“To understand my involvement in sport, you’d have to understand a bit of my upbringing,” Ashley Eisenmenger told me at the start of our conversation.
So, let’s go back to the beginning.
Eisenmenger is the oldest of triplet sisters, all born prematurely, with conditions that affect their vision to different degrees. One of her sisters has almost perfect vision with the use of glasses. The other has some vision but still utilizes assistive technology. Eisenmenger has been considered legally blind her whole life. From an early age she was learning Braille and how to use a white cane. However, she did not have to rely on that training for a lot of her day-to-day activities.
Growing up in an active household with her sisters and younger brother, their parents did not place emphasis on impairment and instead encouraged them to try all of the sports they were interested in.
“I tried everything. I played basketball for a hot minute. I played a few games of softball. That was… cute,” Eisenmenger said through a laugh. “Not being able to move was never an option, that was just what my family did.”
The condition she had been diagnosed with was supposed to remain stable, but it was in 8th grade when things started to change. Her doctors theorized as her body grew through puberty, the shape of her eyes changed causing additional vision loss. For a few months, Eisenmenger was losing her vision in real time. Eventually she started to slowly regain some of her eyesight, but not to where she was prior.
The training that Eisenmenger had previously received – such as learning to read and write with Braille and using a white cane – now was necessary.
“I knew how to do everything. But it was now no longer a choice, it was the only option,” explained Eisenmenger. “And that’s a really stressful headspace to be in as a 13 year old. Nevermind, like every other 13 year old, I’m just trying to be normal.”
Initially, her participation in athletics came to an abrupt halt as she dealt with her vision loss. This included her participation in Physical Education (P.E.) class at her school in Illinois. However, the state requires in Section 27-6 of the School Code that “special activities” be provided for students with conditions that “prevent their participation” in P.E. class offered for so-called “normal children.” That didn’t happen for Eisenmenger who instead had to spend the period sitting on the bleachers.
“They weren’t letting me do anything because they were petrified,” said Eisenmenger. “I grew up in a super small town, super small school district. So this was all new territory for everybody.”
In the meantime, Eisenmenger was adjusting to her new and now permanent level of vision. This occurred just as she was getting ready to enter high school which contributed to a significant amount of stress and anxiety for Eisenmenger.
Then one day during class, her P.E. teacher, Coach K, approached her on the bleachers and told Eisenmenger that she looked stressed. She said whenever she was stressed herself, she would run. That day they were not sitting on the bleachers; she followed Coach K to the track.
And so they ran.
“I went home that night and ran. We have a pond in the neighborhood that had a sidewalk around it so cars can’t get to it. I went and I ran there with my cane in hand because I didn’t know any other way to do it. I didn’t know what guiding was or that other blind people ran,” Eisenmenger said. “I just knew that this was something I did before I fully lost my vision and now I’m running without vision. It’s clearly going to be a thing that is a constant in my life. At the time, I was grasping at straws for consistency because nothing about school, nothing about my vision was consistent.”
That’s how Ashley Eisenmenger became a runner.
But the story doesn’t stop there. This newly rediscovered sense of identity was only the beginning for Eisenmenger’s pursuit of sport. She longed for the challenge that running provided her. At age 14, she tried to join her school’s track team, but was not allowed due to her vision impairment. In response to being barred from being on her high school sports team, she started running half marathons.
“Because no one could tell me I couldn’t do that,” said Eisenmenger.
She has never doubted her ability to be an athlete, despite the adversities she has been faced with. She realized she would just have to go about sports in a different way.
“I reconnected with sport pretty quickly after losing my vision. It really didn’t take long for me to go from a team sport to an individual sport just because movement was so important for me,” she said.
She went on to say that her blindness is something she is almost always aware of while navigating the world around her. Running is different, however.
“With running in particular, and the way that I run tethered to a guide at the waist, it’s freedom and independence that I don’t get when I’m walking around with a cane,” Eisenmenger said. “Yes, I’m reliant on another human being to see for me, but I’m in complete control of my body and how it’s using space. I get to be fully autonomous in those moments.”
Having overcome many barriers to participation in sport, Eisenmenger had come to realize that access to physical activity shouldn’t be something that adaptive athletes have to fight for on their own.
While she was in high school, a college student from a neighboring town reached out to Eisenmenger’s local running club to inquire if someone needed a running guide. That college student was Katie Donnewald, a longtime runner who at the time was looking to find a sense of community in sport again after leaving organized athletics.
“They sent me an email back with the name Ashley Eisenmenger,” Donnewald said as she smiled. “And so that’s how we initially met.”
Donnewald was the first guide to ever initiate reaching out to Eisenmenger.
“She doesn’t really know this, but Katie was the first person that modeled to me that guiding is a two way street and the guide should want to be there just as much as the athlete wants to be there,” Eisenmenger said. “Because she reached out to me. She’s the one who made it happen. She’s the one who put in the leg work. Whereas I’m used to playing that role.”
When the two runners began their partnership, Eisenmenger suggested that Donnewald blindfold herself and ask someone to guide her. So she did.
“I think it was very surprising to get a taste of how much trust adaptive athletes of all sorts; visually impaired athletes, amputee athletes, and so on, just have to trust the guide or trust the system that provides the prosthetic needed because there is no other option,” Donnewald said. “If you want to participate, you need to trust the level of accessibility that does exist. Unfortunately, the level of accessibility that exists today is by no means where it should be.”
Because of the current lack of accessibility due to system failures for adaptive athletes, Eisenmenger and Donnewald have joined Forrest Stump’s #WeJustFeltLikeRunning national advocacy campaign to ensure everyone can be physically active regardless of accommodations needed.
“Every body deserves to move regardless of needed adaptation. No one should be denied the ability to move. We’ve seen how empowering sports and activity can be for people,” Eisenmenger said. “We’re also seeing the narrative that discrimination is alive. Someone shouldn’t be discriminated against for their race, gender identity, or disability in any facet of their life, and the same should be true in sport. Just because the way I do sports looks different from the way you do sports doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to participate. Everyone should have this opportunity.”
You can join Ashley Eisenmenger and Katie Donnewald in this fight too by signing our petition to put an end to this discrimination. You can also register to virtually race with us on October 3rd to be a part of Forrest Stump’s #WeJustFeltLikeRunning team. Learn more about what you can do to exercise your right to exercise by visiting www.Forrest Stump.org/Take-Action.