Paralympian Erin Kerkhoff wouldn't allow blindness to keep her off track

Former Solon runner and current University of Northern Iowa sophomore Erin Kerkhoff is eyeing gold at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo


                            Paralympian Erin Kerkhoff wouldn't allow blindness to keep her off track
Erin Kerkhoff is legally blind but she won't allow that to hamper her aim to win on the track at Tokyo Paraolympics (Twitter/ErinKerkhoff)

Thousands of athletes from all around the world, including track and field star Erin Kerkhoff, will compete for the coveted gold at one of the biggest sports events in the world, the 2021 Summer Paralympic Games. Many aspiring athletes will use the Paralympic Games in Tokyo as a platform to showcase their talent in front of the entire world and become legends.

Athletes like Tatyana McFadden, Trischa Zorn, Beatrice Hess, and others have excelled at the games, winning multiple medals over the course of their illustrious careers. This year, other para-athletes such as Breanna Clark, Gianfranco Iannotta, and Alexa Halko, along with Kerkhoff are looking forward to making history in their respective sports.

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Over 234 athletes from Team USA are practicing night and day to make their mark at the Tokyo Paralympics, which begin on August 24, 2021. Former Solon runner and current University of Northern Iowa sophomore Kerkhoff, who is one of Iowa's best long sprinters, was named to the United States Paralympic squad and will compete in Tokyo alongside Panthers' colleague and fellow Swisher native Jessica Heims.



 

Kerkhoff is also legally blind. The cause is optic-nerve degeneration in both eyes and her vision is 20/400, which means she needs to be 20 times closer to an object than someone with 20/20 vision to see it clearly. "I've always loved track and I didn't want anything to stop it," she said to KCRG in 2019 after helping Solon finish fourth in the sprint medley relay at the Drake Relays. "So I just do what I can with the situation that I have."

Kerkhoff, 20, has long been approached by interviewers about sharing her full story, but she always declined. "She told me, ‘I'm not a pity case,'” said Teri Kerkhoff, Erin's mother to The Gazette. "She had to grow more confident in herself." Of her daughter's blindness, Teri said: "A terrible, freak genetic mutation, a gene she got from me." Teri has full vision, as does the rest of Kerkhoff's family.

"At least it's stable,” Teri said about. Kerkhoff's 20/400 vision. "It's not getting any worse.” Kerkhoff's vision is uncorrectable with contact lenses or glasses. She is unlikely to ever drive (though she hopes for a self-driving car in the future). "I can't see a price tag, and I can't see the numbers on a credit card when I shop," the star athlete explained.



 

Kerkhoff says she has trouble recognizing people due to her eyesight. "Facial features are really difficult," she said to the website. Academics were a challenge too, but Kerkhoff kept a 3.67 grade point average and was a member of the National Honor Society at Solon High School. With the introduction of the iPad, her life changed dramatically. "Now I can enlarge (the print) of all of my textbooks," she said. 

Every day presents new challenges. Kerkhoff is usually able to come up with a solution. Her father, Scott, said: "Every challenge it's like, ‘How is she going to make it work. I've never seen anybody so positive." He adds, "I complain about it a lot more than she does. She's like, ‘Let's go ... let's do it.'"

Solon girls' track and field coach Brent Sands said she is 'very driven, very hard-working'. "She's got a lot of talent, a lot of strength," he said. "She'll do her regular workout, then she'll go work on the 400 hurdles for a while".Kerkhoff said hurdles were a challenge but she liked it. Kerkhoff is unaware of the fact that her own eyes are green when she looks in the mirror. She was questioned about what she sees. "Not much,” she said, adding: "I wish I could look at the 3-year-old me in the mirror. I'd tell her what she would go on to do. I think she'd be proud.”

Kerkhoff will compete in the Paralympics for the first time this summer. After a personal-best run of 58.23 seconds in the trials last weekend in Minneapolis, she is rated fifth in the world in the T13 400-meter dash. She'll likely also compete in the 100-meter dash, where she's now placed ninth. At the trials, she came in second in both events.

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