Windsor High cross country coach Pete Stefanisko shouldn’t feel bad — the California Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t notice, either.
The DMV issued Windsor High senior and cross country team captain Branden Walton his learner’s permit.
“I actually got my permit and they reviewed it and then they took it away,” he said. “They reviewed it and finally figured out that I can’t see.”
Walton is legally blind.
Probably shouldn’t be driving a car. He also probably shouldn’t be running at breakneck speed over tree roots and rocks, either, but don’t tell him that.
Diagnosed with macular degeneration and Rod-cone Dystrophy at 4 years old, Walton can see at 20 feet what someone with normal vision can see at 200.
“It’s 20/200 — 10 times worse than normal vision,” he said. His phone has enlarged fonts and he pulls it close to his face to read it. He sometimes takes pictures of whiteboards at school so he can blow the print up on his screen.
But when Walton runs, it’s hard to tell what he can or cannot see on the course.
“It depends on the weather, honestly,” he said. “The sun definitely bothers my eyes.”
Walton wears custom sunglasses, so back when Stefanisko met him as a freshman, nothing seemed amiss. Plus, the kid was speedy enough to make varsity, so why ask too many questions?
“I didn’t know anything about his vision problem,” he said. “A few days later, I met his dad and he told me about it.”
“He didn’t talk about it at all,” he said.
Now that Walton is dreaming a little bigger, he’s talking.
Walton, who has captained the Jaguars’ cross country team for two seasons, is aiming to make the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And Walton is the first guy to say it — it won’t be easy.
“I have some work to do,” he said.
He said he had to travel to Arizona to have his vision examined and classified for competition by Paralympic officials. He came away with a T13 rating, meaning he is among the least visually impaired of athletes and that his vision is between 20/200 and 20/400.
He also came away with a handful of medals from competitions in Arizona, Minnesota and New Jersey, and 2015 U.S. Paralympic High School Track and Field All-American honors. He’s one of 66 athletes nationwide to receive the honor.
Walton, whose times this cross country season have largely been slower than last year’s, is using the season more for training than competition.
He’s working with former Olympian Stephen Agar, who ran for Dominica in the 1996 games, to shave 29 seconds from his personal-best 1,500-meter time of 4:29 in order to qualify.
“He’s building for the long term,” Agar said, noting that wins or even personal bests this season in cross country have not been the focus.
That’s fine by Stefanisko, who also coaches the distance runners on the Windsor High track team.
“This year, I’ve said, ‘Let’s not worry so much about your times, because we know you are really aiming for track,’ ” he said.
The upcoming track season will prove a critical time for Walton’s quest to significantly drop his 1,500 meter time to Paralympic-qualifying range.