Blindness will never stop this local Paralympic gold medalist from running, skiing, and motivating those with vision impairment
Pamela McGonigle has proven it doesn’t matter what others see in you. It’s what believe in yourself.
Pamela McGonigle, world-class para-athlete and development professional, grew up learning what it meant to be different. Born with albinism, a lack of pigmentation, she was legally blind. But in many ways, her biggest stumbling block wasn’t her limited sight. It was the narrow views of others.
“I fell outside of what our society considers normal,” McGonigle said. “People were mean and made fun of me. I just wasn’t accepted.”
But she was a kid, and kids need to play. So in the Pittsburgh suburb where she grew up, she started hanging around with her older brother, Tim, and his friends. They played sports. The fact that McGonigle couldn’t see was just another obstacle to overcome. For football, they devised a system of verbal signals and cues to let her know where the ball was. In hockey, she could hear the puck. In basketball, they’d do a bounce pass, and McGonigle would know the ball was coming.
“I worked it out to my advantage,” McGonigle said.
It also taught her a lesson she never forgot.
“What’s most important is what you think about yourself,” she said. “Not what others think about you. That’s been true over the course of my life.”
In September, McGonigle, 52, was named director of development and communication for the Overbrook School for the Blind, a kind of homecoming for this fund-raising executive. She worked at the school earlier in her career and moved on to challenge herself in other development positions.
“I wanted to see if I could make it in the sighted world,” McGonigle said.
» READ MORE: A porch pirate and an old rug taught this grieving Fishtown son something new about compassion
She did that with success. Recently, before returning to Overbrook, she was also lead development officer for the United States Association of Blind Athletes.
“We are fortunate to have someone of Pam’s caliber and experience step in to lead OSB’s fund raising and outreach effort,” said Todd Reeves, the school’s executive director and CEO.
But before McGonigle forged success in the field of development, this former little girl who found playmates and acceptance through sports pursued a passion that led her to become a world-class para-athlete in track and field.
Like most achievements in her life, she worked at it until she found a way to succeed.
When she decided to start running in junior high school, she said she was small and not especially fast but she just kept pushing herself. She impressed a high school coach who recruited her for his team. In college, she wanted to continue but her visual acuity took a turn for the worse.
“I kept falling all the time,” literally and figuratively, McGonigle said.
She thought her running career might be coming to a close. But around the time college was ending, a coach talked to her about running with a guide. She’d never thought of that. Right out of college, she decided to start training with a guide runner.
“I saw my time decrease significantly,” McGonigle said. “I got faster because I now had someone acting as my eyes.”
McGonigle would go to be a four-time Paralympian in track and field, taking home three bronze medals and, in 1992, a gold medal.
The gold was extra special. She had promised her father, Edward McGonigle, always one of her biggest supporters, that she would win a gold medal for him. He died from cancer before her medal-winning run, but it meant a great deal that she was able to keep her promise.
» READ MORE: Soccer connects kids, cops, and communities in Bridgeton, N.J.
Running remained her passion, but as time went on she also had a career and family. She is married to attorney John Stevens, who is sighted. They have a son, J.T. Stevens, 18, who is also visually impaired. The family lives in Ardmore.
McGonigle still loves athletics. She skis downhill and cross-country, and she lifts weights and plays goalball. For a couple of years, she tandem-cycled competitively. She still runs, in races as well as recreationally, but it’s no longer with a human running guide.
Instead, her running buddy is Maida, a 6-year-old German shepherd who is her specially trained running guide dog. When she and Maida were matched four and a half years ago, the dog was only the third dog in the world to be formally trained to do traditional guide work and to guide while running, McGonigle said. The numbers have since increased.
McGonigle and Maida often commute to work together by foot and paw. On their runs, Maida steers McGonigal away from obstacles. The dog also communicates things like upcoming jumps to her human running partner, through signals on her harness. Maida seems to enjoy running as much as McGonigle.
“She always has the biggest smile on her when we’re out running,” McGonigle said she’s been told. “She loves it. If I get dressed to go running, and she knows she’s not going, she gets all depressed. She’ll sit at the door and wait for me to come home.”
Like anyone starting a demanding new job, McGonigle has her work cut out for her at Overbrook. But she looks forward in time to helping to support the school’s students in a hands-on way, sharing the lessons she has learned as a visually impaired person.
“I’d tell them they are able to do whatever they want if they are willing to work hard,” she said. “It didn’t happen for me overnight. I fell down many times over and over again. Each and every one has the potential or ability to climb up and reach our goals and aspirations.”
To the parents of these youngsters, McGonigle said she would advise they be there to help their kids up when they fall, believe in them, and encourage them to go out and explore their world.
“There will be challenges, and it will be hard sometimes,” she said. “But I think that makes all of us better human beings.”