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Eyes on the Prize

by Matt Makowski & photos by Turner Photography Studio

Hagerstown resident Markeith Price is all but ready for his trip to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.

When I stopped by the home of Markeith Price on the east side of Hagerstown, it was noon on a Thursday, and he watching TV. No, he wasn’t catching up on SpongeBob re-runs, he was studying. The 26-year-old Hagerstown resident was watching race film — presumably parked right in front of the TV, just like parents warn their children against for fear of ruining their eyes. Markeith can’t worry much about that problem though.

Markeith was born fast. He was also born with optic atrophy, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 3. While his eyesight hasn’t improved, studying, training, and practice have made him faster. “I study the mechanical side of things — the way that I should be hitting the ground, my lean, how I lean…there are a whole bunch of aspects to it. It’s an everyday job to really concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing,” Markeith explains.

Fresh off his win in the 100-meter and second-place finish in the 400-meter at the national trials held in Charlotte, N.C. — which qualified him to head to Rio in September for the 2016 Paralympics — Markeith is exploring ways to better his mechanics and trim off a couple fractions of a second. “This whole year I’ve been dedicating myself to being faster. I know I can get faster. I’m not settling for what it is,” he says. “My coach at Tennessee State University told me, ‘Running is like a crock pot — it takes time. You’ve got to learn it.’ Now I’m at the point where I’m really learning and understanding what he said.”

With 16 years of track experience, and 10 years completing in the Paralympic games, he’s been the beneficiary of advice from scores of some of the most knowledgeable people in the sport; now it’s time to roll it all up, and put it into practice. “I’ve had the opportunity to pick a lot of people’s brains — coaches, elite athletes — and this week I feel like I had a breakthrough in being able to put each piece together so I can go out there and get that gold.”

Staying In The Lane

Needing glasses is one thing, but for Markeith, vision is more like a blurry disarray of light and dark shapes. When meeting him, though, you’d never know it. You’d swear he was making eye contact; but really, he’s looking at the outline of your head, and estimating about where your eyes are. Essentially, Markeith employs a kind of memory recall to fill in the blanks of what he can’t actually see — something similar to how he operates on the track. “I’ve run out of my lane maybe a couple times, but honestly, it’s a feeling now. It’s ingrained in my head.”

So what is optic atrophy? He likens it to a cable connection. “So imagine a wire that’s connected to a TV, and those wires that transmit a picture. If you damage those wires, the picture will become distorted, or just black. In my left eye, my vision is like 20/600 or 20/800. In my right eye it’s 20/250, or on a bad day it might be 20/400,” Markeith explains. What that means in practice is range of clearness is roughly two feet — depending on lighting conditions. “But for reading, my sight distance is more like two to five inches.”

Training Solo

Two years ago at this time, Markeith was training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Ca. After graduating college, he was offered the opportunity to train there while his girlfriend, Jessica, worked toward her master’s degree. The two had spent their entire undergrad tenure states apart — he in Tennessee, and she in Virginia. “I wanted her to come out there, but she wanted to get her master’s degree, so we took our time. We were engaged for like three years,” he chuckles. When she graduated, he left the training center and went back to Baltimore, where they both originally hail from. “There wasn’t much access to an indoor track in Baltimore, or a weight room where I could do Olympic lifts,” he says.

Fresh off his win in the 100-meter and second-place finish in the 400-meter at the national trials held in Charlotte, N.C. — ...Markeith is exploring ways to better his mechanics and trim off a couple fractions of a second.

Shortly after reuniting, the two finally tied the knot on Oct. 3 of last year, and Jessica subsequently took a job as a memory care program manager at Brookdale Senior Living here in Hagerstown. The two settled down near Hagerstown Community College, which is where Markeith has been training full time. “Here, they have what I need. I’m able to train at HCC for a small fee for the whole year. They’ve got everything I need, it’s a great facility,” he says.

While things here are good, there are also some pitfalls. “I’m kind of training alone here. And being here is also teaching me about my visual impairment. I’d like to be able to walk to the grocery store and not have to ask my wife to drive. Why should she have to go to Walgreens if she gets sick to get her own medicine? I want to be able to do that,” he says.

Financing A Paralympian

When you make the team, you don’t have to worry about food, flight, or lodging. But Paralympians don’t have the same exposure as Olympians. “When we win, we can make some money, but it’s not a lot, so we’ve got to look for sponsorships. I need a sponsorship that is going to stick with me throughout my years of training. After Rio, I’m focused on 2020 and going to Tokyo. So I need to find a company that understands that this is my job, and will help me train.

He’s found some local help from folks like Doug Bertram, who owns Structural Elements. “Doug helps me with my physical therapy, he puts my hip alignment back into place, he explains things to me, he made orthotics for me, he basically just gets me right. That’s why I’m so grateful for having found out about him,” says Markeith. But the business side of things is hard. “My wife is supporting me right now. I’m not making too much money right now. I’ve been getting help, and sponsorships from Structural Elements, and Dick’s Sporting Goods helped me out a little bit, but the business side of things is very challenging,” he says.

Despite his own financial difficulties, Markeith started the I C You Foundation in 2013. “We provide scholarships to visually-impaired students, and provide funding for various schools of the blind. One day I’d like it to be bigger, but honestly, I just want to try to help in some way because I know the struggles that a visually-impaired person can have in school,” he says. Right now, his parents, wife, and father-in-law are working with Markeith on the foundation. “At this point in time, the best way to help is to help us get the word out…and to donate,” he says. “Don’t give up on what you feel like you can’t do, because you can. Don’t let it hold you back.” He chalks up his philosophy to his foundation laid in his upbringing. “My parents, the schools I went to, my church, they all taught me to look out for other people.”   

Off To Rio

When asked if he was nervous about going to Rio amidst some of the safety concerns media outlets have been reporting on (Ryan Lochte not withstanding), Markeith just shook his head for a bit before responding. “I’m not nervous, I’m excited. This is the most excited I’ve ever been for a track meet. I’m like a little kid before Christmas.” Also, this ain’t his first rodeo. “I went to London in 2012 and I was nervous, not knowing what to expect — I just wanted to compete. But now, now I’m ready.” The Paralympic games take place Sept. 7–18 in Rio de Janeiro.