Outstanding vision-impaired athlete Karlee Symonds, 18, has faced many challenges in her young life, always with passion and determination.
Born with Leber congenital amaurosis, a rare genetic eye disorder that causes severe vision loss, Karlee has risen against the odds to achieve exceptional results at school, begin a university degree and carve out a stellar career in competitive athletics, particularly in running.
Backing her all the way has been a dedicated team of teachers and volunteers including Christian Avasalu, her guide runner. Uniquely attuned to Karlee’s running style, he sprints beside her in races tethered at the wrist, guiding without advantaging her performance.
“A lot of the time it's really hard to find a guide who can naturally get in-sync,” says Karlee. “And it was so weird because when I found Christian, he just naturally was in-sync. It didn't take any effort. It was just effortless. We could just naturally do it.”
Christian, who was one of Karlee’s teachers at Nowra High School, became her guide runner in 2019.
“Our sprinting needs to be pretty well spot-on for every single step, every single arm-swing, otherwise you're losing milliseconds,” he says. “And sometimes it's milliseconds in a race that lose it for you.
“It’s just been really easy to work with Karlee. She works a lot more with emotion. She can pick anything up how you say things rather than what you're doing. She's fantastic.”
Christian, who works voluntarily as Karlee’s guide runner, believes it's important to help others if you have the ability to do so.
“We're pretty lucky to be in Australia,” he says. “If we can give back to the community and the people who help us, we have a little bit of a responsibility to do so.”
Karlee, who is classified as a T11 athlete, says her love of running comes partly from the feeling of freedom it provides. “I run the same way as an able-bodied person,” she says. “I’m just attached to another person. I don't have to worry about running into something or what obstacles are in my way because Christian’s my eyes when I'm running.”
Building strong bonds
Karlee also spent 13 years of her primary and high school education working with teachers’ aid Sandra Coyte and vision itinerant teacher Gwen Gowland.
Gwen began with Karlee at pre-school and Sandra at kindergarten, at North Nowra Public. Sandra, who first began running with her in kindergarten, even changed schools when Karlee went to Nowra High School. She also suggested Christian as a guide runner.
“We could all see so much potential in Karlee,” says Sandra. “I’ve really enjoyed that time together and it's been such a privilege to be on that journey with someone like Karlee. And to be part of her achievements as well.”
Karlee believes she would have struggled academically without the help Sandra and Gwen have given her.
“All the tools, skills and materials, they’ve just provided everything,” she says. “I would have had a lot less confidence without them and I probably wouldn't be going to uni without all the support they've given me.
“We still keep in touch. We’ve got so many inside jokes now and we know everything about each other. It’s helped me every day.”
Now studying for a Bachelor of Medical & Health Sciences at the University of Wollongong, Karlee’s aim is to become a genetic counsellor. She wants to help other people and their families understand inherited medical conditions.
Karlee, who has represented NSW at a national level in athletics and won multiple running medals, is continuing a rigorous training regime for selection for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.
“I do running training – it's probably two hours each day – and then bike sessions, full-on sprints,” she says. ”Very painful!”
Eagerly hoping for a guide dog placement this year, Karlee says Sandra, Gwen and Christian’s support has made them almost family. “It's such a strong bond and I appreciate them all so much,” she says. “They’ve each given me an equal opportunity with everybody else.”