Crowds migrated from the well-manicured 18th green at Paradise Valley Country Club to the finish line just outside the fringe of the ninth green on a bright but cooling Friday morning last week. Rust gold and emerald leaves shook loose from trees dancing to the cadence of a swirling, chilly wind.
Two rosy-cheeked runners appeared from a tree line near the far tee box and turned their strides toward the spectators wrapped in jackets.
Jackson’s Aylin Marsteller ran a stride behind her coach, Jeff Brazil, as the two raced toward the multicolored flags that marked the finish line. Brazil gave a few final instructions before slowing his pace and letting Marsteller run the final 50 feet on her own.
Marsteller, however, couldn’t see the finish line. Nor could she make out most of her surroundings. That’s because the 16-year-old sophomore is legally blind.
But Marsteller heard the cheers of support carry through the blowing air and her Jackson teammates singing “Come On, Eileen” just before she crossed the orange-coned safety marking the race’s end. She also felt the embrace of her junior varsity teammates as they all hugged after the race.
The teammates who had already finished congratulated Marsteller on her season-finale race at the Class 4A West Regional and told her they’ll be even better next season.
“I just like being with the team and being around this atmosphere,” she said. “It’s fun.”
Over the course of the season, Marsteller came out of her shell and became a source of inspiration for her teammates.
Regaining her strength
Marsteller was 3 years old when she fell from a three-story building, causing significant injury to her brain. The full extent of the injuries were unknown at the time, but it ultimately resulted in stunting the strength in her left side and taking most of her sight.
Her limited strength and eyesight alienated her from classmates and she became very shy. Marsteller’s life turned around, however, when the physically active Christy and Steve Marsteller adopted her in 2012.
She already knew how to swim so she trained with the local swimming club before deciding to join the swimming team in middle school. After a year she began to regain her strength and was eventually able to swim four lengths in a meet, which helped boost her fleeting confidence.
Her growing self-esteem pushed her to Nordic skiing, which she also competes in at Jackson.
The added strength allowed her to not only join her father while bow hunting, but to also pull back the bow herself. With the help of a cell phone app she can see the targets clearly, which has also been helpful when the family goes out shooting a .22-caliber rifle.
“She’s done just about everything I can think of,” Brazil said. “It’s incredible.”
Guidance and shyness
Instead of continuing to swim in high school, however, Marsteller decided to compete in cross-country running. Now, not only did she have to adjust to being a freshman in a new school, but she was on a team with strangers and was faced with the logistics of running on the cross-country team.
“I have a little bit of vision so I can still see some,” Marsteller said. “But not enough to just run (the course) on my own.”
Last season the school district paid for an adult to guide her during workouts and at meets, but that only alienated her further from her teammates. Her coaches decided to change that. After a few discussions, it was agreed that the girls would take over and guide her.
“First we had to sit down with the girls’ captains, ‘Hey what do you think? I know you guys are trying to go to nationals and stuff,’” Brazil said. “And they were like ‘Are you kidding me? That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard of.’”
So the girls and the coaches underwent training at the beginning of the year to be certified guides.
They started with a classroom session that informed them what it is like to be vision impaired, giving each girl and coach a deeper appreciation and sensitivity to what Marsteller goes through.
“She has 20/2000 vision. Like, what does that even mean?” Brazil said. “So we had to figure that out. Then it was different understanding what her capabilities are.”
After the classroom phase the team had to physically learn the various complications of being vision impaired, so they took to the field and underwent additional training.
“We had to learn turn signals and stuff like that and then we all had to put blindfolds on,” Brazil said. “It’s not just like, ‘Hey, where’s my turn?’ Every shadow I was like, ‘Whoa!’ So it made us very sensitive to what she goes through.”
First they ran blindfolded with a guide, then they ran blindfolded while teammates guided each other before finally they were able to guide Marsteller.
“A lot of the kids on the team have helped me run and encouraged me a lot because they know I don’t have all of my sight,” she said. “They’re very encouraging, which is very helpful.”
The team was fully certified by the season’s first meet, the Beartrap Invite on Casper Mountain. The terrain was difficult for all of the runners, but it was especially problematic for Marsteller.
Weeks of training were put to the test and communication became key to get through the trail, gravel and grass surfaces.
“It’s amazing how you have to think of it,” Brazil said. “To think that she totally has to totally change her game and slow down to get over surfaces because she can’t quite figure out what that change in terrain is going to feel like. It’s amazing what she does and she’s been an inspiration to the team.”
Marsteller finished that race without any issues, taking her time to figure out the terrain when needed. A different varsity runner guided her in each meet while her junior varsity teammates ran with her during workouts.
Occasionally, they would add in colorful commentary to help lighten the mood while running.
“Sometimes they’ll tell me what’s around me since they can see different things,” Marsteller said. “Like, ‘Oh, there’s tons of flowers there,’ or they’ll try to help see what’s around me since I can’t see all the little details around that they can see that distracts them from ‘This is a hard race’ sort of thing.”
After every workout and meet, the bond grew stronger between Marsteller and her teammates. By the end of the full junior varsity season she was just another member of the team.
“She’s a shy kid and one of her goals is to just get that social connection and so she feels like she’s achieved that where now she’s with this group of girls much deeper than she was before,” Brazil said. “They’re together for the whole trip so that means they’re together on bus rides, they’re together at stores. They guide her around the store and help her with paying and all that kind of stuff. And then they race together. It’s a pretty cool bonding thing.
“She’s much more part of the team now than she was last year when she relied on an adult.”
None of her teammates guided her at the regional meet because they all had their own race to run, so the head coach ran beside her for the first time all season.
Her teammates waited for her at the finish line, all smiling and ready to celebrate their latest achievements.
“It’s awesome, it’s very encouraging and I love that the team is very encouraging to each other,” Marsteller said. “Even if you have a good race or not they just encourage you and it feels good.”
At the beginning of the two-month cross-country season Marsteller set a goal. Her times got better each week as she came closer to reaching her goal.
She fell short by less than a minute in the last race, but she’s still focused on it.
“My goal this year was to get under 30 (minutes),” Marsteller said. “But it didn’t happen so that’s still going to be my goal. To get under 30 and to hopefully letter.”
Since she didn’t letter in cross-country she is determined to letter in the Nordic season, which begins next month. A guide is needed during the Nordic season as well, but luckily for her the team includes cross-country teammates Abby Brazil and Anna Gibson.
While Marsteller’s strength continues to build, her left side still weakens near the end of each race. Noticeably tired in the final 200 feet, Marsteller still pushed through to the sounds of cracking leaves beneath her feet.
“I get really tired but as soon as I get to the finish line I just try to push it,” she said. “Then the little bit of energy I have left, I should just use it on the finish line and I just try to sprint as fast as I can.”
The heavy winds blowing out at Paradise Valley caused problems for all runners and forced Marsteller to use all of her energy to finish.
She overcame those elements to run her best time, just like she’s overcome the other obstacles in her life.
“She PR’d in this wind,” Brazil said. “Incredible, incredible girl.”