Los Gatos Weekly Times
`Disability is not an impossibility'
At Heritage High in Brentwood, Alejandro Cervantes isn't allowing anything to stop him from competing in track
BRENTWOOD >> None of the coaches knew about Alejandro Cervantes' challenges that first week of track and field practice.
None of them knew the Heritage High School sophomore could only see shadows, that he is legally blind, that he probably should not have been trying to hurdle on his own.
When Alejandro had trouble following instructions, the hurdles coach at the school in East Contra Costa County thought the teen was merely playing around, not taking the sport seriously.
Soon, they all knew about Alejandro.
He has written an inspirational story this spring about not taking no for an answer, fitting in with teammates and not letting his condition hold him back.
Alejandro maneuvers around campus without any assistance — no cane, no seeing-eye dog — and brightens the track with his lighthearted, can-do personality.
“Vision never really stopped me,” Alejandro said this week at practice. “If I want to do it, I'll do it — even if it's hard.”
Alejandro, 16, could have chosen only safer events such as the 100-meter dash and long jump. He does those, too. But he also wanted a more challenging event. He wanted to leap over the 10 hurdles that he can barely make out until his approach.
He wouldn't let anyone tell him no.
“He's the type that'll want to do something that everybody will say is too hard to do,” hurdles coach Debonaire Shelton said.
The coaches have taken precautions to make the event safer for Alejandro and give him an opportunity to run his fastest. They've added fluorescent orange tape at the top of the hurdles because Alejandro can spot the glow.
They've lowered the hurdles in his lane from 39 to 33 inches. They've shortened his distance from 110 meters to 100. They now shout “jump” when it's time for Alejandro to start his ascent over a hurdle.
“We wanted him to have everything he needed so that he could be super successful,” head coach Terrcel Floriolli said.
The North Coast Section, of which Heritage is a member, provides opportunities for students with special needs to compete in what the section calls its Unified track and field program.
The 100 and long jump are offered now. The 4×100 relay is optional this year, with plans to be added next year.
The hurdles are not offered.
But Alejandro competed in four league dual meets this season, running against non-special-needs students, the latest Wednesday on his school's home track in Brentwood against Liberty.
Alejandro is neither worried about nor even aware of his hurdles times, which have improved to the 21-second range. He just enjoys being part of the team and following his motto that “disability is not an impossibility.”
“It's awesome,” Alejandro said. “Everyone is so cool.”
Guinn Herron, who runs track and has a sociology class with Alejandro, perhaps summed up her teammate best.
“Every morning he comes in and greets the entire class,” she said. “He goes, `What's up everybody? How's everybody doing?' He's very caring. He's always willing to participate in class. Willing to challenge himself. Clearly, you can see that with the hurdles. But it's not only athletically and physically, he challenges himself academically. You would never suspect that he had any vision problems.”
Alejandro's vision impairment began as an infant. Diagnosed when he was 5 months old with retinoblastoma, a form of cancer most common in children, his eyesight deteriorated from “all the treatment” he underwent, said Alejandro's mother, Mayra Banales.
When Alejandro reached third or fourth grade, his mother added, he had become blind. He sees nothing out of his left eye and blurry shadows in his right.
“It was a big adjustment, but you know what, he never really talked about it,” Banales said. “For him, it was like, `Well, this is how I was meant to be and this is what I am going to be. If they ask me if I wish I could see, I would tell them no because this is how I was meant to be.' ”
Alejandro keeps a pair of simulation glasses wrapped in his backpack that enlightens anyone who is curious about the severity of the teenager's blindness. The left lens is covered; the right lens is blurry and shadowy.
When Shelton called out Alejandro for not following orders in that early season practice, the hurdler pulled the coach aside to let him know about the vision impairment. But Shelton didn't get the whole story.
“He said, `Coach, I just wanted to let you know I am blind and I am totally blind in one eye,' ” Shelton recalled. “I took it like, `OK, he can still see out of one eye.' ”
Shelton told Floriolli, the head coach, about the vision issues and then got a clearer picture when he received a call from Alejandro's mother.
Concerned, Shelton, who hadn't had a blind hurdler in some 18 years as a coach, advised Alejandro that the event was too dangerous for someone in his condition.
But Alejandro was determined.
Eventually, Alejandro had Shelton slip on the simulation glasses from the backpack. The coach was blown away.
“Once I put those glasses on, my heart really dropped,” Shelton said. “I damn near started to cry because I couldn't imagine that anyone can see or maneuver in the way that he maneuvered in the vision that he has. When I looked in those glasses, you don't see anything but a blur and a shadow of a figure of a person.”
On the eve of the meet on Wednesday, Alejandro arrived a little late for practice because he had a chemistry test to take. He does exams orally or using Braille.