Athlete Spotlight: Chris Smoker

By June Converse.

Thirty Seconds to Re-Imagine:  A Self-Advocacy Case Study

Our last post centered around the Self-Advocacy program being developed for the campers at Camp Abilities in Brockport. When I asked Ruth to name a camper who she felt exemplified Self-Advocacy, she immediately mentioned Chris Smoker. 

Chris is a sixteen-year-old who has attended Camp Abilities – Brockport since he was eight years old. He has congenital glaucoma with no peripheral vision and a 200/20 vision in one eye and no vision in the other. He is an accomplished cross-country runner for his high school. Chris and Coach Deckman sat down together and discussed Chris and his running career.

But before he could run his first race, Chris had to convince a very reluctant coach to let him participate. How did he do that?

“I would have given up, but Ruth gave me the audacity to face the coach head-on.” ~ Chris Smoker

Freaking Out

In Junior High, Chris wanted to join the cross-country team but “she [the coach] freaked out”. She was worried he’d fall, get hurt and possibly compromise his limited visual acuity. She was adamant in her refusal and Chris became adamant in his determination to run.

“It’s not fair for me not to be given the opportunity. Maybe I can’t run cross country and that’s okay. But let me try. I can do something even if I don’t like the experience.”

Chris’s first step in his self-advocacy approach was to speak with his parents. 

His mother, Karri, told me he was “very angry” but that he channeled his anger into resolve.  She understood the coach’s concerns but added, “We want him to be safe, but we can’t put him in a bubble because that would keep him from fulfilling who he is as an athlete.” 

Chris didn’t just go to his parents. One way to Self-Advocate is to ask for help where needed. Chris called Dr. Lieberman who happily went to his school and helped the educators understand how to make accommodations. Best of all, Chris developed his own disability awareness program for his peers. Chris advocated to his parents, his coaches and his peers!

Another person who could help Chris was the Varsity Cross Country coach. Even though Chris didn’t know this coach, he and his mother decided to speak to him directly. 

Coach Deckman

Coach Deckman watched Chris run and spoke with his parents. “We had to find a way to make this happen.” Coach Deckman’s grandmother was visually impaired, and he was active with the Achilles Track Club which has a guide runner program. The Coach had not participated in the guide runner program but at least “was somewhat familiar.” 

Coach Deckman’s first task was to speak with the 7th grade coach. “She really was freaking out. She was worried about liability and safety. I understood her point but cross country – one of the best things about cross country – is its inclusivity. Cross-country meets you where you are. Chris would have a place on the team.”

But Coach Deckman didn’t just offer platitudes. In a junior high race, he acted as Chris’s guide runner. “Chris did a great job telling me what he needed. Chris almost dropped me because he went out so fast.”

But Coach Deckman had to coach and another guide runner had to be found. 

Chris running with his guide beside him. They are running on grass. Chris is wearing a school jersey that is blue and white and says the initials HAC across the front. Both are pumping their arms to propel forward.

Finding A Guide Runner

The first step in self-advocacy is understanding what you want. Chris wanted to be a cross-country runner. His next step, then, was to help people help him. For Chris that meant finding a guide runner.

His mother, an accomplished runner herself, ran one race with Chris. “But he was too fast for me.” Undaunted, they began to search for a “good fit”.

I asked Chris and the coach what makes someone a “good fit” to be a guide runner. First, speed. The runner must be able to keep up with Chris. The guide runner must also have the right “chemistry” for the team. Coach Deckman explained that there is “a bond with distance runners over shared suffering. A guide runner will become part of the team and needs to be part of the bond.” For Chris, he needed someone who was patient and easy going with a “willingness” to help him excel. Where did Chris find the perfect guide?

The Cafeteria Connection

While attending college, James worked in the school cafeteria along with his mother. “His mom was nice to me, so I just asked her to help me contact James directly,” Chris explained. James was more than willing to learn to be Chris’s guide. He ran with Chris for two years. According to Coach Deckman, James was compassionate and considerate. The other runners embraced him as “one of the team”.  James was willing to share the suffering

James will not be able to guide Chris this season but he and Coach Deckman, working together, are already strategizing.

Resistance from the Sidelines

Both Chris and Coach Deckman admitted that sometimes issues with parents and other spectators occur. “It’s a lack of understanding,” Coach Deckman said. “I usually explain to the other coaches and course managers about James and guide runners. But I can’t tell the entire crowd.”

“Remember that man who yelled at us,” Chris interjected. He mimicked, “’What’s that man doing on the course. That’s not fair. Get that man off the course.’” Chris lowered his forehead into his palm and whispered, “Man, that was embarrassing.”  

“Oh yea, I remember him. Once I explained, he was so embarrassed, so apologetic. He went home feeling like a fool,” Coach Deckman added. 

Stories from the Course

Once the Coach and Chris started down memory lane, I sat back and listened. 

“At Chris’s first varsity meet, I was his guide runner. I wanted to understand how it would work.”

“We came in 6th place. Out of 61 runners. 6th Place!” 

“Remember that sidewalk when you fell, and it was my fault. I was doing so well telling you about all the obstacles, right? But then one of the houses had edged their yard, leaving a rut. I didn’t tell you. I didn’t think of that as an obstacle.”

“I remember wallowing in the grass for a minute,” Chris said.

“I remember you got up and kept running.”

“And Dash in the Dark. Oh man, I wasn’t sure about that one. I asked Chris – I told him this was a ‘no-judgment-zone’. If he didn’t want to run this one, I would understand. The race is run at night and it starts on the football field. There are these lights in the corners giving a weird transient light.”

“And hay bales,” Chris added excitedly. “We had to jump over hay bales.”

“Dash in the Dark is a relay. Three-man teams, where each racer runs the course twice. It’s usually our first race and the kids love it. When I told Chris he could opt out, he said, ‘Nope, I’ll do it. It sounds like fun.’”

Take 30 Seconds

I asked Coach Deckman what he would say to other coaches facing a student who wanted to run but who caused safety concerns.

“Not everyone’s limitations and capabilities are the same as your own experience. Think beyond your own experience. Re-imagine it. When Chris told me that he wanted to run a Steeplechase, I thought that was crazy. I thought that was a terrible idea. But I took 30 seconds to imagine it. Yeah, he can do that. If he wants to do it, he can. No problem.”

Self-Advocacy & Sportsmanship

“What impressed me about Chris was his determination to do what everyone else was doing – to participate at the same level. We often forget he’s visually impaired. He’s very respectful and quick to ask questions or remind the coaches what he needs.”

Last year, his second year on the Varsity team, Chris received the Sportsmanship Award. The Sportsmanship Award is for the “athlete who showed dedication, character and grit. Chris was the obvious choice.”

“Chris unflinchingly took on what everyone else did.” ~ Coach Deckman

Chris became a competitive runner at Camp Abilities. He became a Varsity high school runner because he learned how to speak up for himself and fight for what he wants and find what he needs. Chris is a runner who just happens to be visually impaired. Chris is a valued member of a team. Participating in the Self-Advocacy Program while at camp, Chris was able to group his goals and needs into a cohesive, pre-planned and practiced presentation. Chris will always be a self-advocate.

“If they go back and nothing changes – if they don’t get to participate in sports, if they can’t be on the cross country team, if they have a teacher who doesn’t understand how to make accommodations for them — what’s the point?” ~ Ruth Childs, Self-Advocacy Instructor, Camp Abilities-Brockport

Chris goes to camp one week a year and everything changed. 


In the last three minutes of our talk, Chris tells me he appeared on a Ted Talk when he was in fifth grade. Enjoy:


I’d like to thank both Chris and Coach Deckman for sharing their time and their stories. Coach, your enthusiasm for your athletes was a joy to see. Chris, run on, my friend. ~ June Converse

Note: Chris is a minor. His mother was present during our conversation. She, Chris and Coach Deckman have approved the content of this article. 

~submitted by June Converse,

~Believe You Can Achieve~