WAYNE, Nebraska — For Maura Loberg, achieving her personal-best time in cross country earlier this season takes on added meaning.
It’s because the freshman at Wayne High School is legally blind.
“Maura is very upbeat and positive about life. She is fearless in so many ways. She has a great sense of humor and her jokes many times put people at ease when they might be uncomfortable about being around a blind person,” said her mother, Jean Loberg. “She really wants people to interact with her like a ‘regular’ kid.”
That’s why she’s been involved with music since the age of 5, rides a tandem bicycle with a family member and loves to swim.
And it’s also why she went out for cross country this fall.
“Why can’t she run with a guide?” her parents, Jean and Ken Loberg of Carroll, found themselves asking earlier this year.
That question led to research on what it takes to run with a guide. That was the relatively easy part. Finding a guide was more difficult, they said.
“Mainly, we, as her parents, pushed her into the sport,” Jean Loberg said. “I am a physical therapist and am very aware of how kids with special needs many times are left out of participating in sports, and ultimately become pretty deconditioned and develop sedentary lifestyles. I didn’t want that to be Maura’s story. She had the gumption and determination to try it.”
Communication with Rocky Ruhl, Wayne High’s cross country coach, about Maura participating in the seventh-grade cross country program produced a receptive response.
“Coach Ruhl and his assistant coach, Courtney Maas, want kids to join the cross country team/family. They never blinked when it came to Maura having a chance to participate,” she said.
The family atmosphere of being on Wayne’s cross country team, Jean added, is “unmatchable. Everyone is very encouraging and really make an effort to include Maura.”
Maura was born with congenital blindness — diagnosed as optic nerve aplasia that is a rare condition, her parents said.
During workouts and races, Maura is connected to her guide by a tether — a piece of rope about three feet long. Her guides have included Molly Burbach, Taylor Burke and Jordan Alexander, all Wayne High graduates now attending Wayne State College.
Additional guides are Heather Frank, a therapy aide at Providence Medical in Wayne where Jean Loberg works; Britni Nordhues, who works as an occupational therapist at Providence Medical; Jodi Pulfer, a family friend; and Molly Redden, also a physical therapist at Providence who has been her most consistent guide over the past three years.
“Molly runs one day of the practices every week and has done the races; the others guide during practice. They are all great,” Ken Loberg said. “Molly is special as she babysat our kids years ago while in college at Wayne State. She’s very competitive, and you need that to push Maura.”
According to Jean, Maura has had “some great guides and coaches that have made this a very positive experience.”
“Her guides have all been in great physical shape, great motivators and good at describing the terrain to reduce Maura’s chance of falling or spraining an ankle or other injury,” she said.
Now, as a freshman running on the junior varsity squad, Maura must run twice the distance of junior high races, which presented an obstacle to overcome.
“That was quite a big jump in distance, but as far as running on courses with different types of ground to cover, my guide just has to give me plenty of forewarning,” Maura said. “A few times ... I’ve been slammed into a tree when a guide wasn’t quite watching or we were talking about some other topic that gets us distracted.”
Maura said she is pleased with her progress so far and recently ran her personal best time at the Columbus Scotus Invitational of 32 minutes, 13 seconds.
“I think I’ve done pretty good; I still have a ways to go, but I’ve made quite a bit of progress since the beginning of the season,” she said.
Ruhl is pleased with Maura’s progress, on and off the cross country course, and believes there has also been a positive benefit for the other runners on the team.
“Maura has gotten better each year she runs. Our goal for her is like the other runners, and that is to improve each day and in each competition,” Ruhl said. “When she first started in junior high, the main goal was to finish the race. Then we moved on to not walking, and then to goal time improvements. We are now working on her form. She has been consistently taking time off her total time and mileage average at each meet this season.”
“I think when she first started she inspired those around her. I believe now she is a teammate. She inspires me by being there working hard and doing everything she can to improve.” he added.