TAMPA - Michelle Yongue doesn't shy away from a challenge. She also isn't afraid of having a little fun. In her world, competition leads to an opportunity for friendships, connections and wonderful memories.
She's competed in archery, horseback riding, gymnastics and swimming. She just finished her freshman year at Palm Harbor University High School's International Baccalaureate program.
On Saturday, she competed for her fourth time in The National Braille Challenge in Hollywood, Calif. She was the only student representing the Tampa area.
Yongue, 15, is visually impaired. She was born with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has caused her to slowly lose her vision. Her vision is like looking through Swiss cheese, said her father, Dave Yongue.
"I don't let it stop me," said Michelle Yongue of Oldsmar.
At the Braille Challenge finals, she competed against boys and girls in her age category from the United States and Canada. The events included using Braille in proofreading, reading comprehension, chart, graph and map reading, and speed and accuracy reading. The event had 60 competitors - the top three winners in each category received awards ranging from $250 to $2,500.
Yongue didn't place this year or in the previous finals she's competed in. She would have liked to have placed in the top three in her category, but she doesn't dwell on it. She's proud of the opportunity to compete and test her Braille skills against other competitors. More importantly, she's happy to have reconnected with old friends she's made in the past at the competition.
She plans to compete next year.
The contest began in 2000, organized by the Braille Institute of America of Los Angeles.
The purpose was to attract students ages 6 to 19 who use Braille and increase its popularity, interest and usage, said Nancy Niebrugge, director of the Braille Challenge. She was part of the Braille Institute's committee that founded the Braille Challenge. She's amazed at how it has grown.
"I had a sense that it would catch on," Niebrugge said. "I'm a little surprised with the staying power and its impact."
Yongue began learning Braille in prekindergarten. Technological advances means she doesn't use it as much as when she was younger, though she increases her practice near tournament time, Dave Yongue said.
"I'm really proud of her," Dave Yongue said. "I don't stress at the (competition). I want her to do her best. I just want Michelle to have a good time."
Yongue's parents, Dave and Su, paid to fly her high school teacher for the visually impaired, Andrea Wallace, to the competition.
"I just enjoy it," Michelle Yongue said. "It's something fun to do. It shows off your Braille skills"
"It's really exciting. It's really nice to know that I can go and do this," she said.