American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
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       Special Issue: Early Childhood      BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

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Mutual Welfare and Benefit

by Sara Luna

Reprinted from Illinois Independent, Summer 2018

Sara Luna dressed in her full judo costume.From the Editor: Sara Luna is a history major at North Park University. This article is based on a presentation she gave at the Midwest Student Seminar that was sponsored by the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) and the Illinois Association of Blind Students (IABS). The seminar took place in Chicago in April 2018.

I've been involved in judo for eight-and-a-half years. You may be wondering, what is judo exactly? Judo consists mainly of throws, pins, and submissions such as chokes and arm locks. There are more than forty throws in judo, and there is a plethora of ways to get into pins and submissions. The sport originated in Japan 136 years ago.

Here's a fun trivia fact for you. Judo is the second most played sport in the world, next to soccer—despite the fact that it is not very popular in the United States. It is hugely popular in Japan, Russia, and Brazil, and pretty much all around the world except for this country.
When I was a kid sports were not very important to me. I didn't want to play conventional sports such as basketball or soccer. I knew that as a legally blind player I would be at a disadvantage with my sighted peers. I never caught on to adaptive sports such as beep baseball; they just didn't click with me. But judo was different.

I got into judo when Chicago was trying to get the bid for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Judo is one of the few sports that is in both the Olympics and the Paralympics. I did it because my friends were doing it. The thought of learning to throw someone was pretty intriguing.

There are very few differences in the ways sighted and visually-impaired players participate in the sport. We learn all the same techniques. That meant the world to twelve-year-old me! After years of feeling left out of conventional sports and not really catching onto blind sports, suddenly I was involved in a sport where I could participate to the same extent as my sighted peers. That was so empowering! It gave me confidence I had never had before.

I look at my journey in judo as being defined by judo's principles. For my first five-and-a-half years, my participation was defined by judo's first principle, which is maximum efficiency with minimum effort. You don't need to be the biggest or strongest person in order to succeed. You can be small and agile and win against someone who is bigger than you are. You can use momentum and leverage to win.

Judo is a high contact sport. As visually-impaired players we start at the center of the mat. We begin by getting our grips, which means that we take hold of each other. If we completely break contact at any time during the match, we're taken back to the center and told to begin again. Sighted players start ten feet apart and have to fight for the contact they want.

My dojo, or club, is the Menomonee Judo Club. It is really wonderful. Everyone there is like family to me. In 2012 we were named the Paralympic Judo National Training Site. That title means that, of all the judo clubs in the country, we are the best for training people who are blind or visually impaired. The only other club with a similar distinction is the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

During my first five years I focused on competing. I was able to compete on the national stage twice, and I represented Team USA in four international tournaments. Training for these competitions taught me a lot about myself. My teammates and coaches did so much for me. They pushed me to be better than I ever imagined I could be. They forced me to do more rounds of sparring when I was tired and just wanted to curl up in a ball somewhere. They never gave up on me when I didn't understand a new technique, and they wouldn't let me give up on myself. It meant so much to me to have a supportive team of people who had my back and wouldn't let me settle for second best.

For the past three-and-a-half years, my focus has shifted to embrace the second principle of judo: mutual welfare and benefit. This principle means that we all help each other learn. I've also embraced the third principle, which states that if something is really good to you, you should give back.

I stopped competing in the summer of 2015, after my last tournament in Toronto, Canada. After that I wanted to focus on giving back. I do that by teaching classes at my club. I have helped with about 75 percent of our programs, and it has been very rewarding!

At my club we have people who participate at various levels. Some people just do judo for fun. We've had whole families get involved. We have programs for people who are visually impaired, people who are hearing impaired, people who have autism, and disabled veterans. Judo is all-inclusive—everyone can participate.

This week I helped teach four different classes. I taught a women's class, a class for the Special Olympics (people with autism and Asperger's), a class of three- to eight-year-olds (I call them my little monsters when they don't listen), and a middle-school class. It's not easy, but it's so much fun!

We don't have a lot of black belts in my club, but we have a big team of higher-ranked students who aren't black belts yet. They help out by teaching at our various programs all around the city. In a given week we may teach people who are three years old and people in their fifties and sixties. We teach people of every age and ability level.

When I was competing, I got a rush and a joy from winning a match. But the joy and sense of fulfillment I get from knowing I have helped run a good class, that the people in the class left better than when they started that day, is so fulfilling! I had many excellent teachers, and I wouldn't be where I am today without them.

I have a third-degree brown belt. That means that I am two levels away from getting my black belt. From my second-degree brown belt I need my first-degree brown belt, and then I can get my black belt. It's utterly baffling to me that I have come so far!

I remember the first time I threw someone. It was very empowering. Now I see people throw someone for the first time, and when they light up it melts my heart.

Thinking about the principle of mutual welfare and benefit, I realize that we don't just learn from the senseis (teachers). We learn from each other. If I'm struggling with something and the senseis are busy, I can ask another student who has a brown belt or higher colored belt. I can say, "Can you watch this technique and give me some input?"

I want to tell you about something that happened when I first started judo. When we bow in and bow out, we stand in two lines. A line of students faces a line of senseis and student helpers, who are called senpais. When I was a kid I would look at the line of senseis and senpais, and I would always wonder, What does it take to get into that line? What do I have to do to get there? Now, when I help teach classes, I'm in that line. Now I know that it takes years of hard work and dedication to get there.

I will close by saying what we say to each other when we bow out of class. When we bow we all say, "Arigatou gozaimasu," which means, "Thank you very much."

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