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Blind Runner Chasing Paralympics Gold

The Royal New Zealand Foundation for the Blind

New Zealand has its own version of Marla Runyan, the middle distance runner who made headlines last month when she became the first legally blind athlete to represent the USA at the Olympic Games.

Tim Prendergast is 21 and a rising star in New Zealand athletics - even though he can barely make out the ground in front of him.

Prendergast has Stargardt's disease, an inherited degenerative condition which begins during childhood. Today he has only 3/60 vision (meaning what most of us can see at 60 metres, he can only see at three metres) and has no central vision.

But despite restrictions on his training (for example, he can't train at night) the young Wellington runner has his mind set on becoming New Zealand's first blind Olympian.

Prendergast started in competitive athletics 13 years ago aged eight, around the same time as his central vision began to disappear. But his deteriorating sight has never swayed him from running around a track.

He frequently trains and competes with sighted athletes, joining New Zealand Olympians Toni Hodgkinson and Beatrice Faumuina in Queensland in August and September for a pre-Olympics training camp. While there he also got to meet his role model Runyan, who was likewise warming up for the Olympics at Queensland training camp.

Like Runyan, who listens to her rivals' breathing to gauge her position, Prendergast has had to develop his own ways of dealing with a bunch of athletes in the highly tactical 800m and 1500m events.

"Because I can't really see other athletes coming up around me, I'm in danger of stumbling or being 'checked' if I'm in a tight bunch. So I always try to get on the outside or run up front."

On Wednesday Prendergast heads to the Paralympics in Sydney, one of only two blind or sight-impaired members of New Zealand's team.

He will be our Paralympian equivalent of Toni Hodgkinson, competing in the B3 800m and 1500m. Blind athlete classifications range from B1 or totally blind, to B3 for those with some practical vision. He will be lining up as one of the outright favourites for a track medal.

Last year Prendergast ran the fastest 1500m of any B3 athlete in the world in a time of 3:57:80 and is officially number two in the world rankings.

His personal best in the 800m is 1:53:45 - just a fraction behind the B3 world record of 1:53:37.

At the World Blind Games in Spain in 1998 Prendergast won silver and bronze - even though he was still a teenager in an event that traditionally favours athletes in their late 20s or 30s.

While success at the Paralympics is his immediate challenge, Prendergast hopes the experience will help him towards his dream of eventually representing New Zealand on the track at an Olympics.

And, while there's been plenty of post-Olympics talk about New Zealand's lack of medals and competitiveness at Sydney, Prendergast is burning to deliver the goods - and some happier headlines, providing the Paralympics are given the media coverage they deserve.

Says Prendergast, who was the first non-travelling reserve for the Atlanta Paralympics four years ago, "I'm definitely aiming for gold. You've got to go for it!"

Prendergast's Paralympics competition begins on Oct 20 with the 800m, with the 1500m scheduled for Oct 27.

-ends-

For further information, please contact Catherine Hennessy, RNZFB Communications Co-ordinator, Ph: (09) 355-6884, 021 687 426.


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