Track athlete strikes a rhythm at Parapan Am Games

Jacqueline Rennebohm has been in this position before. She has heard the cheers from the international crowds as colourful flags stream across the sky and has felt the butterflies in her stomach while she digs her shoes into the track.

This time was no different.

“I know what to do when I hit the track,” she says.

Rennebohm was among the participants representing Team Canada at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, Nov. 12-20. A visually impaired track competitor, Rennebohm trains and studies at The University of Western Ontario.

“It’s a really unique feeling,” says the third-year environmental health studies student. “This is the stuff athletes work so hard for.”

She competed in the 100m and 200m races, finishing sixth in both events. Only days after the closing of the Games, Rennebohm is preparing for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, England.

“This event will act as a good international experience on the track,” she said in an interview during the Parapan American Games. “It’s a great opportunity to come here and show the other countries what I’ve got.”

At the age of 7, Rennebohm began to show signs of visual impairment. At 9, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a condition typically found in the elderly. She has cone-rod dystrophy, which means her central vision has degenerated and, eventually, she will be completely blind. With only 7 per cent of vision, she is able to see colours and movement, and has minimal peripheral vision.

“When I run, I really rely on Simon (Hodge),” she says. “We’ve worked so many hours together.”

Hodge, who is her guide runner and fellow Mustang, acts as her eyes and give her audible cues warning about the distance and curves in the track. Since the pair are used to training together, Hodge, a fourth-year engineering student, accompanied Rennebohm to Mexico.

“There is a lot of work involved in what I do and there is a lot of work other people contribute to help me work toward my goals,” she says. “(Hodge) comes to all my practices with me and runs with me. We run all our workouts together.”

She trained six days a week, sometimes doubling up her workouts, to prepare for Guadalajara. “It is quite intense,” she says.

A seasoned athlete, Rennebohm has stepped onto the world stage before; the only difference was she was participating in a different sport – swimming. She represented Team Canada in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, where she ranked in the Top 10 in four swimming events. She also competed in the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in swimming and the 2006 IPC Swimming World Championships in South Africa.

After reaching the top of her sport, Rennebohm retired from swimming in 2009 to focus on track events. Two years later, she is competing in the Parapan American Games for a second time (this time in track), a feat most only dream of.

“I know what to expect, which is a blessing coming into a sport so new. And I’ve been able to transfer skills, such as drive, passion and not to mention work ethic.”

Sports have always been a part of Rennebohm’s life. She finds freedom on the track, as it allows her to put her disability behind her.

“It allows me to put energy into something I really enjoy and to prove to myself that ‘Hey, I might be blind, but I can run pretty fast around a track,’” she says.

She might have had a crowd of 12,000 fans cheering from the stands, but her biggest support network is her family and friends from Saskatchewan and London who have watched her develop into an international athlete.

“I’m running for myself and for others as I step onto the track,” Rennebohm says.