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Blind pole vaulter has 'vision' of reaching 'new heights'

Michigan's Bradley Rainwater is doing something nobody else known ever has. He competes in the pole vault while at the same time being completely blind.

FLINT, Mich. — What is trust?

It's a belief in probability; a feeling of confidence; 100% dependence. 

We all do it every day, in one way shape or form, to survive.

A Michigan student-athlete, who has been totally blind since birth, is taking the definition of 'trust' to an unprecedented place, competing as a pole vaulter for his high school track team.

Pole vaulting takes guts, along with many honed skills and abilities, to all work in synergy to result in success.

"You have to be fearless and not afraid to fail," said Brad Rainwater, 65, who is the track coach at Davison High School, which is near Flint. "It's all about repetition and mechanics, which includes the way you run, step and drive and angle your body to get vertical."

Now, imagine trying to learn all those things and trying to find that exact combination of synergy, while being totally blind.

That's what Brad Rainwater's grandson, Bradley, continues to strive for every day.

"Because I'm blind, a lot of my life has to be based on faith," Bradley, 18, said. "Faith in my coaches; faith in all the people around me and to some degree, faith in myself."

Bradley, who was born with a condition called Optic Nerve Hypoplasia, comes from a family of vaulters. His grandfather started coaching vault in 1977. Bradley's father was a star vaulter during his high school career. 

"He just came to me one day and said, 'Pop, I want to try vault, too,'" said Brad. "I didn't want to hold him back, so I told him, 'Let's do it,' and then starting to think about a way it could be coached for somebody without sight."

Brad says he started out teaching Bradley vault the same way he coached all of his other students, with the primary focus being on Bradley counting how many strides he takes with his left leg.

"When he hits that last left, he'll pick up his right knee like he's taking off the ground," Brad said. "We started to implement him taking four lefts, and making sure he plants on his fourth left."

The biggest problem for Bradley was that he didn't know where straight was.

"I can't see where I'm running," Bradley said. "For me to be able to focus on counting my steps and knowing when the pole was going to hit the box, trusting what direction I was going in was critical."

That's when coach grandpa began trying to figure out a way to insure Bradley knew where he was going. 

"I went to a local store and purchased several pieces of attachable, plastic landscape edging," Brad said. "I stretch the edging along the running track, put several weights on it so it would stay in place.

Credit: 13 ON YOUR SIDE
Brad Rainwater, Bradley's grandfather and high school track coach, created a way for Bradley to pole vault competitively, despite being totally blind.

"The hope was that Bradley could keep his pole on the ground, pressed against the edging, allowing him to know he's running straight."

Grandpa's MacGyver'esque idea has allowed Bradley to trust the process and continue getting better as a vaulter. 

The makeshift running barrier is also allowed by the MHSAA so Bradley is allowed to compete on Davison's vault team.

"What Bradley is doing is extraordinary," Brad said. "Most kids would not even attempt [pole vaulting] blind."

Bradley, who is a 2021 graduate of Davison H.S., plans to attend Spring Arbor University, where he hopes to continue his pole vaulting career at the collegiate level.

"In many ways, life is about getting over a bar and reach new heights," Bradley said. "Pole vaulting is sort of a living metaphor for me."

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