By Clay Latimer
Rocky Mountain News — July 17, 2007
COLORADO SPRINGS – Even at the Olympic Training Center, with its assortment of world-class boxers, swimmers and weight lifters crowding gyms and training rooms, Grace Ohashi is an attention grabber. In the past six months, the 18-year-old has emigrated from Japan, figured out a foreign culture, finished second at the USA Judo Senior National championships, earned a spot in the ongoing Pan American Games and transformed herself into a potential Olympian. And that was the routine part. Ohashi can barely see.
She walks into walls. Uses a walking cane on busy streets. Tumbled down stairs before her national championship match in Miami. Nearly stepped off a dock at Pueblo Reservoir. Can’t see the faces of the women she fights.
In her intense and often violent sport, in fact, it’s a miracle Ohashi, 5-foot-7, 114 pounds, even stays on her feet.
Yet she’ll slip into her baggy cotton uniform Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for her inaugural match in the Pan American Games, less than three years after her first lesson.
And she already is thinking of reaching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, determined to follow in the footsteps of Marla Runyon, a legally blind American track star who competed at the 2000 Sydney and 2004 Athens Olympics.
An impossible dream?
Not in a sport where feel and movement are more important than sight.
“I get scared sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard to adjust to all this. Sometimes I just cry. When I don’t do judo, it feels like I can’t do anything because of my eyes.
“But when I do judo, I feel free.”
Living in Shadows
Hard times rarely depress the irrepressible Ohashi, a natural fighter whose eye problems stretch to childhood.
But she was thrown for a loop when her sight began to deteriorate dramatically in the spring, stranding her in a world of vague shapes and forms.
“I can see their shadows a little bit, but not clearly what they’re doing,” she said of her opponents.
“It’s very hard. I just try to see the shadow, and listen.”
Partly because they lacked her medical records and easy access to her former doctors in Japan, doctors in the U.S. still are conducting tests on Ohashi.
As a result, she isn’t currently eligible for Paralympic events.
“Her lost vision doesn’t presently have a medical diagnosis,” said Nicole Jomantas, USA Judo director of communications and media relations.
Added Ohashi: “It’s very tough. I still don’t know what’s going on.”
In Japan, Ohashi’s American- born mother and Japanese father encouraged her to hide the vision problem because they feared the stigma would bar her from good schools and jobs.
Her friends took notes for Ohashi in school and helped her fake her way through the eye exam of her driver’s license test.
“She’s not upset with her parents. She knows they were doing the best thing for her,” said Colleen Matthews, a teammate at the USA Judo National Training Site.
“Her life would have been a lot harder and a lot less fun when she was growing up if they had made it public.”
Ohashi turned to judo at 15 because it helped her get into a private school, where the sport is as popular as football is in American high schools.
She beat five opponents in the first week, quickly earned a black belt and eventually mastered sophisticated moves that disarmed her American opponents.
“She comes from the Mecca of judo,” said teammate Myles Porter, who also is visually impaired. “She’s a gifted athlete, too.
“And she thinks outside the box. She was always more American in her thinking. She was the rebellious kid in school, the one who said, ‘I’m not conforming to the whole male-dominated society.’
“She was not going to be this reserved Japanese girl.”
No signs of weakness
A year ago, the suggestion Ohashi would be where she is today would have seemed a fantasy – or a joke.
But Ohashi e-mailed Eddie Liddie, USA Judo director of athlete performance, who invited her to a training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., and eventually to the OTC.
“I wanted to study English, to see a big country,” she said. “And it’s my mom’s country.”
Out of habit, Ohashi continued to conceal her impairment.
At practice she would inch her way to the front of the pack when Liddie offered pointers, determined to pick up every nugget.
“Grace is a very tough girl, mentally and physically,” teammate Christal Ransom said. “She doesn’t want anybody to think she needs help. She doesn’t want to show any sign of weakness.
“One day, she dislocated her finger when it got stuck in my judogi (uniform). She just went to the side of the mat, popped it back in, taped it up and got back on the mat. She didn’t need help.”
But Porter wasn’t fooled. A high school and wrestling star in Ohio, he started judo at the University of Toledo, finished fifth at the 2006 Dallas Open against sighted opponents, then moved to the OTC in January.
Like Ohashi, his ailment surfaced in childhood.
“I could tell by the way she was looking at things,” he said. “When someone is looking at their food from 2 inches away, you know there is something wrong with their eyes. Everyone else was saying I was wrong, so I kind of dropped it.
“But one day, we were sitting there eating dinner and I just said: ‘Hey, you’re blind.’ She said, ‘Oh, no, I just have one bad eye.’ When I told Eddie she was blind, he didn’t believe me at first. And he’d tried to teach her how to drive a car.
“He said, ‘Oh, my God, she was driving my car.’ That’s how well she hid it.”
Support from friends
In late January, Ohashi finished fifth in the 2007 British Open, the beginning of a year full of strange twists and surprises.
She was runner-up at the San Jose Buddhist Sensei Memorial Tournament a few weeks later. As the weeks passed her popularity off the mat matched her success on it.
“She’s not just good at judo, she’s a really good person,” Matthews said. “With so many different personalities, people clash sometimes. There are little spats. But when they (find) something wrong with her, she never has something wrong with them. She’s always nice to them.
“The only time I ever saw her stressed out about anything is when her eyesight started going so quickly. I think it was just really shocking to her. She didn’t know what was happening to her. Anyone would be scared or frustrated or confused in that situation.”
The signs hardly were subtle. Ohashi bumped into a water fountain, couldn’t find a door handle, collided with a teammate.
The team, though, quickly rallied around Ohashi.
When Liddie wants to demonstrate a move to the team, for example, he plucks her from the crowd, eager to help a rising star and potential Olympian.
Ohashi is eligible to represent the U.S. in Beijing because her mother is an American native.
“I’d say right at this point she has just as good a chance as anyone at her weight,” Liddie said.
“I like coaching anyone that spunky and dedicated and really cares about what they’re doing. That’s why I stay in business.”
Porter became her judo adviser, confidante, counselor and traveling companion, which can be an adventure, as he discovered on a busy Colorado Springs street.
“She couldn’t see the cars coming,” he said. “She was about ready to walk into the traffic. If she’d kept going, she would’ve gotten hit. I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’
“I was worried about her, but I didn’t want to see her coddled. I was getting yelled at by her friends, saying I was a jerk, that I didn’t care, that I was too hard. But I use the hard-core mentality.”
Feel for her sport
Ohashi was in prime form at the national championships at Florida International University.
To the casual observer it might seem strange she can hold her own against nationally ranked sighted opponents, when the world comes at her in a blur.
“She could see their heads, but not where they’re looking. She couldn’t see how their fingers were moving. It’s like seeing a blurry image,” Porter said.
But a good player such as Ohashi is guided by what she senses and not what she sees.
She doesn’t look directly at her opponent but defends, attacks and counters based on an opponent’s movement and strengths.
“I think it actually helps her because she feels everything,” Matthews said. “And that’s what judo is all about. It’s not like a hand-eye coordination sport. It helps when you’re not paying attention to what you see, but what you’re feeling.”
Ranked fourth in the nation entering the tournament, Ohashi threw No. 1 ranked Franchesca Durand for a yuko (small point) early in their match to advance to the final, an inconceivable situation to many in the national judo community.
“A lot of people didn’t realize she was visually impaired,” said Englewood’s Scott Moore, a visually impaired player who won a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Paralympics.
“They were freaking out about that. It was like, ‘Oh, my God, she beat the No. 1 woman, after just 2 1/2 years of judo. It was a huge accomplishment.
“My sight has been the same all my life. If it suddenly just fell off, I’d like to think I could pull it back together and do what I have to do. But psychologically, I think it’s really difficult – just dealing with not knowing how it’s going to be. I think she’s pretty tough; I think it’s something she’ll get past. But I’m sure it’s something she’ll be thinking about.”
Although she lost to four-time national champion Carrie Chandler in the final, Ohashi clinched a spot in the Pan American Games a month ago.
It was a breakthrough moment for a woman who has come to symbolize the Olympic spirit to her teammates, including Ransom, who recently took Ohashi to Pueblo Reservoir.
“She almost walked off the dock,” Ransom said.
“When I took her out on the lake, I asked her: ‘Can you see the mountains.’ I don’t think she could.
“But she’s adjusted to her problem. She doesn’t ask for special treatment. She just goes out there and fights. I can’t imagine how dangerous she’d be if she could see.”
Judo and beyond
U.S. judo athletes who have made their mark around the world in other areas, according to USA Judo.