On Your Mark
HSE Track & Field Star Noah Malone Excels Despite Rare Eye Condition
Photographer: Brian Brosmer
At just 17 years old, Noah Malone is already one of the fastest high school runners in Indiana. The difference between this Hamilton Southeastern High School junior and other runners, though — Malone is sprinting through finish lines that he can’t even see.
In the summer of 2015, Malone was at a junior Olympics track and field meet when he looked up at the scoreboard to see his times and realized that his vision was suddenly blurry. Not thinking too much of it then, he arrived for his first day of school later in August only to find out that he couldn’t see or read the board in his classroom either.
After a visit to the eye doctor, Malone was diagnosed with Leber hereditary optic neuropathy — an inherited form of vision loss that has left him legally blind. It was a nerve-wracking revelation for Malone at the time.
“We thought I just needed glasses or contacts,” Malone says. “But when I got to the eye doctor for tests, I couldn’t see anything. It was shocking to me because it all happened so fast.”
Because the visual impairment affects his optic nerves, glasses or contacts don’t work for Malone. Thankfully, his condition has plateaued, and he will never go completely blind. Still, the visual impairment has been a huge life change in his day to day, much less running.
Malone describes what he sees as the opposite of tunnel vision. He has retained some of his peripheral vision but looking at anything straight on is most difficult for him.
“I can see good enough to maneuver and get around,” Malone says. “Small details, though, are very hard to see. The worst days of it were early on when I first had it my eighth grade and freshman years. Living with this for three or four years now, I’ve been able to adjust to life.”
Throughout the school week, Malone spends most of his day at the Indiana School for the Blind & Visually Impaired for classes there before taking the bus back to HSE to finish his final two periods for the day.
Malone has not let his eye condition slow him down in the least bit. Quite the opposite, he has excelled at track and field and continues chasing down his goals each year.
Malone has loved running ever since he was a kid. His mother saw him running around in the backyard one day and thought it would be something fun for him to do competitively. His parents soon realized he was rather quick on his feet. After competing and reaching regionals in the fourth grade, Malone’s passion for running had fully blossomed.
“I take track as a platform to be competitive,” Malone says. “I’ve always enjoyed running. I knew it would be something I would continue doing.”
His freshman year at HSE, barely a year after being diagnosed with his eye condition, Malone set new HSE records for the 100 and 200-meter dash.
“I didn’t expect anything close to that kind of success my freshman year,” Malone says. “I don’t think a freshman at HSE had ever broken two track records before that. It was really a huge confidence boost for me. I actually broke my own records again my sophomore year. Breaking records is always a fun goal to chase after.”
This past year, Malone finished just two-tenths of a second away from a state championship in the 100 and finished fourth in the 200 at state. Topping off his summer, he also traveled to Arizona to participate in the Paralympics with Team USA.
“Making the Paralympic team was my biggest goal in 2018,” Malone says. “It means a lot to represent our country. Most of the people I competed against were older, some in their 30s. It was intimidating at first, but it was really exciting, too. It was amazing meeting other Paralympic runners and hearing their stories. I made a lot of friends in that community.”
Recently, Malone was also named the 2018 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field High School Male Track Athlete of the Year. It is the second time on the All-American list for Malone as he took home the award beating out runners across the entire nation.
“It was a complete surprise,” he says. “It means a lot to me to win that award. It’s a benchmark I’ve wanted to reach. It makes me want to work harder this year and maintain that top spot.”
Malone’s accomplishments have not come without hard work and dedication. The optic neuropathy condition changed everything about Malone’s workout, practice and meet routines.
One big change came in the 4×1 meet. Malone, being the fastest runner, has always been the anchor on his team — the last one to grab the baton to finish out the race. With his eye condition, he could no longer see his teammate coming and know when to grab the baton. So, his coach developed an audible signal to let him know when the baton comes. It’s a practice that he still uses today.
“It was extremely hard making those adjustments early on,” Malone says.
On meet days Malone has a unique routine. It starts the day before his competitions. He always eats a spud from McAlister’s for dinner before every meet. At the meet, Malone makes sure he is stretching and staying on his feet. He also listens to a tailored playlist, usually including J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, to get amped up for the day.
“People have asked, ‘If you are legally blind how can you see the lines?’” Malone says. “I can see the lines on the track. Some tracks are better than others depending on the colors. In a 100 meter, obviously, I run straight, but for a 200, the curve can be difficult sometimes. The biggest challenge for me though is the finish line. Sometimes I’ve thought the finish line was maybe two meters before it really was and slowed down too early. Walking the track before the meet really helps me get a feel of where everything is.”
But when the race starts, Malone hits his stride and everything is a blur — both literally and figuratively.
“When I have a really good race, I don’t remember anything at all from it,” Malone says. “I try not to think too much while I’m running and just be in the moment.”
With the indoor track season already in full swing, he is looking towards even bigger goals in 2019 and beyond. Malone wants to finish strong for a state championship this year. Beyond that, he aspires to run for a D1 school in college.
Along the way, he hopes people who hear his story are inspired and realize that anyone can accomplish their goals despite any limitations they think they have.
“My condition will never slow down my goals,” Malone says. “If you work hard, good things come.”