Ottmueller has optic nerve hypoplasia, a condition in which the optic nerves don’t properly develop, and was born without sight. She later gained some vision, bringing her visual acuity to 20-200 — still considered legal blindness — but lost half of what she had gained by eighth grade and now sees at 20-400.
At night, Ottmueller can’t see at all. Same goes for overcast days. She has no peripheral vision or depth perception and can’t see facial expressions. She relies on general shapes and her other senses to get around and requires special academic arrangements.
None of that has stopped her from pursuing her athletic ambitions.
“My whole motto has been ‘I can’t be afraid of what I can’t see,” Ottmueller said.
First, it was gymnastics, in which she did nearly every event.
“In beam, I couldn’t see the beam at all,” Ottmueller said. “So when walking across the beam I did it mainly off of feel.”
Next, cheerleading and horse jumping. Ottmueller can’t see more than two strides ahead of the horse before jumps, if at all.
“My trainer tells me where to turn, and then the horse kind of speeds up when she gets to the jump,” Ottmueller said. “I usually go off the feel of the horse and my trainer telling me when to turn.”
Looking for her next thrill, Ottmueller went out for track her sophomore year at Valley Christian. She started out in distance events, running the mile. It didn’t go well, so Ottmueller wanted to try something else.
Ottmueller said she’s always preferred being in the air than on the ground — hence the gymnastics and horse jumping — so pole vaulting seemed an obvious choice. Valley Christian head girls track coach Dan Kuiper was not on board.
“I asked if I could pole vault, and he kind of just went ‘Ha, no. Absolutely not,'” Ottmueller recalls. “The odds were against me, but I asked last year and throughout the year I kind of bugged him about it, kept asking and finally they were like ‘All right, we’ll let you do some pop-up drills in the sand.'”
Ottmueller began working with Perry Fraley, who has coached pole vault at Valley Christian since his son competed there in 1999. He was all for Ottmueller’s attempt at pole vaulting from the start, as were Ottmueller’s parents.
“Obviously, the first thing considered was safety,” Fraley said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t put her in a dangerous situation, so we started very, very slow.”
But Ottmueller quickly inspired confidence. After a day of practice jumps in the sand pit, she moved to the actual pole vault pit. It didn’t come without some growing pains, but within a few weeks, she was ready enough to compete in her first meet.
So how does she do it? How does a person with so little sight learn a skill most regular folks lack the coordination to? Memory and meticulous repetition.
Ottmueller can’t see much of anything when she’s pole vaulting. Not her approach, not the bar she’s trying to clear or the pit she’ll land in — nothing. Instead, she counts the steps in her approach to a jump, and from that knows when to plant the pole, which Fraley says lands in the box probably 14 out of 15 attempts.
“Aria has a gift,” Fraley said. “She can repeat the same action pretty accurately time after time after time. I would assume that’s somewhat from her gymnastics training.
“I have kids that have full vision and everything else that struggle a lot more than she does.”
When he first started working with Ottmueller, Fraley set what he thought was a realistic goal of a 6-foot jump in Ottmueller’s first season.
“I thought if we can get her to clear 6 feet this year that would be a heck of an accomplishment,” Fraley said. “She blew past that. She far exceeded anything I thought she would do.”
In her third meet, Ottmueller jumped 6 feet, 7 inches, more than enough to qualify for state. She hit 7 feet in her next meet, and hopes to reach at least 7 feet, 6 inches, a height she has reached regularly in practice, when she competes Friday afternoon. Last year, a vault of 7-6 earned eighth place at the state meet.
Ottmueller and Fraley know she’s not competing to win big right now, but that she’s competing at all has inspired many. Teammates, opposing coaches and total strangers have approached Ottmueller to tell her how moved they are by what she’s doing.
Fraley, too, has heard from opposing coaches and fans impressed that he has brought a blind pole vaulter along so quickly, but he insists he deserves little praise.
“Some of the guys give me more credit than they should,” Fraley said. “I just help her along. She’s the one vaulting.”
But Ottmueller didn’t start pole vaulting for the attention or to inspire others. It was just the next thing she wanted to try, the next thing her blindness couldn’t keep her from at least attempting. That’s what she hopes others take from her story.
“You can try anything,” Ottmueller said. “Before you say you can’t do it, at least try it, and try to figure out another way around an obstacle in order to accomplish your goal.”