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April 17, 2017

30,074 people are registered to run the Boston Marathon today. Thirteen of those runners are visually impaired, and one is Stephanie Zundel, a senior at Vanderbilt University, who started long distance running two years ago and qualified for the Boston Marathon with her New York Marathon time. Yes, although she is blind, she runs marathons with Achilles International, and her guides are Harvey Freeman and Amy Harris. We are honored to introduce you to Stephanie today. Cheer her on from afar as she runs Boston!

Stephanie Zundel runs with Achilles International, which meets on Wednesday nights at McCabe Community Center.

What brought you to Nashville from New Jersey?

I thought I wanted to study speech language pathology, and I had read that Vanderbilt had a strong program. Nashville seemed like a cool place with warmer weather, country music … so I visited the campus with my parents and found out that the program I was interested in was actually a graduate program. But, after meeting with the disabilities department, I just fell in love with Vanderbilt. I applied early decision and got in!

What are you studying now?

Child studies with a minor in special education and sociology.

What are you going to do after you graduate in May?

I applied for the master’s program for school counseling at Vanderbilt and was accepted, so I’m really excited to stay in Nashville for at least two more years!

Stephanie with one of her guides, Harvey Freeman, at McCabe Community Center last Wednesday night, after their last training run for Boston.

What do you like about Nashville?

I like that it’s a smaller city, totally different than a big city like New York. You can go just a few miles out and be in a rural or suburban area. That’s pretty nice.

How did you get into running?

In high school, I wanted to do a team sport. And, since I’m blind, the options were pretty limited. There were sports for blind people, but I wanted to be on a team with my high school friends. So, I joined the track team to practice with them, not to compete.

I would run with a couple of my friends, but it didn’t go so well. [laughing] One friend, I was running with a tether, and she said “go,” but she meant to move over to the side. I started to run and ran straight into the bleachers. Another time I was running with my guide and ran into a pole. After that, I decided to stick with karate and kickboxing.

What brought you back to running?

Some of my friends at Vanderbilt were training to run the half marathon, and I’m pretty competitive, and I thought about how I was so much more athletic than them! Then, I was at a National Federation of the Blind Convention and met Carrie Redmon with Nashville’s chapter of Achilles International. I met up with them on a Saturday morning and started to train for the half marathon. That’s when I met Harvey [her guide].

SB note: Achilles International is an amazing organization with a mission “to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream running events in order to promote personal achievement.” You may see them running around town with bright green/yellow shirts on. For more information on Achilles International and the Nashville Chapter, see their Facebook page.

How was that first run?

Scary! We ran the first day with a tether — that’s how most blind people run with a guide. But, after my high school experiences, I really feared the tether. So after that, I just asked if we could run without it. We just link arms. Harvey and Amy Harris [her other Achilles guide] have it down pat!

Amy Harris, pictured here with Stephanie during the NYC Marathon, explains that for the guides, “… in most runs they allow more than one guide. For example, in NYC we had Harvey, me and actually two other guides. Harvey ran with Stephanie holding on to him the first half and with me the second half — but we all ran together as a team. The other two guides were assigned to us from the NYC Achilles Chapter, thus they were more local to NYC. They generally run ahead to the water stops to get water so Stephanie doesn’t have to get over and maneuver through those crowds and slow down as much. Generally the extra two would run one in front and one behind. However, Boston only allows one guide at a time, so Harvey will run first and then I will run the second half. We will switch off at the exchange station, which is set up for that purpose.” Image: Achilles International

Harvey, how did you get involved with Achilles?

Harvey: I live in the neighborhood [near McCabe Park Community Center where Achilles meets up to run] and would see this mass of yellow shirts when I would run with my dog on the greenway. I finally asked what it was all about and met up with them the following Wednesday evening to help out.

Had you run marathons before?

Harvey: Yes, I had run marathons, but this is different. It takes getting used to. It feels weird at first. But it’s also like nothing else. I remember when we finished our first half marathon, the one where her friends were running it as well, and we finished before them [both Harvey and Stephanie laugh at this, saying that this was really the only goal — to beat her friends!]. We had been waiting for about 10 minutes or more and her friends cross the finish line and then they all coming running up and tackle her. It was great. It’s a totally different experience with that encouragement.

Stephanie, what is something that people would be surprised to find out about you?

Stephanie: Hmmm … I don’t know …

Harvey: I do! Can I answer for her? She’s got a black belt in karate and she can listen to Luke Bryan for hours at time. She’s obsessed with him! I mean three, four hours straight of Luke Bryan! [Stephanie laughs, nodding her head] “It’s true,” she says.

Stephanie, Amy and Harvey at the end of the NYC marathon. We can’t wait to see this same photo from Boston!

Was going away to college hard?

I’ve always been adventurous … I was the kid who wanted to go to sleep-away camp and travel. I thought going off to college would be great. But, suddenly not having my family or friends around … that was really hard. I struggled that first year.

Did you have to fight stereotypes?

Yes. People think that disabilities disable us. But, we just figure out how to do things in different ways. I’m able to do whatever I want, just through a different means.

What would you tell someone with your same circumstances going away to college?

Everything is going to be fine. Whether you are sighted, blind or have a disability, you will end up feeling lonely at times. Stay determined, stay focused, and fight for what you want. That’s the biggest thing — you need to advocate for yourself. Some people are going to think you’re weird or something, but I’m always trying to educate people that while I’m blind, being blind doesn’t define me. I set dreams in my mind and in my heart, and those define me. Some people you are going to have to ignore as you are never going to change their minds, but for others … it pays back in the end … big time.

Do you have a quote that you lean on?

2 Corinthians 12:10 — “That is why I take such pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties for the Messiah’s sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong.” When I’m having a bad day, and the blindness is bothering me, I go back to that and remember that I know that I am strong.

If someone were coming to town for the weekend and you could recommend one place in Nashville to go, where would it be?

The Station Inn. It’s my favorite place. That’s the real Nashville right there.

What are three things (beside friends, faith and family) that you can’t live without?

  • My guide dog Marley
  • My blanket — yes, I still have my baby blanket and sleep with it every night! It doesn’t even embarrass me. [Harvey asks her if she’s bringing it to Boston, to which she replies:] I’m totally bringing it to Boston with me!
  • Coffee

Thank you, Stephanie and we are cheering you — and all our Nashville runners — on! 

RELATED: Boston: Why I Run


Debra Philpot, this month’s FACE of TriStar, was touched by neurological disease at the age of 8 years old, when she lost her father to a brain tumor. Today, that experience and her passion for helping others drives her work and benefits patients across the Southeast. Read her inspiring story!

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