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Blind Bay Area Track Student-Athlete Wins State Title With Guide Runner

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – This time last year, Lowell High School's Ethan Fung scampered around the track at Clovis' Buchanan High School in just over a minute. The result didn't set any records, but it earned Fung first place in the Boys 400 meter Para Ambulatory race and the first state championship in the history of the Cardinals' track program.

Fung might have dipped under the minute mark if he didn't slow up about 25 meters before the finish line.

It wasn't a pulled hamstring or an injured foot, Fung simply didn't know exactly where the finish line was.

"I might be able to see some of the lines on the track," Fung admitted. "It really depends on the color contrast of things."

When Fung unfolds his cane and sweeps it across the ground, it's obvious what his impairment is. He suffers from rod-cone dystrophy which has progressively diminished his vision to the point where he's now blind.

"When you go to new places, sometimes you have no reference," Fung explained. "You really have no idea where you're going."

The track seems like one of those "new" places a blind person would prefer not to go near – especially the one at Lowell which is always a beehive of activity.

But Fung decided to venture out of his comfort zone and started running around Lake Merced with the Cardinals cross country team.

"It was kind of exhilarating," Fung said. "I felt tired, I felt accomplished, I felt like I could improve, and I found out I really liked running."

The junior hadn't done more than light weight lifting at Lowell before testing his physical boundaries.

Head coach Andy Leong has been with the track program for over three decades and invited Fung to join the team. Leong has graduated numerous athletes to the university level, and none of them has impressed quiet like Fung.

"He has no fear," Leong cut straight to the chase.

Leong embraces the challenges that comes with coaching a blind player, but Fung's teammate Nathan Chamberlin makes it all possible.

"I've been injured before, and hate not being able to run," Chamberlin said. "Allowing him to run the races comes little cost to me, but is huge for him."

If empathy helped a runner's speed, Chamberlin would be setting Olympic world records. Since last year, he's committed to being Fung's guide and carries the distinction with pride.

Seven inches of string bonds Chamberlin and Fung together when they are running. Fittingly, it's tightened to their ring fingers with a spring-loaded plastic fastener and ensures Fung will always be aimed in the right direction.

It gives Fung the courage he needs to run uninhibited without fear of crashing into anyone or anything.

During a race, Chamberlin makes sure Fung stays inside the narrow lane, talks to him around the curves, and even gets him fired up for the finish line. Most of their practice time is devoted refining symbiotic movements which can be clunky at times.

"He used to just hold my shoulder," Chamberlin said of the crude initial method. "He was pushing my shoulder down, and I was trying to stay upright – it looked like we were fighting each other."

The implementation of the string instantly shaved seconds off their results.

Chamberlin selflessly puts as much effort into Fung's track career as he does his own. During meets, he generally divides three races between the two of them.

"I think about how much faster I could be if I was just training for myself," he said. "But I don't mind, and it's totally worth it."

Amazingly, Fung is still capable of running without a guide especially when he's in a pack. He harnesses different senses to feel others around him -- it's known around the Lowell track as Fung's "spidey sense".

But as a team Fung and Chamberlin have goals, no matter how modest they sound.

"We hope not to get last," Chamberlin said. Their best finish against sighted competition was second place.

Even if Fung never gets first against non-impaired runners, his winning attitude will take him far.

"It's really impressive when they already know (I'm blind)," Fung said.

His story has spread around Bay Area track circles, and his peers consider him an inspiration.

"You have to appreciate them and thank them," Fung said.

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