Editor's note: This is the first installment of Transformations, a weekly MaxPreps feature that reveals the role of high school sports in transforming lives.
Sami Stoner, a creative, outdoorsy and studious sort, never imagined herself a homecoming princess.
But there she sat, in front of the entire student body of 900 at the Lexington (Ohio)
High auditorium last Friday, dressed in sequins, jewelry and fitted, flowing formal attire.
On her lap was a covered box filled with three roses, and if colored red, she would be crowned the queen, a fact completely lost to the humble 17-year-old senior who simply took in the moment.
"It was all so incredible," she said. "I never dreamed of such a thing."
But how could she? How could she have fathomed any of the last four years?
As an eighth-grader she was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, a hereditary form of macular degeneration that causes irreversible blindness. Stoner can see slightly peripherally, but everything straight ahead is dark and blurry.
At 14, she considered what her sightless life would miss – driving a car, career choices, images of her family's faces – but chose to focus and build on the gifts she still had: Strong legs. Healthy lungs. A kind and courageous heart. And most important, a voice.
Though sweet and soft, she used the latter to voice her one true passion in life – the ability to run. And run far.
She had gone out for cross country earlier in the year "and fell in love with it," Stoner said. "It just allows you to clear your mind, sort through life. It's peaceful and relaxing and constant."
Simply, she wouldn't give that up. "If you love something enough, you'll find a way," she said.
That decision began her four-year high school cross country career and an unfathomable path that has led to:
* Dozens of front-page newspaper stories and magazine features on her life.
* National television segments, including a segment Tuesday on ESPN's E:60.
* Public speaking engagements.
* The respect of peers.
* Hearty cheers at every race.
* The love and support from a community.
* And perhaps most important, a now 2½-year-old golden retriever named Chloe, her seeing-eye dog. New running partner
Stoner was losing her sight gradually in the eighth grade when the diagnosis came down.
"Devastating obviously," said her father Keith Stoner. "It wasn't a fun day to say the least."
Said Sami: "It was rough. Very rough. Devastating. Humbling. I remember feeling very appreciative of what I did have. At the same time, it was scary."
The thought of their daughter running certainly scared her parents Keith and Lisa, but they recognized Sami's passion for the sport.
Lexington coaches Denise Benson and Anne Petrie embraced Sami into the program and the team squeezed her even tighter. Childhood friend Hannah Ticoras guided Sami on 3-mile courses her first two seasons — the duo was affectionately referred to as "Hami" — but when Ticoras graduated in 2011 Sami had to consider other options.
Sami was recommended for a Pilot Dogs program in Columbus and was matched with the energetic pup. The two trained together for four weeks – Sami lived at Pilot Dogs – and by coincidence or fate their trainer was an avid runner. That training led to inquiries of Chloe actually competing with Sami on runs, something that had never been done in the Ohio High School Athletic Association.
Again with the support of Benson and Petrie, and a very strong push by Lexington Athletic Director John Harris, the OHSAA signed a waiver for Chloe's participation with safety stipulations. The most important were that Sami and Chloe start 20 seconds after the starting gun and that they don't run through any finishing shoots.
None of that mattered to Sami. As long as she could run with her new best friend and set of eyes, all was good.
"From the start, it was a fantastic match," Sami said. "She's the most fantastic guide dog. Every minute we're together. I can't imagine her not being by my side. She helps keep me safe. She gives me confidence, lets me walk down the hall, run on the course. … Just being able to share my love of running with someone who loves it just as much as I do is such a blessing. I'm so grateful for her."
Sami's times were consistently in the 30-to-32-minute range for 3 miles. She ran on the JV team but rarely finished last. Again, all secondary stuff.
"Honestly my time and place don't matter one bit," Sami said. "We just run because we love it. As long as we get to the finish line we're happy."
Yes, Sami often refers to her own feelings in the Chloe-inclusive "we."
All of it has been an absolute asset to the school, Harris said. Sami and Chloe offer lessons in friendship, determination and perspective.
"Her whole story is so touching," he said. "It comes straight from the heart."
"She's just an incredibly brave young lady," Petrie told the Mansfield News Journal. "She is so creative. She writes songs. She acts. She's very modest and won't tell you that." Seeing red
Her modesty rang true on Friday when the princesses were asked to open their rose boxes at the same time to reveal the queen.
All but the winner received white roses and when Sami turned her head and made out the white tissue paper the flowers were wrapped in, she smiled and glanced around and wondered who had captured red.
Close to a minute passed. Confusion and drama continued before Sami took a closer look into the box. Indeed she had secured the red roses to the screams and delight from the student body that picked her.
When Sami was asked to stand, the 900 strong stood and cheered as well, not so much for a homecoming queen and a priceless pooch — Chloe was named "mini queen" — but for Sami's life and her decision to live a bright and full one despite all the darkness.
"You look at what she's doing on a day-to-day basis and she has a tremendous effect on the staff and kids," Harris said. "You look at what she's overcoming and your problems don't seem so bad. It's inspirational to us all."
A glance at Harris' office wall proves that. There's a framed photo of Sami and Chloe.
There's plenty of those at the Stoner household, but Keith and Lisa don't need photos for inspiration.
"We're just very grateful for the person Sami is and what she does every day," her father said. "She has the greatest attitude toward life that I know of and I hope to have it one day."
Sami plans to study psychology at an in-state college next year, but added "If I've learned anything, plans can change."
won't run competitively in college but will seek a running club
perhaps. In the meantime, she'll enjoy the rest of her senior year at
Lexington with Chloe by her side and a crown tucked away somewhere at
No matter where she ends up, she'll never ask "why me?" of her condition. She hasn't yet.
"Why not me?" she said. "I would rather this happen to me than my sisters. Yes, it wasn't exactly my plan. It sounds sad, but I would never want to go back and erase the experience of it. I would never wish this didn't happen to me. Because, honestly, I think it's made me a better person."
You can contact Mitch Stephens by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MitchMashMax.