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UCF blind wrestler pins down adversity Article

UCF blind wrestler pins down adversity
April 19, 2011

“I can’t believe I’m two pounds over,” Kyle Coon says with disbelief. “I’ve never had to worry about my weight.”

UCF wrestler Kyle Coon at practice. Kyle lost his eyes to retinoblastoma cancer at the age of 5. Photo by Chelsea St. John

Kyle, a 19-year-old freshman wrestler for UCF, and a few of his teammates are sitting on the edge of a wrestling mat Ferrell Commons. The wrestlers are hanging around before practice, mopping the black mats and applying cream to their legs and arms to avoid getting staph infections over the next two hours. Some are checking their weight, like Kyle just did, for the upcoming tournament they’re slated to wrestle in.

“Dude, you can probably sleep it off,” one of his teammates responds while lunging to stretch his calves, trying to put the blond-haired wrestler at ease.

“I’ll just spin extra at the gym later.”

“Or, you can just tell the ref someone told you that you were under weight. ‘It’s not my fault, man! I can’t see!’” another teammate jokes and mimics Kyle. This gets a hearty laugh from everyone in the room, but nobody laughs louder than Kyle, who is blind.

“I love telling blind jokes,” Kyle tells me after their Tuesday evening practice. “One of my friends who’s totally blind says, ‘I don’t let my blindness define me. I define my blindness.’”

When Kyle was 10 months old, a doctor caught him slightly crossing one of his eyes during a routine check-up in the Coons’ hometown of Jacksonville. She immediately told Kyle’s parents, Steve and Ann Marie, to take him to a specialist.

“She looked startled when she checked them,” Steve says. “She said she thought she saw something that we may want to have — just to be safe — looked at by a specialist, which obviously raised suspicions rather quickly.”

The next day, Steve and Ann Marie took Kyle to a retina specialist at the University of Chicago.

“That’s actually one of the days I’ll never forget — that doctor sat down and sat us down and said to us, ‘Your son has cancer,’ ” Steve said. “That was the last thing I remember hearing that day.”

Kyle had retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that forms in one or both of the retinas. In Kyle’s case, it was both.

The doctor at the University of Chicago wanted to remove both of Kyle’s eyes the following Monday to avoid having the cancer spread. But Steve and Ann Marie didn’t want to take away their son’s vision.

There was another doctor in Philadelphia, the specialist told them. “But he said, ‘There’s nothing that he can do that I can’t do,’ ” Steve says.

Apparently, the University of Chicago doctor was wrong. After discussing the diagnosis with friends over the weekend, Monday came. Had the Coons stayed in Chicago, Kyle would have gone blind before he even had his first birthday. But they chose to visit the doctor in Philadelphia, who gave them the same diagnosis but a different way to fix it. Yes, Kyle had retinoblastoma, but no, his eyes didn’t need to be removed – or at least not now, the doctor told the hopeful parents.

“There was a good chance they could save some or all of his vision,” Steve recalls. “We went from one extreme to another extreme. But we obviously didn’t fully understand what the road ahead was going to be.”

Steve and Ann Marie tried every treatment imaginable to rid their son of the malignant disease: localized radiation, systemic radiation, laser treatment, systemic chemotherapy and even chemotherapy injections straight into his eyes.

Then, when Kyle was 5 years old, Kyle developed glaucoma in his left eye, forcing Steve and Ann Marie to make the decision to have it removed.

“Once he lost the first eye, we kind of knew that he was going to end up losing the second eye eventually,” Steve says.

So the Coons prepared their son for the inevitable. He learned how to read letters and Braille at the same time. He remembered the faces of his parents and his sisters. He learned colors so when he did go blind, someone could easily describe his surroundings to him. Essentially, he was learning the skills of a blind person while he could still see.

Then, on Oct. 9, 1998, Kyle’s right eye was removed. Two prosthetic eyes have sat in place of his originals ever since.

“One minute I could see, for me what I considered was fine, but then I woke up in a hospital bed with no vision whatsoever,” Kyle remembers. “It was really just a slap upside the head.”

At only 6 years old, Kyle could no longer play basketball with his father. He couldn’t ride his bike with his friends. He couldn’t do what the other healthy little boys could do.

“He was a sad, angry little boy who kind of saw his life slipping away,” Steve says, remembering some of the “very dark days” of Kyle’s new reality.

Fortunately, the depression turned around in about a month when Kyle was introduced to Erik Weihenmayer, the only blind person to have ever climbed Mount Everest, at a motivational speech Weihenmayer was giving in Jacksonville.

“That day when we left [to go see Erik speak], Kyle was a scared, angry little boy,” Steve remembers. “But he came home with hope. He came home inspired and ready to try living life again.”

Despite losing his sight, Kyle’s athleticism and love of sports never wore off. He tried pursuing wrestling when he was in sixth grade, but few middle schools even offered the sport, and none of them were willing to put a blind student on their team. His wrestling career finally began when he entered high school at Paxon School for Advanced Studies in Jacksonville.

Kyle Coon with his Seeing Eye dog, Tyrone. Despite his blindness, Coon became captain of his high school wrestling team two years ago. Photo by Chelsea St. John

“We saw it as an opportunity [for him] to do something,” Steve says. “He’s strong, he has agility and he has a heck of a grip.”

But in his first two years of wrestling Kyle says he struggled with the sport, with a combined record of 15 wins and 20 losses. He considered giving up on the sport when he failed to qualify for regionals his sophomore year.

“It was hard, and I knew it was going to be hard, but I did seriously consider quitting after that,” Kyle says. “But then I went to Ken Chertow’s Gold Medal Training Camp and began learning how to really wrestle and strategize.”

Chertow is a well-known name in the wrestling world. He’s a three-time NCAA All-American and wrestled for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team. His training camps are now located in 20 states, and he also led Ohio State’s wresting team to fourth place in the 1991 NCCA Championships, the highest ranking the team has ever achieved.

Kyle first attended Chertow’s camp during the summer between his sophomore and junior year of high school.

“He was very rough technically when I first met him,” Chertow says of Kyle. “Now, he has a very good feel for our sport and executes a wide array of moves correctly.”

Chertow would use Kyle as a demonstration partner during the camps so Kyle could feel the moves being pulled on him since he obviously couldn’t see them. He taught Kyle how to be in control by grabbing different parts of the opponents’ upper body, and more importantly to never let his inability to see hold him back.

“I think Kyle has to work harder than most kids to perfect moves since he does not see us show them, but he learns just as quickly as the other kids because he works so hard.”

After training with Chertow, Kyle’s wrestling record improved greatly. He finished his junior year of high school with his first winning record: seven wins and six losses. His senior year, when he became captain of the team, he lost only seven matches out of 30. But Kyle wanted more. He didn’t want to stop wrestling when he graduated high school.

“Battle with him!” Coach Jason Balma yells at the UCF wrestling team. “Push yourselves!”

The 30 wrestlers are partnered off and are going to head-to-head with each other at practice. The scent of 90 minutes’ worth of their dried sweat lingers in the air, accompanied by grunts from wrestlers trying their hardest to impress Balma. Kyle has his opponent in a headlock when all of a sudden his partner slips out of it and slams Kyle to the mat. Tyrone, Kyle’s Seeing Eye golden retriever, perks his head up from the sidelines, his eyes focused on his owner to ensure he’ll get up. Kyle gets back on his feet in a second and prepares to go at it again. Tyrone lowers his head, but he still looks worried.

When Kyle was looking to wrestle in college, he looked at FSU, UF and UCF.

“Coach Balma just showed the greatest interest,” Kyle says. “When I applied and was accepted into UCF my senior year [of high school], Coach Balma arranged for a couple of the wrestlers to meet with me and show me around campus. The team sold UCF to me. I decided that I didn’t care if I got into any other schools; this is where I wanted to be.”

At first, Kyle had to learn how to adjust to both UCF and a new wrestling team.

“It’s rough going from being the wrestling team captain, and one of the top guys in the city, to being at the bottom of the totem pole, struggling to make the roster,” he says.

Just as Kyle had to adjust, the UCF team had to adjust as well in order to accommodate Kyle’s needs. One of his teammates will take him by the arm each practice to run around the mat during warm-up. They’ve learned the National Collegiate Wrestling Association rules for wrestling with someone who’s blind — start the match holding fingertips and keep contact the entire time. When the team travels to tournaments out of state, they make sure Tyrone can be taken care of. They’ve accepted Kyle for who he is, but the team doesn’t see him as disabled.

“Kyle fits in so well, and everybody kind of forgets he’s blind,” Assistant Coach Johnny Rouse says. “He’s so acclimated with the team that they don’t think of him as having a drawback.”

Most importantly, Kyle doesn’t see himself that way either. He jokes about his blindness rather than let it get in the way of his life. As of February, his record for the team was at five wins and 12 losses. In addition to being a wrestler and studying communications at UCF, he loves to play guitar and drums, and he’s currently writing an autobiography (he uses a computer just like any other student; a computer program will read him anything on his computer screen). He’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu with his mountaineering team, Team Sight Unseen. Being blind doesn’t hinder Kyle from living extraordinarily.

“There’s probably going to be some operation somewhere down the line [that will allow me to see], but even if there was, I don’t know if I would do it,” he says. “I’m happy with my life. I really am.”

Nicole Lauber is a recent journalism graduate of UCF and currently lives in St. Petersburg.

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