This week’s article is a little different from those I have done so far, but I had a great experience and wanted to share it with you. My friend and former Paralympic teammate, Jim Mastro runs a sports camp for visually impaired kids at Bemidji State University in Bemidji, Minnesota. At this camp Jim and his counselors introduce blind and visually impaired kids from age 8-18, to several of the Paralympic sports available for the visually impaired as well as other games and activities.
Before I get into the camp I’ll tell you a little about Jim. To be honest, Dr. Jim Mastro is one of the most amazing people I have ever had the fortune of knowing and calling my friend. Jim is one of the greatest athletes I have ever known. He has participated in 7 Paralympic games, medaling in 4 different sports including wrestling and judo. Despite permanently losing his sigh while he was in high school, Jim was an alternate on the 1976 US Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team. Here is an excerpt from the Northern Plains Vision of Sport camp website:
As you can see, Jim is a pretty amazing athlete. Before the 1996 Paralympic Games he did a fundraiser where he got pledges on how many push-ups he could do in one hour. Would you like to know how many he did? 3,076! That’s right, I said he did 3,076 push-ups in one hour, and he had a cold. I remember being proud that I was doing 500 push-ups and 1,500 crunches a night. Talk about letting the air out of my tires when he told me that. Besides being an amazing athlete, Jim is also very accomplished in his professional life. He was the first blind person in the United States to earn a PhD in Physical Education. Besides all this, Jim is a really cool guy!
Ok, so that is a quick look at Jim Mastro, now back to the camp. He had been talking to me for years about coming out to help out with the camp but it had never worked out that I could make it before this year. In my role as Paralympic coach for USA Judo, part of my job is to find and recruit new athletes for our program. Even when I was an athlete, I was always on the lookout for new visually impaired people doing judo and talking to them about the Paralympic program. I have never been as good at it or as persistent as my wife, Heidi Moore. If we see a blind person walking through the mall, she will chase them down and ask them if they want to do judo. Anyway, this year when Jim talked to me about attending the camp I brought it up in one of our Paralympic judo staff conference calls and everyone agreed that it was a good idea for me to go up to the camp to meet some of the athletes Jim had told me about and to identify any new kids who showed an interest and aptitude for judo. What I did not realize was that Jim was not just going to let me sit around waiting for the afternoon judo sessions. He took me to the morning session of a game called Beep Baseball.
I had heard of the game from several people I know who have played it and have seen videos but have never played it myself. In beep baseball, everyone is blind folded and someone from your team pitches a softball with a beeper inside to you. If you hit the ball, which is not easy at all, you have to try to make it to base before someone in the outfield finds the ball and picks it up off the ground. If you make it to the base you earn a run, so all you have to do is get to the base before the ball is picked up. The catch is, in beep baseball they only use 2 bases, 1st, and 3rd, and you do not know which one you have to run to until after you hit the ball. When you hit the ball someone controlling the bases will turn on either 1st or 3rd base randomly and that is the base you have to run to. Did I mention that you are blindfolded?
Jim had the kids do some drills involved in finding the ball and picking it up as fast as possible. The kids would compete against each other and the winner of all the kids in the group would then get the chance to go against me. I pretty much got my butt kicked in all these drills. After the fielding drills he had them stand at home plate and have them run to whichever base was turned on and timed them. Again, he had me run and timed me. I forgot to tell you that the bases are about 4 feet tall and padded and the idea is to get to the base as fast as possible, so if you really run hard you end up running the base over and often end up tackling the base and rolling on the ground. Did I mention that you are blindfolded? It is pretty intimidating to run all out toward some random beeping sound and tackling a base you cannot see. After a few tries I did get the fastest time on the first day.
The other thing they did was have the kids play in the outfield where we would throw balls and spotters would yell what zone the ball was going towards after it was thrown and the kids would have to try to find the ball as fast as possible. On the second day, Jim was not happy with the way the kids were moving so he had them lay on their sides which is the basic position you are supposed to assume to try to block the ball, and he threw the ball at them. I was trying to throw it near the kids but Jim, who could not see them just hurled it out there and if it hit a kid he would say Ã¢â‚¬Å“It’s part of the game!Ã¢â‚¬Â
I had never really been interested in playing beep baseball or any of the other Ã¢â‚¬Å“blind sportsÃ¢â‚¬Â but I have to admin it was a lot of fun!
If you want to learn more about beep baseball, check out the National Beep Baseball Association’s home page at http://www.nbba.org.
Another game I was introduced to was a game called Showdown. My wife and I had actually seen a Showdown table in the International Zone in the Paralympic village in Sydney in 2000 but did not know what it was or how to play. It was described to me as a mix of Ping-Pong and table hockey. The table is a long narrow table with high sides and a big divider right in the middle of the table with a few inches of clearance at the bottom. Each player is blindfolded and has a long wooden paddle they use to try to hit the ball into your opponent’s goal. The ball is a hard plastic ball, a few inches in diameter with beads inside so you can hear it moving. When you serve, the ball has to hit the wall on your side of the table before crossing under the partition. The ball can only hit the wall on your side once when serving. If it crosses the center line without hitting the wall your opponent gets a point and if it hits the wall more than once before crossing the center line your opponent gets a point. If the ball hits the partition above the center of the table your opponent scores a point, and if you hit the ball off the table, your opponent scores a point. Oh and if you get the ball into your opponent’s goal you score 2 points. The game is first to 11 points but you have to win by 2 points.
Showdown is a pretty fast paced game so much so that you have to wear a hockey glove on the hand you hold the paddle with because that ball is hard and moves really fast. Even with the glove, my little finger was swollen the day after I was introduced to the game. The goal is a net that hangs down right in the center of each end of the table. Because the game is so fast paced, I found out that it is not a good idea to be too close to the net when a goal is scored. Sometimes the ball will roll in while you are searching your side of the table with your paddle but sometimes it hits that net pretty hard and if you have your leg or groin too close to the net, you know when the goal is scored right away, despite being blind folded. It only took me getting hit several times to learn to keep my hips back.
Showdown is a blast. If you want to learn more about the game, check out this description of the game on Wikipedia. If you scroll down to the North America heading, it actually mentions James Ã¢â‚¬Å“JimÃ¢â‚¬Â Mastro. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Showdown_(sport)). Jim is talking about hosting a Showdown nationals at Bemidji State in May of 2014. If I can find a table somewhere to practice, maybe I’ll go up and give all those guys a chance to kick my butt, AGAIN!
Another game I was introduced to was blind darts. They had a talking dart board that would tell you what score you got, well it told the other guys, if you miss the board, it doesn’t say anything. I did eventually get the hang of it but that was after breaking a few of the dart tips and even completely destroying a dart. It was a lot of fun but I did take 5thÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ out of 5.
Bemidji State has an outdoor adventure program, so the kids also got to do things like rock climbing, and canoeing on Lake Bemidji. That was a lot of fun. I went out with one of the other counselors then when we got back he needed a break so I took one of the kids and a semi-counselor who had never been canoeing, out on the lake. We had a blast. I used my paddle to splash s little water on the younger kid in the middle of the boat. When the counselor in the front tried to do the same thing, she got a drop or two on the kid but she soaked me. It was a lot of fun.
Of course we did some judo at the camp. The kids were broken unto two groups with the younger kids going first then the older kids. They did judo for an hour and a half each for five days but I was only able to be there for the first two days. Some of the kids had done it in previous camps so it wasn’t totally new to all of them. I also thought it was cool that several of the counselors, both sighted and visually impaired, had been introduced to judo in previous camps and had even joined either Jim’s club or a club in their hometowns. It was nice to have counselors who actually knew judo to help the kids work through the skills we were teaching them.
I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with them as I would have liked but it was great to get to meet and work with them and I even got to meet one of the guys who is coming out the his first international VI tournament and training camp next month at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
USA Judo sent me to introduce blind and visually impaired kids to judo and to talk to them about the Paralympic judo program. I was very happy to work with these kids and was even more excited when some of the kids I had talk to Jim about during the two days came up to give me their names and parents’ contact information at the end of my last session with them.
I have done several clinics for visually impaired kids over the years but this was a totally different experience for me. I have never really thought of myself as a visually impaired athlete, but just an athlete and while I have been to sports camps for visually impaired kids as a clinician, I have never been to one as a participant. If I remember correctly, this was the 13th year of the Northern Plains Vision of Sport camp. The camp had about 26 kids, all visually impaired but some had other physical and cognitive disabilities as well. The kids were divided by age but not ability level and everyone participated in everything together.
If you have read any of my other articles, you may have gotten the impression that I am a fairly competitive person. Over the two days I was there, I got my butt kicked in everything we did except judo.
I was really inspired at how the kids of greater ability encouraged and praised the kids who needed more attention and help. I also thought it was really cool that several of the counselors were former participants of the camp. Some of them had been going to that camp since it started, going back every year until they were 18, then going back as counselors, giving back all the great experiences they had over the years.
I was truly inspired by the camp, the kids, and the counselors. I definitely plan on going back, but not just for judo, and next time I go, I’m going to do my best to be there for the entire week.
If you want to learn more about the Northern Plains Vision of Sport camp please visit their website at http://visionsofsport.org.
Thanks for reading,
Talk to you soonÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
- Scott Moore is a 5th degree black belt in judo and he head instructor of Denver Judo. He is also a 3-time Paralympic Judo medalist winning bronzed in Atlanta, 1996, Gold in Sydney, 2000, and bronze in Athens, 2004. Scott was the assistant coach for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Judo team and the head coach of the London 2012 team.
Find Scott on Google+