Blind track athlete inspires during time at Posen High School

Courtesy Photo/Presque Isle Advance Posen High School senior Leah Themel, left, runs with Selinay Erkul during a track and field meet this spring. Erkul, an exchange student from Turkey, is blind, but competed in a few different track events during the year for Posen. Themel often ran with Erkul, serving as a guide runner where she held one end of the rope and helped direct Erkul where to go during a race.

ALPENA — Having a disability has never let Selinay Erkul shy away from a challenge.

Erkul, an 18-year-old native of Izmir, Turkey, is blind and recently spent the 2021-22 school year as a foreign exchange student at Posen High School.

Leaving home to live in a new country, a new city, and having new challenges to navigate can be daunting. But in Posen, Erkul found a supportive community, new friends, and an appreciation for a sport she’d never tried before.

Along the way, she served as an inspiration to teammates, coaches, and many others with her positive outlook and willingness to challenge herself.

“You never know what you don’t know, so just live in the moment and try to do your best,” Erkul said. “Challenge yourself and challenge your world. That’s what I did and I enjoyed it.”

News Photo by James Andersen During a recent video call, Selinay Erkul shows off a plaque she received from Posen High School in commemoration of her time competing in track and field.

In Izmir, located in western Turkey near Greece, Erkul likes to stay active and wanted to do the same in Posen. As track and field was the most accessible sport for her, she decided to try it.

“That’s actually the first experience I got in my life,” Erkul said. “We do have basketball, softball, and baseball, those kind of sports, but I’d never heard of track and field.”

On the track team, Erkul found a new world of opportunity — one that allowed her to compete, stay active, and socialize more as part of a team. As her teammates got to know her, they asked questions about her life experiences and warmed up to her even more.

“I got more social than I did the whole year. I really loved being in track, and to be able to hang out with people more,” she said. “I could easily tell that when I was trying to reach out trying to learn track, the community started talking about that like, ‘Wow, how does a blind person do that?’ I was getting excited and I was so happy because those people were the people who tried to help you through most of the stuff. The community I was in was really supportive.”

Posen coach Tammy Hincka and her staff were tasked with finding the best fit for Erkul, and she ultimately competed in the 100-meter dash and shot put.

Courtesy Photo Selinay Erkul, center, is pictured with Posen teammates and shot putters Samantha Szott, left, and Sofya Hincka. Erkul competed in the shot put several times during the season and credited Posen’s coaches and her teammates with helping her learn the finer points of the event.

Shot put can be a very technical event, but Erkul was open to learning. She worked with assistant coach Iziaiah Hincka, who taught Erkul about the landing area, the toe board throwers throw from, and how to throw. When she threw, Erkul had a teammate in front of her talking to her so she could throw in the direction of her teammate’s voice.

“There was always someone from my team who was kind of helping me with their voice to be able to throw my ball in the right direction,” Erkul said.

Competing in the 100-meter dash required Erkul to run with a guide runner. During a race, each runner holds one end of a guide rope with the guide runner leading the way. Competing in the event required good communication since Erkul went where her guide runner went. Erkul had a few different running partners during the season, but she was often paired with senior Leah Themel, who took Erkul under her wing.

“She was so patient and positive, and I know she made Selinay’s experience even better,” Tammy Hincka said. “She’s always been like that.”

A personal highlight for Erkul came near the end of the season during Posen’s annual Presque Isle County meet. Erkul competed in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, shot put and 4×100 coed throwers relay, finishing with three medals for her efforts.

Courtesy Photo Selinay Erkul, left, throws the shot put during a meet. During Posen’s annual Presque Isle meet, Erkul competed in four events, including the shot put and 4x100 coed throwers relay and earned three medals for her efforts.

“I think she really did enjoy herself and had a good experience,” Tammy Hincka said. “She was good at listening and she would catch on. I think at times Selinay was an inspiration.”

During the season, Erkul kept her focus on trying her best and improving from meet to meet.

“My only goal was to be able to do my best. I was trying to be a role model for my community, but at the same time, I needed to prove to my team to get better too,” Erkul said. “I didn’t compare myself to anyone, which I usually do. When I got my PR, they were really happy.”

While competing in sports and enjoying the camaraderie of her teammates, Erkul said she learned a lot about herself during her stay in Michigan. Being a foreign exchange student allowed her to see a different part of the world, become more comfortable with traveling alone, and improved her navigation, she said.

She got a full Northeast Michigan experience, including attending the Alpena County Fair, experiencing a Michigan winter, going sledding on snow days, and experiencing life on a farm with her host family, the Lucases, who she still keeps in contact with.

“My host family was amazing, too. I’ve never thought that I can have another family other than my biological family, but they were absolutely a really good family for me,” Erkul said. “When I had challenges, they were the ones who helped me. They were really, really open-minded and very supportive. I love them so much.”


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