Seeing it Through

Chaz Davis lost his sight after one cross country season. But he couldn’t give up on running, and his team didn’t give up on him.

Chaz Davis silenced a slew of familiar fears as he joined the swarm of runners who toed the starting line. Clad in the colorful singlets of their schools, the men bounced and fidgeted in anticipation. Before them lay a grassy 8-kilometer cross country course that had become lined with fans.

When University of Hartford senior Chaz Davis developed a rare disease that stole his eyesight, his path as a long-distance runner changed forever.

Davis couldn’t see any of it – not his competition, not the course, not the teammates he knew were by his side. Yet there he stood, a senior on the University of Hartford team who was determined to run in his first cross country race since losing his vision his freshman year.

There were risks: One misstep could easily send him to the ground. Davis had already suffered too many scrapes, bruises and sprains in the more relaxed setting of practice. There were potential payoffs, too – team success in this America East Conference championship meet, for one thing, but also something more.

If all went according to plan, Davis and his team would have a chance to demonstrate the power of teamwork and fortitude.

When the starting gun fired, Davis knew what to do. In stride with more than 80 other runners, and with one in particular, he let instinct take over and burst onto the course.

 

After graduation, Chaz Davis will focus on two new goals: competing in the Paralympic Games and earning a master’s degree in social work. Steve McLaughlin Photography

On the cover

Nothing more than felines

Chaz Davis’ home seemed like a good place to meet. But the NCAA Champion magazine staff didn’t realize how ideal the setting would turn out to be, a few sneezes notwithstanding.

Scheduling a cover shoot over winter break proved problematic. The University of Hartford, where Chaz Davis is a senior runner and criminal justice major competing in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field, was shut down for winter break. Facilities were locked in a move that saves the school tens of thousands of dollars each year.

So rather than head to Connecticut, Creative Director Arnel Reynon and Director of Photography Jamie Schwaberow flew into Boston and met Davis at his home in nearby Grafton, Massachusetts. The two were welcomed inside and took seats in the family’s den while Davis changed into his Hartford track uniform. As they made the acquaintance of the family pets – a dog named Scooter and two cats, a black one named George and Tango, a tabby – Reynon and Schwaberow came to the same conclusion: This den could be a perfect spot for the shoot.

They knew they wanted to shoot the cover in a spot where lighting could be controlled, providing a more dramatic effect for a shot that would match Davis’ story. In the second semester of his freshman year at Hartford, after completing his first cross country season, Davis began losing his vision. He was eventually diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a disease that destroys the eye’s optic nerve.

Davis has continued to compete in indoor and outdoor track and field, where he could at least make out the bright lines of the lane dividers. And this fall, when he once again ran cross country with the help of a teammate who never left his side, Davis returned to that sport, too. “When I wasn’t running,” Davis says, “I was constantly thinking about the things I couldn’t do.”

The den at Davis’ family home, a confined space with a soft blue wall suitable as a neutral backdrop, fit the Champion staff’s needs. Yet as Reynon, Schwaberow and Davis began working together to develop the right look for the cover, an unexpected problem emerged with their chosen location.

“Both Jamie and I are allergic to cats,” Reynon says. “When we were doing the video interview, Jamie has to say, ‘Hold on a second,’ and he’d have to go blow his nose. I told Chaz, ‘Sorry. We’re kind of allergic to cats.’ And he said, ‘Me, too.’”

In the end, securing a location wasn’t as difficult as expected. Neither was finding the desired lighting for the shoot. The hard part: Refraining from sniffling while interviewing Davis for an online video.

— Amy Wimmer Schwarb

 

Tango, Chaz Davis’ tabby cat, was one of two culprits that kept the NCAA Champion magazine photo crew sniffling and sneezing when they set up a cover shoot at the Davis family home in Massachusetts. Arnel Reynon / Sport Graphics

Davis was a standout high school runner from Grafton, Massachusetts, when he visited the University of Hartford about 90 minutes away. He was drawn to the close-knit, family atmosphere of the cross country and track teams. This Division I school, he decided, would be his home for the next four years.

The first person Davis met on campus in the fall of 2012 was fellow freshman runner Kyle Hamel, a mechanical engineering major and Connecticut native. A close friendship easily formed between the two – already, Davis was beginning to experience the familial nature of his Hartford team.

His first semester of college continued like any other college runner’s, filled with hours of classwork for his criminal justice major and hundreds of miles logged on the road. Then, that spring, Davis was sitting in a class on rhetoric and writing when suddenly, as he was trying to look at the notes on the board, a bright light appeared in his right eye. The debilitating brightness persisted, leading to three days in the emergency room and visits with specialists. No one could identify the problem.

Davis ran three races during his freshman outdoor track season while only being able to see out of his left eye. But his vision continued to worsen. “Something’s definitely wrong,” he told Hamel. “I don’t know what’s going on.” The magnitude of his situation hit one day in July, when he hopped into his car and began backing out of his driveway. Realizing he couldn’t see well enough out of either eye to drive, Davis pulled back in, then broke down in tears.

Finally, Davis received a diagnosis: Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a rare disease that destroys the optic nerve in the eye and can result in sudden vision loss.

Forced to confront this reality, Davis pushed his running shoes aside. Suddenly, instead of thinking about the seconds he wanted to cut from his next 3,000-meter race, he was learning new ways to accomplish simple tasks: tying his shoes, walking around campus, taking notes. He turned to an auditory program that enabled him to complete classwork so he could stay on track in school.

But his passion for running lingered. By the end of his sophomore year, he had run a road race in his hometown, guided by two of his teammates. His time wasn’t what Davis was used to, but the feeling that rushed over him as he sped to the finish line was just as sweet as ever. “That,” he says, “was kind of an awakening for me.”

His road back to competing began on the treadmill. Gradually, Davis grew comfortable running on the track, where he could make out the contrast of the lines if they were painted bright enough.

Little by little, Davis pushed himself farther. He set out on the road for training runs with his teammates, the sound of cars rushing by in the background. “If you have something you think you do well or you enjoy, it takes away from the other things in life that aren’t going very well,” Davis says. “When I wasn’t running, I was constantly thinking about the things I couldn’t do.”

Inevitably, there were falls. The mishaps brought more than physical pain. “Every time he fell, it was discouraging,” says his former assistant coach Mike DuPaul. “But Chaz is an extremely tough kid, and he didn’t let any of the doubt stay in his mind. He bounced back up, took a couple days off if he needed to, put some Band-Aids on, wore an ankle brace, and got back at it.”

Last winter, at the America East Indoor Track and Field Championships, Davis ran his fastest 3,000-meter race ever, finishing in 9:02.35. He logged up to 80 miles a week over the summer, his mind set on a new goal of competing in the Paralympic Games. He took steps toward that goal when he won the 5,000-meter run at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in June, then again when he took second in the same event at the Toronto Parapan American Games.

“I am extremely impressed with what it takes to stay positive and run at the level he’s running at,” Hartford’s first-year head coach Roger Busch says.

When Davis runs, he isn’t just pushing himself. He was the fastest runner on the team in workouts this fall. Busch adds: “He’s running the best he’s ever ran.”

That drive and success led Busch to propose an idea that surprised the whole team, including Davis. Since he lost his vision, Davis had competed only in track, both indoor and outdoor. But the coach wondered if he wanted to run in a cross country meet as a way to cap off his senior year.

Filled with nerves, Davis wavered on his decision. But when Hamel agreed to guide him and the two began planning for the race, his confidence grew.

“I mustered up more courage and just went for it,” Davis says.

The plan for this conference meet was straightforward. No matter what happens, no matter how good you feel, do not leave your teammate behind.

Davis and Hamel, who had traversed countless miles together, would run side-by-side in a race like neither had competed in before.

 

In the America East Conference Cross Country Championships, Hartford’s Kyle Hamel (left) races with Chaz Davis close by his side. Doug Austin Photography

Every turn, every ditch, every obstacle on the ground, Hamel called out to his friend. Davis stayed close – within a foot of Hamel, he could make out his shadow.

When Davis took a corner too wide, Hamel nudged him in the right direction. When they got to a straight stretch of the course, they took advantage. “Stay behind me,” Hamel said through heavy breaths. “Let’s go.”

Stride for stride, running at an average pace of 5:22 per mile, the two teammates made their move.

With the finish line near, Davis could hardly hold back. Emotions raced through his body, making his legs churn faster.

Hamel knew they needed to stick to the plan. He yelled for Davis to ease up so the two could remain in tandem and finish the race safely. When that moment came, Hamel grabbed Davis’ hand and threw it into the air. They finished 59th and 60th but took home a bigger prize than anyone else that day. Together, they had taken teamwork to a whole new level.

“Without Kyle, there would have been 0 percent chance that I would have finished that race,” Davis says. “It wasn’t exactly the fastest time or the time I was expecting at all. But the fact I was able to finish that with someone I came in with my freshman year – for me to run my last race side-by-side with him was something special to me.

“I really am grateful for that.”

On the cover

Nothing more than felines

Chaz Davis’ home seemed like a good place to meet. But the NCAA Champion magazine staff didn’t realize how ideal the setting would turn out to be, a few sneezes notwithstanding.

Scheduling a cover shoot over winter break proved problematic. The University of Hartford, where Chaz Davis is a senior runner and criminal justice major competing in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field, was shut down for winter break. Facilities were locked in a move that saves the school tens of thousands of dollars each year.

So rather than head to Connecticut, Creative Director Arnel Reynon and Director of Photography Jamie Schwaberow flew into Boston and met Davis at his home in nearby Grafton, Massachusetts. The two were welcomed inside and took seats in the family’s den while Davis changed into his Hartford track uniform. As they made the acquaintance of the family pets – a dog named Scooter and two cats, a black one named George and Tango, a tabby – Reynon and Schwaberow came to the same conclusion: This den could be a perfect spot for the shoot.

They knew they wanted to shoot the cover in a spot where lighting could be controlled, providing a more dramatic effect for a shot that would match Davis’ story. In the second semester of his freshman year at Hartford, after completing his first cross country season, Davis began losing his vision. He was eventually diagnosed with Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, a disease that destroys the eye’s optic nerve.

Davis has continued to compete in indoor and outdoor track and field, where he could at least make out the bright lines of the lane dividers. And this fall, when he once again ran cross country with the help of a teammate who never left his side, Davis returned to that sport, too. “When I wasn’t running,” Davis says, “I was constantly thinking about the things I couldn’t do.”

The den at Davis’ family home, a confined space with a soft blue wall suitable as a neutral backdrop, fit the Champion staff’s needs. Yet as Reynon, Schwaberow and Davis began working together to develop the right look for the cover, an unexpected problem emerged with their chosen location.

“Both Jamie and I are allergic to cats,” Reynon says. “When we were doing the video interview, Jamie has to say, ‘Hold on a second,’ and he’d have to go blow his nose. I told Chaz, ‘Sorry. We’re kind of allergic to cats.’ And he said, ‘Me, too.’”

In the end, securing a location wasn’t as difficult as expected. Neither was finding the desired lighting for the shoot. The hard part: Refraining from sniffling while interviewing Davis for an online video.

— Amy Wimmer Schwarb

 

Tango, Chaz Davis’ tabby cat, was one of two culprits that kept the NCAA Champion magazine photo crew sniffling and sneezing when they set up a cover shoot at the Davis family home in Massachusetts. Arnel Reynon / Sport Graphics