Future Reflections Special Issue, Extracurricular Activities STRETCHING THE LIMITS
by Sara Luna
From the Editor: Sara Luna is in twelfth grade at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She serves as second vice president of the Illinois Association of Blind Students (IABS).
Throughout my life my friends and family have known me for many different talents and interests. Today I am best known by the moniker Judo Girl, a designation that makes me happy and proud.
Judo is a Japanese sport that consists of throws, pens, and submissions. It is sometimes confused with karate or tae kwon do because of the similar uniforms we wear. Next to soccer, judo is the second most widely played sport in the world. Every day judo touches the lives of millions of people, and it has transformed my life for the better.
Judo is one of the few sports that is played in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The only specific difference between Paralympic and Olympic judo is the position of the players at the start of a match. In Olympic judo with sighted players, the players begin their match standing ten feet apart on the mat, and they need to fight for their grips. In Paralympic judo, players who are blind or visually impaired begin their matches at the center of the mat. Opponents can start the match having physical contact with one another. If at any time during the match the players lose total physical contact, they will be brought back to the center of the mat so they can regain their contact, and the match will begin again.
I experienced judo for the first time on January 9, 2010, when I was twelve years old. More than five years later I still remember the precise date because the experience had such an impact on my life. That day I met a staff of teachers and coaches who loved what they were doing. I could tell that they cherished every moment they spent teaching judo. Later I grew to refer to these people as my judo family.
I decided to try judo because all of my friends were getting involved in it. I was intrigued by the idea of throwing someone around. For the first time, on that cold January day, I had the chance to participate fully in a sport that I thought would be fun.
Before I started judo, most of the people around me thought of me as a fragile blind girl. I was never allowed to participate in gym class at school because my teachers were afraid I would get hurt. Judo was a completely different story! Sure, some people I knew were still a bit concerned for my safety. For some reason, though, they thought judo was an acceptable sport for me to practice. That meant the world to me!
The first time I threw someone, I felt strong and empowered. I was not aware of it at the time, but that was definitely the point when I started to shed my status as the fragile blind girl.
When I started in judo, I was not a confident person. I was pretty insecure, and I did not believe in myself. One person helped me change all that, my sensei, or teacher, Bret Wolf. During class he often told me that he believed in me and that I could be a champion some day. I felt he was the first adult in my life who genuinely believed in me without patronizing me. Because he believed in me, I began to believe in myself. As my confidence grew, other people began to believe in me, too.
I cannot think of any more appropriate word to describe the people I train with than family. Throughout my five years in judo, I have built a bond with the people at my dojo, or training center, that is stronger than anything else I have ever felt. My senseis are some of my best friends, and I think of my training partners as brothers and sisters. We all learn from each other and laugh together like any other family.
I have built a particular bond with one of my training partners. Her name also happens to be Sarah (with an h), and she is sighted. Though we accidentally have pulled each other's hair out and made each other bleed on a regular basis during class, we still love each other. Whenever we work together we push each other to be better judo players than we were at the beginning of class. That is what judo friendships are all about.
For me, one of the most appealing aspects of judo is that my blindness is not a big deal. Finally, after many years of being held to a lower standard in athletics than my sighted peers, I have found a sport where my blindness does not hold me back. I learn all the same techniques that my sighted peers learn. The classes at my dojo include both sighted and visually impaired students. We all learn from each other and help one another, regardless of visual capabilities. I cannot express how refreshing it is to know that in judo no one cares that I am legally blind. In fact, some of my training partners occasionally forget that I am visually impaired. To them I am just another student. In judo class I am expected to work hard and try my best, just like everyone else.
Over the years judo has taught me discipline and self control. Before I started practicing judo, I was a very lazy child. I never really needed to work hard. Back then I never pushed myself to work harder than I had to in school or athletics.
Oh, how things changed! When I first started in judo, everything was fun and games because I was participating at a recreational level. However, when I began to take judo seriously, I started to attend more advanced classes. The transition was hard for me to make, because for the first time in my life I had to work really hard to improve at what I was doing. It was a fun yet difficult time in my judo life. That transition period really helped me develop the discipline I needed to push myself to heights I had never imagined. This discipline has taught me never to stop fighting for my dreams, no matter how daunting the challenge may seem.
Because judo has given me so much, I try to give back whenever I can. My dojo runs judo demonstrations on a fairly regular basis. These demonstrations take place at various events such as sports festivals, brain injury conferences, camps for military veterans, and even the annual student seminar of the NFB of Illinois. The purpose of these demonstrations is to make more people aware of what judo is. It is unfortunate that judo is the second most played sport in the world, yet most Americans know little or nothing about it. During these demonstrations I have helped teach a variety of people, from Girl Scouts to wounded veterans. It is truly rewarding to see the excitement of a child when he throws someone for the first time, or the joy of someone with a medical condition when she discovers that she can participate in judo despite her limitations.
For the past five years, participating in judo has been one wild ride for me. Through judo I have developed confidence, endurance, perseverance, athleticism, and discipline. I also have gained an extended family of training partners whom I love with all my heart. Everything my judo family has taught me has helped me be successful in national and international tournaments. Judo has turned me into the person I am today, and I will never forget that. No one thinks of me as a fragile blind girl anymore. Now people know me as the Judo Girl who just happens to be blind.