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John's Journal: With Mason Archibald, Seeing Is Believing

Despite Being Legally Blind, Proctor Runner Can’t Be Stopped

Posted: Tuesday, April 23, 2024 - 11:46 AM


With the assistance of guide runner Annika Voss, Proctor High School’s Mason Archibald rounds the first curve in the 800 meters.


Mason Archibald and Annika Voss check his time after a race.

Track meets in the early portion of the Minnesota spring season can be a gamble. That was certainly the situation recently at North Branch High School, where Mason Archibald ran the 800 meters. The temperature was 37 degrees but a stiff western wind made it feel like 28 degrees. It was cold, even for those dressed in full winter gear.

Mason, a senior from Proctor, wore several layers while waiting for his race and warming up on the infield. Standing near the start line when it was time for the 800, he peeled off his stocking cap and gloves, then his warm jacket and gray sweatpants. He kept a hoodie on until it was time to step on the track. At that point he wore the de rigueur uniform of every track and field athlete: tank top, running shorts, socks and running shoes. Across his chest were the words “Proctor Rails.”

And then he ran. Two laps, 800 meters. That’s his distance, and he took off from the line along with a dozen others. But his view of the race was quite different from everybody else on the track.

Mason is legally blind. He has 20/400 vision, meaning he can see objects from 20 feet away that someone with 20/20 vision can see from 400 feet. He is completely blind in his left eye and has very small pinhole vision in his right eye.

To see him competing in track and field is a testament to the human spirit, as well as the spirit of a competitive, friendly young man from northern Minnesota.

“When I first joined track in 10th grade, I really wanted to prove a point that visually impaired people are capable of doing the same stuff as sighted people or at least on a similar level,” Mason said. “But now that I've gotten into kind of the thick of it, I'm more about going out there and just competing like everyone else.”

He does have a little help during races. Annika Voss, a Proctor grad and current college student who competed in track, cross-country and Nordic skiing in high school, is Mason’s companion on the track. She stands with him at the starting line and runs beside him or behind him, shouting instructions if he begins to stray from his lane. At North Branch, Annika, 24, wore a bright yellow safety vest.

“She basically yells where we are in the race,” Mason said. “If I drift into a lane she'll just give me a little shove.”

Annika said, “He can see a little bit of the lines. Usually I don’t try to talk to him too much. If he’s moving out of his lane I’ll tell him move to his left or move to his right. When we hit 400 meters I’ll tell him his split time and then with 200 meters left, I’ll tell him it’s time to go. He can usually outsprint me.”

Nathan Johnson, the Rails boys track coach, said, “As a coach, you want to have that guide runner be the right person. Annika is absolutely gifted. She and Mason are friends. She has the ability to know when to push him and when to step back a bit.”

Mason, who was born with impaired vision, is a typically busy high school student. He is involved in National Honor Society and Knowledge Bowl and plays the trumpet in band. He’s taking college courses in math and writing.

“Writing is by far my favorite,” he said.

That fact – he loves writing – is remarkable because he is unable to read anything that’s printed. He relies on his Braille skills for those things. And none of that stops him from serving as an editor for the school newspaper.

“I learned quickly that Mason is extraordinary for his hearing and ability to navigate,” said Johnson, who also is the newspaper adviser. “I forget that he is visually impaired.”

Mason came out for track as a sophomore and last fall took a crack at cross-country for the first time. In cross-country he also competed with a guide, Janelle Gomez, 47, a veteran runner who works for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

He wears thick glasses, which help him to see as well as possible. In running on the track, he needs to be aware of the lane lines as well as the other runners.

“My field of view is pretty narrow,” he said. “You’ve just got to be able to see the lane lines and stuff, and make sure you're not ramming into other people.”

His goal for the 800 this spring is to finish in 2 minutes, 40 seconds. His personal best is 2:56 and his time at North Branch was 3:05.52.

Mason has a solid sense of humor. Asked about the challenges he faces, he replied by saying, “In track, as my math teacher says, you just turn left.”

He is the son of Bill and April Archibald and has a brother, Blake, who is in eighth grade and competes on the junior high track team.

Mason has been involved with Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute Northland in Duluth for years. That relationship has led to activities like rock climbing, biking, downhill skiing and more.

“He’s never been afraid of much,” April said. “He’s been trying different things since he was little. We love our boy and we’re very proud of him.”

Mason is planning to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth to become a teacher for the blind and visually impaired. No one who knows him has any doubts about what he can accomplish.

“He is an absolutely fantastic young man,” Johnson said. “He has made us a better team by being part of it.”

“For me it’s just super fun,” Voss said. “Every day I go home with a smile on my face. It’s such a unique experience and running is such a great community. He’s such a great kid and I’m glad his story gets to be shared.”

In the race at North Branch, Mason was steady throughout the distance. With the final 200 meters at hand, Annika, running a few strides behind him, let him know that it was time to go. And boy did he go, leaving her in the dust down the home stretch.

Mason had an impressive finish, passing one runner and placing 12th in the field of 13. The race was won by Proctor senior Santiago Lenz in 2:19.08, with teammate and classmate Alex Ruth third in 2:22.31.

Mason accepted congratulations after crossing the line, with one of the meet officials rushing up to say, “Hey! Great kick!”

The official stuck out a hand for a handshake, a gesture that Mason couldn’t see.

As if it mattered.

--MSHSL senior content creator John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected] 

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