Future Reflections Fall 1995, Vol. 14 No. 3
[PICTURE] Lisamarie Martinez, a blind green belt competitor. wins third place in a 1995 national judo tournament.
Reprinted from the Times Advocate North County Report, February 5, 1993. Story by Christine Bradley.
"Just feel their bodies and go with it."
That is how 20-year-old Klaudia Birkner said she beats her sighted opponents in judo competitions. Birkner lost her vision four years ago but continues to lead a normal and active life. For more than a year, the San Marcos resident has participated and competed on the Sasori judo team.
She is one of thirteen North County visually impaired people who are using the martial arts to take control of their bodies and compete in physical competition.
"It makes me feel like I can beat up the boys if they try and beat on me," said fifth-grader Lisa Davis, who already has her yellow belt.
Robert Caslava of San Marcos started the judo team in December 1991 after he realized there were very few sports in the San Diego area in which visually impaired people can participate. Caslava, a specialist in the visually impaired and an orientation and mobility instructor, goes to North County public schools and teaches blind students everything from personal hygiene to traveling in large crowds. He said exercise is especially important for the visually impaired because "developmentally they are far behind their sighted peers."
Because judo is a full-contact sport, the students are able to feel what their competitors are doing and anticipate the next move.
"I wanted to give the kids an opportunity to get physical and compete against sighted peers." Caslava said.
The judo team is open to any visually impaired person. The only requirement is to bring a partner and provide a sighted person to help during practices. Los Angeles resident Dan Gomez volunteered to be the leader of the judo team. During the three-hour practices held at Vista High School, Gomez demonstrates the moves the students will learn to Caslava.
Caslava's advanced training with the visually impaired allows him to take the blind person's point of view and physically break down the moves. He either verbalizes the motions to the students or shows them "hand over hand."
"You have to depend on feeling the other person and their moves instead of seeing them," Birkner explained.
The students have been able to learn and perfect the moves, which has made them stiff competition for their sighted opponents.
"In judo there is no disadvantage in being blind, except for the start because you do not know the first move (the opponent) will make," Caslava said. To make the match more fair, the blind competitor is allowed to grip the sighted opponent before the match begins.
In January, four of the eight members who competed in a Los Angeles judo tournament received second place in their category, while one member won first place.
"It was great to whip the sighted people," Birkner said.
Caslava said that as far as he knows, his team is the only blind judo team in California. "No other group has the energy to get this thing going," he said. Since sighted teams are not used to competing against visually impaired people, they usually only want to do an exhibition show.
"Sighted people are afraid they are going to hurt you," 16-year-old Belinda Surita said.
Caslava added, "But these teams don't realize that these kids are just regular kids."
Judo has allowed students to compete and has increased their self-confidence because they are able to do something with their bodies.
"It is great to know you can be independent and take care of yourself," Jennifer Larson, 23, said.
Caslava said judo has given the students an awareness about their bodies and a better orientation with their surroundings. Lisa Davis' mother, Sharon, said she noticed Lisa has greater control of her body and more self-confidence. Davis also said she thinks the team is a great social outlet.
"It gives her a chance to compare notes," she said. "Lisa also realizes that other people are going through the same thing she is."
Judo is not the only sport Caslava has made available to visually impaired people. He also organizes an annual ski trip to Big Bear Mountain; and takes kids water skiing, hiking and even canoeing.
"I just want these kids to be normal."