LEGALLY BLIND, MEGHAN DOWNING DOESN’T MAKETIME FOR EXCUSES.
Seeing truly is believing for Meghan Downing.
Unfortunately, the ability to see, something most of us take for granted, will not be a part of her life for much longer. It’s called Stargardt disease – a juvenile form of macular degeneration that usually leads to total blindness.
Has it stopped her from seeing her future in the eyes of her dreams?
Not one bit.
Meghan wants to some day enter the field of musical therapy, with the hope that she can provide comfort for cancer patients and others with life-threatening illnesses through her musical talents.
In the meantime, the precocious 17-year-old is an outstanding student and contributing member of the San Marcos High girls junior varsity swim team.
Her coach, Chuckie Roth, has mentored boys and girls swimmers and water polo players for the Royals who have dealt with some of life’s biggest challenges. But few, in the eyes of Mr. Roth, compare to his team’s true inspiration this season.
“She’s a great example of what it means to inspire others,” Mr. Roth said. “What we take for granted every day, she doesn’t have. She never uses it as an excuse. She never lets it be a reason she can’t do something. You would not know that she’s almost completely blind unless she told you.
“Her friends really help her out a lot, but she’s also really strong-willed. She’s a smart kid. She’s taught herself how to do a lot of basic, daily functions and she operates like a normal high school student. But, unfortunately, she doesn’t have what everyone else around her has.”
While that is true, Meghan has something most around her don’t have: a talent as a competitive swimmer that she will take through the rest of her high school career and beyond.
On March 21, Meghan finished second in the 500-yard freestyle in a meet against rival Santa Barbara High. It was just the second time she had competed in the event this season. Her vision of the lap counters at the end of her lane was a blur, but she had a great feel for the pool and the event to finish second.
Swimming was not Meghan’s first love as a sport. She played tennis and golf until she was 9 years old, when she learned that something was seriously going wrong with her eyesight.
“I was just a regular 9-year-old,” she said. “I played tennis and golf and I did karate. I also played violin, which I still play today.”
It was through her love of music and playing the violin that Meghan realized that her life was taking a dark turn.
“Over time, over about six months, I stopped wanting to read music and I stopped wanting to read books for some reason,” she said. “I had no idea why. I thought that it was that I just lost interest.
“We ended up going to the eye doctor. It turned out that I went from having normal 20-20 vision to being legally blind within six months when I was 9. I had to change my sports, and that’s when I started swimming.”
As for seeing the lap counters and where her closest competitors are in the pool, Meghan admits it’s getting increasingly difficult and she has resigned herself to the fact that it is only going to get worse.
With all the reasons in the world to quit one of her passions and say goodbye to her teammates, Meghan sees it a totally different way.
“When I started swimming, I had more sight than I do now,” she said. “With my eye disease, it gets worse over time. In the last year, my eyesight has gotten worse, because that’s the way the disease works. But I’m not letting it stop me.
“This disease goes slowly, then it will move quickly, and then it will go slowly and I’ll lose more vision. This year, I lost a lot of my vision, so I have to be more focused on the wall than I have before.
“I think that it’s helped that I’ve been swimming as I was losing my vision. It’s not like it started now. I think it would be harder (to swim) if it started now. It’s not like I’m totally blind (when it comes to seeing the wall), but I have to focus more and I have to be more careful.”
Over the years, Meghan has figured out different ways to gain an advantage in the pool despite her diminishing eyesight. One is knowing what to do when she approaches the wall.
“Obviously, I’m not the best at flip turning, and in that case I have to make up for it with the laps,” she said.
When she finished second in her recent 500-yard freestyle event against Santa Barbara, Meghan was swarmed by her teammates on the pool deck.
They support her in every way, including training with her one day a week before the sun comes up. Meghan trains the rest of the week by herself in the early morning hours because the sun is not good for her condition.
“She told me that she wants to go to practice with her teammates every day, and I said, ‘Meghan, no way. I’m not going to let you come swim in the afternoon (with the exception of meets) and do permanent damage yourself,’ ” Mr. Roth said.
“I told her, ‘One day, you’re probably going to go on and get married, and one day you might have kids. If we can preserve your vision to any degree until that day, we have to make every effort for you,’ ” Mr. Roth added. “If we have this information, we have to use it, and make every decision based upon that information to help her, and give her the best chance, or until there’s a cure.”
Meghan credits her parents for giving her the drive, motivation and inspiration to follow her dreams. Her coach is right there at the top of her list of supporters, as well.
“Oh my gosh, he’s literally the best coach ever,” Meghan said. “Chuckie is a blessing for this program. He’s just the perfect mix of coach and friend. If everyone had a Chuckie in their life, they’d be a better person, for sure.”
Following this swimming season and her final class of her junior year,” Meghan will head to the Bay Area with an eye on her music.
“I just got accepted into the five-week program at the Berklee College of Music for the summer,” she said. “It’s for guitar and singing. They actually have a legally blind professor, and so I’m going to get to learn how to read Braille music, which I haven’t gotten to do.”
Along with all of her school activities, Meghan volunteers at the Braille Institute of Santa Barbara and teaches violin and guitar to others.
She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. There are no pity parties. While Meghan is expected to completely lose her sight in a matter of a few short years, she has a grand plan to see life in a different way in the future.
“Yeah, it breaks my heart.,” Mr. Roth said. “No one knows why certain people deal with certain things and other people deal with other things. I don’t think life’s fair by any means, and she’s a great example of it.
“I just think the resilience that she shows is like the greatest inspiration for my team. It’s sad to see her have to struggle to make other people believe they can do great things. I wish a lot of people could see what she can do to really know there’s so much more they can do.”