HAMDEN >> From a distance, the finish line is just a blur to Justin Perretta. But he knows exactly where it is.
“When I’m running, I usually just zone everyone else out and pay attention to what’s in front of me,” he said. “I’m always aware of my surroundings.”
Perretta is a freshman distance runner on the Hamden outdoor track and field team.
He was born 16 weeks early and weighed one pound, 11 ounces. He was given a 50 percent chance to live.
Perretta spent 120 days at the NICU at Yale and developed retinopathy of prematurity. His eyes didn’t have enough time to fully develop, and the oxygen therapy that he needed to survive caused the ROP.
He had laser surgery performed on both eyes at 2 months old.
Perretta is 100 percent blind in his left eye and his right eye has 20/60-20/80 vision depending on the test and with glasses.
“He doesn’t see what we see,” said his mother, Laura.
Laura compared his sight to looking through a coke bottle. Justin’s vision is best when he’s up close to what he is reading, but it’s still not perfectly clear.
But fearing the unknown and what’s out there…he doesn’t see that either.
“We’ve never treated him like you can’t,” Laura said.
Justin, who describes himself as a calm person, lives his life the only way he knows how. As a 15-year-old, he enjoys music, playing his guitar, riding his quad, skiing and mountain biking. But this year, his main interest has become running.
“It’s not that bad; really, it’s fine,” Justin says when describing his vision. “I don’t know anything else and I’ve never been bullied or anything.”
His mother and father, Tony, have always been advocates of Justin trying new and different activities at least once and going out of his comfort zone.
“You have to be able to navigate your way through life, and that’s what he’s done,” Laura said.
Justin’s biggest attribute is his mind, as he relies on memorizing movements. Laura explained he can’t see an individual coming down the driveway, but almost always knows exactly who it is based off the movements. When he’s at a track meet, he makes sure to put his belongings in the same spot.
It also works against him. He may appear standoffish, but he can’t identify who a person is immediately. His memory has allowed him to enjoy activities like riding his quad, something he’s been doing since elementary school.
“It’s a lot like running. I have to be aware of my surroundings, is there a rock on the ground, a tree,” Justin said.
His father built trails around their home so Justin could ride, and he’s been able to remember the paths.
“At one time he’s with 15 kids who have quads,” Tony said. “He’s going pretty quick and it’s tight. And I’m like, ‘How does he do it?’ And then I realized he memorized it. He’s not the first guy, but he memorized what he had to do.”
There is the constant worry of getting hurt, but Perretta is always prepared — he rides with protective goggles and knows the guidelines. Laura explained that contact sports like football and hockey are off limits. Justin can’t risk damaging his good eye. He’s come back to the house with a few scrapes, bumps and bruises, but nothing too serious.
“Everything he does to me is amazing,” Tony says.
Running with the Green Dragons this year is the first time Justin has been part of a team sport. It’s also the first activity he decided to sign up for on his own.
“My friend was going to (run cross country), so I tried it and I just fell in love with running,” Justin said. “It’s a team sport and it’s fun to go out with these guys.”
During the cross country season, Perretta said he’d become familiar with the course as the Dragons went on preview runs before the meets. He explained he’s taken more of a liking to track, in particular the mile.
“When he runs on the track, he really runs hard,” Hamden coach Bryce Lindamood said. “You kind of get an eye of what looks good and what doesn’t, and he has a nice stride, he’s figuring it out. And it looks like if he puts in the time and effort he might go under five minutes.”
Justin says the sport has taught him to be healthier and has made him a better athlete.
“I’ve met a lot of great kids and a great coach from it,” he said.
While Justin may not always know where his next path may go, for him, that’s not an issue.
“He’s more confident about himself,” Laura said. “This is the first team he’s been a part of and he’s embraced it. And they’ve embraced him. He’s found his voice.”