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Young Forsyth Spartan racer doesn’t let rare eye condition stop him from competing, winning
Samuel Koehler
Samuel Koehler, 11, participates in Spartan Races despite having a rare eye disease. Samuel hasn’t just raced competitively, he won his second competitive race and has reached the podium in all eight races he has been in so far this year.

Spartan Races, like the historical warriors they’re named after, are meant to be tough and can involve participants climbing ropes, running through mud, carrying sandbags and other challenges for athletes. 

For Forsyth County’s Koehler family, the races have become both a bonding activity and physical challenge, particularly for Samuel, 11, the youngest of three siblings, who has an extra obstacle to deal with over other racers.

“I was born with a rare eye condition called achromatopsia,” he said. “It’s where my day [eye] cells don’t work, so I have to wear these dark glasses that are shaded exactly so it tricks my eyes to the night cells so I can see better, then at night, I have the best vision. Basically, I use [the glasses], then my hat and contacts to take out the sun from my eyes.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, achromatopsia is a condition characterized by a partial or total absence of color vision and impacts an estimated one in 30,000 people worldwide.

“He actually qualified for the kids’ world championship,” said his mom, Debbie. “They haven’t announced where that is yet, but he’ll be the first visually-impaired child, they said, to run. He was the first one to run competitively, but he’ll be one of the first ones to run in the world championship, so that’s pretty cool.”

Samuel hasn’t just raced competitively, he won his second competitive race and has reached the podium in four of his five races he has been in so far this year. 

When the family first gave Spartan racing a try and for the rest of 2018, Samuel ran in non-competitive events with his older sister, Rachael, 13, leading the way. 

At his first race this year in Saraland, Ala., Samuel decided to run on his own, earning a fourth-place finish. 

Debbie admits that the first race was “probably one of the hardest ones for us as parents.”

“We know that he can’t see very far off in the distance, so navigating this course was going to be more difficult than it was for an everyday kid,” she said. “It was very stressful, but it was neat to see him out there, and he fell so many times and it took everything I had not to go scoop him up, but he got back up and smiled really big and kept going. He loves it so much that his vision is just another obstacle that he has to encounter.”

After completing his first lone race, Samuel set a challenge for himself the race the next day. 

“The next day, I was like, ‘One goal: finish without falling,’” he said. “I actually achieved that goal on the really rough terrain. Most of it was where tractors had run back and forth through it because they had been clearing out the field, so there’s just mud piled up, then you go down a humongous hole and back up, so it’s really bad.”

Not only did he finish without stumbling, he won first place.

“It was pretty amazing, pretty proud moment,” Debbie said. “I have a video; I was crying. It’s pretty neat because we’ve seen him struggle and he hasn’t been able to play football or baseball and those everyday boy sports that all the boys want to play, so it’s been nice to see him in an activity that he loves, that shows his strength.”

Debbie said Samuel’s strength wasn’t just physical from carrying sandbags and other heavy items, he showed mental toughness from setting goals and meeting them.

Samuel said he is “completely blind” if he is outside without his glasses, which have come off a few times while racing. Luckily, he has picked up some tricks to deal with his condition along the way.

spartan races
The Koehler family, from left, dad Josh, Rachael, Samuel, Elias and mom Debbie use Spartan Races as a way for the family to get outdoors and bond. For Samuel, 11, the races are extra challenging due to an eye condition. He has more than lived up to the challenge. -photo courtesy the Koehler family

“I tend to put my elbow out in front of me while I’m running or I will stare at the ground so my hat will get the hit of the tree limbs and stuff so it’s not slamming into my face and hitting my glasses,” he said.

He said he’s lost a couple of hats during races and one of his favorites “kind of ripped because of how many trees I ran into.”

Those aren’t the only skills he’s picked up.

Samuel learned from Blind Pete, another legally blind runner from the Atlanta area, how to do a flip over the cargo net obstacle, which is made up of two large nets connected at an angle. He said the third flip he ever did was on a very steep incline.

“When I did it, I was like, ‘How am I supposed to do this?’ Then I just flipped over and was like, ‘Wee,’” he said. “I was just like flying in the wind, flipping over and hit the cargo net [and thought,] ‘Ah, I’m safe.’”

For the kids’ events, those who finish a race are given a medal for completing each race, a medal for those who place in the race and a brightly-colored Trifecta medal for those that have completed three races in a calendar year.

Already in 2019, Samuel has ran in eight races and has placed in all, meaning he has brought home a lot of hardware. He said he plans to get a third Trifecta medal at his next race in Fayetteville, N.C., in the first week of June.

To get ready for the races, Samuel and Racheal have mapped out a running route in their neighborhood that’s a little over two miles — the distance of the kids competitive races — and the family has set up a spear-throwing station, sandbags and bucket of rocks for lifting to practice obstacles they might hit in the race.

When he and his sister are running, they also do a number of burpees, which racers have to do if they can’t complete an obstacle on the course.

“If we miss an obstacle, we have to do 15,” Samuel said, “so, we try to knock out 30 as fast as we can so we can do 15 faster.”

Along with the two youngest siblings, who compete in both competitive and exhibition races, his dad, Josh, and oldest brother, Elias, 16, run in competitive races, and Debbie runs in exhibition races. All three siblings are headed to their respective world competition.

“How it all started in my family being able to do this is we wanted to do something other than sitting around the house playing video games and just sitting on computers and stuff,” Samuel said. “So we decided to go out and find something fun to do.”

spartan races