Guiding light: Visually impaired Conant runner turns to Oriole legend for second set of eyes

  • Former Conant track/cross-country star Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins, right, has returned to the program to serve as a guide runner for freshman Bella Nero, who is visually impaired. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Former Conant track/cross-country star Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins has returned to the program to serve as a guide runner for freshman Bella Nero, who is visually impaired. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Former Conant track/cross-country star Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins has returned to the program to serve as a guide runner for freshman Bella Nero, who is visually impaired. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins is a Conant school record-holder and Gatorade Player of the Year who ran at Boston University. Walkonen has returned to Conant to serve as a guide runner for freshman Bella Nero. Photo courtesy Boston University—

  • 2021 Portsmouth Christian Academy graduate Liza Corso was a state champion runner in New Hampshire and took silver at the Tokyo Paralympics this summer. Corso has been advising Conant's Bella Nero on running with a visual impairment. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Former Conant track/cross-country star Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins has returned to the program to serve as a guide runner for freshman Bella Nero, who is visually impaired. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 10/27/2021 10:41:26 AM

When Conant freshman Bella Nero hits the course at Saturday’s NHIAA cross-country championships, she’ll have a legendary Oriole running by her side – Andrea (Walkonen) Watkins, the 2004 Gatorade Player of the Year for New Hampshire track and field. Watkins can’t coach during the race, but she can be a second set of eyes.

Nero was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a condition that left her legally blind. She can see things like road signs, or course markers, from a distance, but she’s unable to pick up the details until they’re only a few feet away, and smaller objects, like roots or rocks, are even harder to spot in time. That’s where Watkins, acting as a guide, can help and tell her about upcoming turns or obstacles.

“It’s been really helpful,” said Nero, who didn’t have a guide for the first month of the season. “It’s just been so much easier for me to navigate [the course] because she’s helping me navigate it. I’ve definitely gotten faster.”

“And a little more competitive,” Watkins added.

More competition is what Nero wanted when she joined the cross-country team this fall. Her visual impairments, which also include a serious lack of depth perception, had limited her athletic options – sports like soccer and basketball were just too challenging. She tried youth figure skating for a time, but as high school approached she was looking for something new.

Nero is a homeschooler, but Chris Bernier, an assistant coach for the Conant cross-country team, knows the Nero family and recruited Bella to the team. It has been a perfect match.

“To add her was just a treasure, you know?” Orioles’ head coach Bill Edson said. “You just get handed gifts every now and again when you’re a coach – and she’s one of them.”

Nero is one of two adaptive athletes who joined the Conant cross-country team this fall, along with freshman Nathan Alajajian.

“I just look at it as an opportunity,” Edson said. “It’s an opportunity to offer something to them they otherwise wouldn’t get, it’s an opportunity for me to grow as a coach, to be able to serve them as their coach in different way. It’s a new challenge for me as their coach. It’s a great opportunity for the team to grow and become diverse with a true meaning of acceptance and equality, despite the other person’s situation.”

Despite having zero experience coming into the season, Nero quickly became one of Conant’s top runners. However, her visual impairment made it difficult to navigate the wooded cross-country courses of southern New Hampshire.

“When I run, I can see roots,” Nero said, “but since I’m going so fast, I can’t see them until I’m right on top of them. I have probably twisted my ankles and sprained them a lot more than someone who can see and runs a lot.”

At first, Nero stuck with the Conant pack during races, joining up with the rest of the Orioles’ top five behind junior star Kylie Aho, who usually lopes out to the front and challenges for the top spot. Running alongside teammates gives Nero some visual feedback on the course, and cuts down on the unexpected stumbles, but soon enough, that comfort began holding her back. It was evident at Conant’s homecoming meet in September, where Nero ran with her team for the majority of the race and then took off down the final root-free straightaway to finish second behind Aho.

On a given day, Nero might be faster than the majority of her teammates, but as a raw, inexperienced runner, she has yet to reach Aho’s pace. So, how could Nero run safely through the woods without straining to chase the leaders or slowing to stick with the pack? Edson knew where to go for the answer – Liza Corso and Portsmouth Christian Academy.

Corso, who was born with albinism like Nero, was a state champion runner at PCA before graduating in June and just took silver in the 1,500 meters at the Tokyo Paralympics this summer. Edson helped Nero and Corso connect, and the two are now pen pals of a sort, exchanging messages and tips. Edson also hit up PCA cross country coach Mike Shevenell for advice on how best to maximize a visually impaired runner’s potential. The conversations eventually pointed Nero toward using a guide, which is something Corso did early in her track career.

“I found it a lot easier to run with a guide, because I didn’t have to think about the little things,” said Corso, who is now competing for Division I Lipscomb University in Nashville. “I could just focus on running.”

Finding a guide, however, isn’t easy. Corso was so fast she needed two college runners to serve as her guides, stationing one halfway along the course to take over after she outran the first. Nero’s improvement took the same path.

“As she progressed, I realized we’re sort of in the same boat that Liza was,” Edson said. “We can’t just ask somebody to come do it. She’s running seven-minute miles – there’s not a lot of choosing going on.”

The Orioles cast a wide net searching for a guide, and in the end they reeled in one of their own in Watkins. She didn’t know anything about being a guide runner, but she wanted to help and simply turned to YouTube to learn some of the finer points. Watkins may be winging it, but her experience and gravitas bring something to the Orioles that they might not have even known they were missing.

“One of our optimal goals is to create a legacy here,” Edson said, “and what better way but to include probably one of the most legacy runners of Conant High School? Her presence alone still as an active runner – you could feel it, this sense of ‘We’re Conant High School.’ She does want to contribute every way that she can, and she still bleeds black and orange.”

After a few practices together, Watkins and Nero first competition running side-by-side came in early October at Alvirne’s Battle of the Border race.

“I’m pretty much looking forward to see what’s coming up for us so that I can mentally prepare what I want to verbalize to her,” Watkins said, “because I don’t want to throw out a whole paragraph of information for her. I try to keep it like short and quick. Like ‘We’re coming up on a set of roots in 3, 2, 1.’”

Those verbal cues, and plenty of natural ability, have pushed Nero to faster and faster times. Her improvement allows Conant to model its team after the current Division III favorite, Hopkinton, with one star out front and the rest of the scoring five pushing hard enough to shave points off their team score and contend for the podium. The Orioles will find out just how high up the podium they can climb on Saturday when they take on Hopkinton and the rest of the division in the D-III championship meet at the Division III championship meet at Manchester’s Derryfield Park.

The hilly, wooded course at Derryfield, which also includes transitions from street to sidewalk, is tricky for any runner, and more so for the visually impaired. Nero said she tripped on a root in the woods when she raced the course at September’s Manchester Invitational, and even Corso – running without a guide – missed a turn and lost some time at her final state championship meet in 2020.

“Derryfield is a tough course,” Corso said. “In the woods, there are a ton of roots, and there are some pretty steep downhills - which most people love - in those woods with roots.”

Nero said her biggest goal is to “survive” the D-III meet and finish with a time under 22 minutes, which would mean cutting nearly a minute-and-a-half off her Manchester Invitational mark. That would be a substantial jump, but with her season-long improvement and Watkins by her side, it’s possible.

“I think she’s got some amazing potential,” Watkins said. “To have the challenge of not being able to see, but still being able to put out the times that she is? I think she’s got a really, really great career ahead of her.”

No matter what time she posts on Saturday, or what happens with the rest of her running career, Nero can already feel its benefits.

“It’s been really nice to be on a cross-country team and actually have teammates and close friends,” Nero said. “You come so close as a team, and you just become such good friends. It’s such an amazing feeling to be a part of a team.”


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