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The Gazette KCRG
Posted January 4, 2014
Gillaspie wrestles with blindness

Marion wrestler Alex Gillaspie, 15, has Lebers Congenital Amaurosis, a retinal disorder causing blindness, photographed at Marion High School on Friday, January, 3, 2014 in Marion, Iowa. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

MARION – Alex Gillaspie does not need easy. He just needs possible.

The Marion freshman manages to personify the quote from the movie “Soul Surfer,” which depicts the life of rising surfing star Bethany Hamilton who lost her left arm to a shark attack.

Gillaspie already does what many would claim unthinkable, taking the mat for the Indians while being blind since birth. He was diagnosed with Lebers Congenital Amaurosis when he was just 6 months old. It is a genetic retinal disorder where the retina is intact and healthy but doesn’t work.

The 15-year-old has wrestled since joining a club in Kindergarten and currently competes on the junior varsity squad for Marion Coach Jason Haag.

“It is basically kind of a passion,” said Gillaspie, who can only detect sunlight outdoors. “It’s really one of the only adaptable that I can do.”

Nothing compares to the adrenaline rush that accompanies stepping out on the mat, according to Gillaspie. The roar of the crowd motivates him to do what he needs to try and get a win. It is a unique experience, proving that anything is possible with heart and determination.

“I like the fast pace of it,” Gillaspie said. “If you’re down 14-0, you can still win with one right move.”

The Iowa High School Athletic Association did not immediately have number of blind wrestlers over the years. There has been a state champion with a disability. Jack Barron won the 119-pound title in 1980 and added the 138 crown in 1983 for Iowa School of the Deaf located in Council Bluffs.

Gillaspie has experienced some success, wrestling at 132 pounds. Haag said he has won about half of his 10 matches. Kramer recalled awaiting word from Haag after Gillaspie’s first match and the excitement he felt when he heard about the win.

“Wrestling is one of the hardest sports,” Marion teammate Nick Kramer said. “In order for him step out there and say I’m going to do this, even with a disability, that’s totally inspiring to watch him do that.”

Blindness is all he has ever known. He won’t consider it a disability. The family’s attitude is to play the hand it has been dealt.

“A lot of people ask me if it’s hard to be blind,” Gillaspie said. “It’s really not, because I was born that way and it’s all I know. If you could have seen and lost my sight, but I really don’t know any different.”

Haag taught Gillaspie in grade school and has forged a strong relationship, consisting of some good-natured ribbing, especially when Gillaspie claimed he wouldn’t wrestle. He has consistently met the challenges of a grueling sport when others with all their senses and physical abilities failed to do it.

“His character is really strong,” Haag said. “Most kids have a hard time doing this sport when they can see let alone being blind.”

Haag added, “I look up to him for what he is doing.”

Kramer said he remembered Gillaspie when they were younger. They have grown closer during summer workouts. Haag said Kramer has been one of the wrestlers who have stepped up with helping Gillaspie.

“It’s totally different than anybody else,” Kramer said. “Alex is a fun guy. He can make anyone laugh. He always puts a smile on everybody’s face, but at the same time he can be serious and he is one of the hardest workers on the team.”

Gillaspie competes like any other wrestler, except for the fact that he begins a match laying hands over and under with his opponent having to maintain some sort of contact with him. If an opponent breaks contact, it is considered unsportsmanlike.

Participation comes with challenges. Coaches rely on demonstrating moves in practice, and running sprints to improve conditioning. Haag said he is still learning to better coach Gillaspie, who expresses when he doesn’t understand the explanation. A coach will then help walk him through it.

“I try to consciously explain things better than I have in the past,” Haag said. “In turn, I think it helps me as far as showing technique because I’ve had to verbalize it more.”

Gillaspie said some moves are tougher than others to learn. The neutral poses the most problems, having to know when to shoot and where a foe’s legs are to score. It only takes one chance to get a move.

“At least a variation of it,” Gillaspie said. “I can memorize it by feel.”

The training regimen includes lifting weights. It can be problematic.

“We make sure there is always someone there to spot him or correct his form,” Haag said. “It’s hard for him.”

Sometimes he runs hallways with coach Haag, holding on to a lanyard. Gillaspie rides a stationary bike for most of his conditioning. He receives assistance from some of his teammates during practice and competition.

“We’re all out there to help him,” Kramer said. “You’ll see different guys every time walking him to get a drink or pulling him over to stretch or to ride a bike during warm up. There are little things everybody does to help out. It’s really cool to see.”

Wrestling can be just as tough on mothers, but Ann Gillaspie was never apprehensive about her son wrestling. She isn’t very versed in wrestling, but said the less she knows the better.

“I just pray and hold my breath when he’s out there,” Ann Gillaspie said. “I hope he doesn’t get hurt. It’s really the one and only sport that is adaptable. I think it’s good for him to be out there.”

Ann, and her husband, Chuck, who sat mat side to shout instructions to Alex during youth tournaments, have encouraged and support Alex Gillaspie’s out-going and active nature.

“We try to expose him to everything,” Ann Gillaspie said. “He roller skates, ice skates, rides a bike without training wheels and climbs ropes like you wouldn’t believe.

“He’s full of adventure.”

She said she couldn’t be more proud of her son.

“I couldn’t do the things that he does,” Ann Gillaspie said. “It is like he has no fear.”

Alex Gillaspie knows other blind wrestlers, but wants to lead others down his path. He serves as a role model for others with disabilities.

“I think they should go out and try,” Alex Gillaspie said. “You really don’t have anything to lose. Just go out there and try. It’s good that you’re out there and try.”

Support has come from unexpected places. Many have recognized exactly what Gillaspie achieves by wrestling. People have shown their appreciation.

“It’s pretty cool,” Gillaspie said. “Even strangers stop me and say something. It makes me feel good because I know I inspire them.”

The Gillaspie family has raised funds for the Foundation for Retinal Research. They have raised about $6,000 with garage sales the last four years. With Alex wrestling with Marion, the efforts have been increased.

Ann Gillaspie and Nancy Goldsworth, Kramer’s mother, have started the “Pledges for Pins” campaign. They have asked individuals and area businesses to donate money per pin by a Marion wrestler with half going to the Indians’ wrestling program and half to Foundation for Retinal Research.

Hope exists for a cure to overcome LCA.

“When he was 8 years old, the University of Iowa called and said they identified the gene that he is missing,” Ann Gillaspie said. “They’re in the process of reproducing it.”

Gillaspie plans to continue to wrestle throughout his high school career. He refuses to let blindness limit him, attempting to experience anything that is reasonable.

“Life is a buffet,” Gillaspie said. “Enjoy it. Don’t give up.”

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