Keryl Rustin, 74
Kearneysville, West Virginia
You won’t find a more determined person than Keryl (pronounced “Curl”) Rustin. She adapted to being born visually impaired, finished school, raised three children and had a satisfying working career at a VA hospital in West Virginia.
Then, at the age of 52 a rare neurological condition gradually took the rest of her sight. Now what?
“It was challenging for me to go through losing my sight before I began running,” she recalls. “I was fighting depression and wondering where my life journey would go. But I pulled myself back up and did not want to play the pity game any longer. Even though I was blind I am capable of doing things and I had the initiative and the motivation to learn and participate in society.”
Keryl started running in 2020, enjoyed the experience and has since completed 15 races, mostly 5Ks. She could not find a trainer who would work with her, but she found a powerful ally and spirit coach who helped her become a competitive runner – her granddaughter.
“It wasn’t pre-planned. During COVID my granddaughter Gabbi and I went out for regular walks, and one day I told her I wanted to run,” she shares. Gabbi said, ‘You can do it Grandma!’ and it started that way.
“I have never been tethered,” she continued. “Gabbi would just give me instructions like, ‘Grandma, go right’ or ‘Grandma there’s a car coming’ or ‘Grandma, there’s gravel on the road.’ Imagine that – a seven-year-old girl was giving me cues!”
For her races Keryl would find a guide to run alongside, which is permitted in the rules. In 2021 she became the first blind person to run the Maryland Senior Olympics 5K. Next was the 2022 National Senior Games presented by Humana, where she was unexpectedly faced with the ultimate challenge she could imagine.
“My friend Kat Hansen accompanied me to Florida. She’s not a runner but she found an app that I could use to direct me on the course. But the day of the race she couldn’t get it to work and told me there’s no way I could do the race. I replied, ‘I’m here and I’m going to do it even if I have to crawl.’”
Incredibly, Keryl said a prayer and ran the 5K along the beach in Fort Lauderdale unassisted and unnoticed.
Her plan was to listen and follow the footsteps of the other runners. “It was challenging for me to stay in the middle, and I wasn’t able to keep up at times,” she says. “I knocked down a few cones on the way when I got behind. But I’m so grateful to the other runners because they were yelling at me to go to the right or the left to get by. They didn’t even know I was blind, or how much they were helping me complete the race.”
Keryl had no words to describe the experience. “I cried like a baby after it all. The people I met didn’t question me about my abilities, they accepted and embraced me as an individual. The conversations were about camaraderie more than about my blindness.”