Prep Track and Field

Erin Kerkhoff's ability trumps her disability

Drake Relays: Despite legal blindness (her vision is 20/400), Solon senior is a star on the track

Solon High School senior Erin Kerkhoff has qualified for Drake Relays in four events and is legally blind. Photographed
Solon High School senior Erin Kerkhoff has qualified for Drake Relays in four events and is legally blind. Photographed during practice on Tuesday. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

SOLON — Erin Kerkhoff had been approached before about sharing her full story.

She declined, preferring to focus on her ability, not her disability.

“She told me, ‘I’m not a pity case,’” said Teri Kerkhoff, Erin’s mother. “She had to grow more confident in herself.”

An 18-year-old senior at Solon High School, Kerkhoff opened up Tuesday afternoon at track practice. Make it clear, she doesn’t want your sympathy, and she doesn’t need it.

Kerkhoff is one of the best long sprinters in the state, and will compete in four events at the Drake Relays.

She also is legally blind, the result of optic-nerve degeneration in both eyes.

“A terrible, freak genetic mutation, a gene she got from me,” said Teri, who has full vision, as does the rest of the family.

Erin’s vision is 20/400. In other words, she needs to be 20 times closer to an object to see it as well as a person with 20/20 vision.

“At least it’s stable,” Kerkhoff said. “It’s not getting any worse.”

Kerkhoff’s condition can’t be corrected by contact lenses or glasses. It’s unlikely she’ll ever drive (though she’s holding out hope for a self-driving car someday). When she shops, “I can’t see a price tag, and I can’t see the numbers on a credit card,” she said.

If you approach her, she may recognize you. But don’t be offended if she doesn’t.

“Facial features are really difficult,” she said.

Academics are a challenge, too. Imagine trying to read what you can’t see.


Still, Kerkhoff maintains a 3.67 grade-point average and is a National Honor Society member. Her life changed with the advent of the iPad.

“Now I can enlarge (the print) of all of my textbooks,” said Kerkhoff, who needs the copy to be at least 40 points to read effectively from just a few inches away.

Each day brings obstacles. More often than not, Kerkhoff figures out a solution.

“Every challenge it’s like, ‘How is she going to make it work,’” said Scott Kerkhoff, Erin’s father. “I’ve never seen anybody so positive.

“I complain about it a lot more than she does. She’s like, ‘Let’s go ... let’s do it.’”

And that’s Erin’s outlook on the track. Bring it on.

At the beginning of the week, Kerkhoff was ranked No. 4 in the state (all classes) in the 400-meter dash at 58.19 seconds. She also will compete in the sprint medley relay (ranked third), 1,600-meter relay (fourth) and 800-meter relay (fifth).

“She’s got a lot of talent, a lot of strength,” Solon girls’ track and field coach Brent Sands said. “And she’s very driven, very hard-working.

“She’ll do her regular workout, then she’ll go work on the 400 hurdles for a while.”

Wait, the 400 hurdles? That’s a perilous event for those with good eyesight.

“It was challenging,” Kerkhoff said in a vast understatement. “But I really liked it.”


Kerkhoff’s athletics career has been full of how-did-she-do-that moments. She ran cross country — and ran it well, with the assistance of a guide runner, Solon teacher Emily Moser.

She played basketball through her junior season. Forgive her for that 36-percent free-throw rate; she couldn’t see the rim, just vaguely being able to make out the white outline of the backboard. She did make a 3-pointer though and was fifth on the team in scoring at 4.2 points per game.

Kerkhoff opted out of basketball last winter to focus on her senior track season, working out with Joey Woody and the Iowa Speed program.

“It really helped me with my starts,” she said. “It was hard giving up basketball, but I love track.”

Kerkhoff is a seven-time state placewinner in track. Though her straight-on sight is poor, her peripheral vision is fair. So she can see the lane lines and stay within her boundaries.

Before a meet, she will study the track with a coach or a teammate, seeking any landmarks that she can spot when she races — a mark in the lane, a gate outside the track. She has been granted a walk-through of Drake Stadium before competition begins Thursday.

She will anchor the three relays in which she competes. Baton exchanges with Kerkhoff are an effort of more than just passer and receiver.

“I’ll have somebody on the infield telling me 100 meters (that the incoming runner is away) ... 50 meters ... I can’t see her until the last second, so I need her to be loud,” she said.


Kerkhoff’s future is determined by her ability, not her disability. She’ll participate in track and field, and she’ll major in business, at the University of Northern Iowa next year.

A new campus and a new program will present new challenges. Bring them on.

“I’m definitely nervous about it,” she said. “I’m pretty independent. I think I’ll be all right ... I’ll just have to adjust like I have been all my life.”

Kerkhoff’s parents first noticed something was wrong with her sight when she was 3 years old (“She couldn’t sit at the back of a circle and see the book during story time,” Teri said), and by the time she was 4, an evaluation indicated she couldn’t see much at all, regardless of distance.

The family feared a brain tumor, but tests were negative.

When she looks in the mirror, Kerkhoff can’t see that her own eyes are green. She was asked what she does see.

“Not much,” she said, then added:

“I wish I could look at the 3-year-old me in the mirror. I’d tell her what she would go on to do.

“I think she’d be proud.”

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