• Blind wrestling team inspires at Oklahoma school

    By: Jeff Kolb

    MUSKOGEE, Okla. -

    Quick Facts:

    • A group of wrestlers at an Oklahoma school is inspiring those on and off the mat.
    • Students at the Oklahoma School for the Blind overcome numerous challenges in competitions and every day life.
    • WATCH the full story on FOX23 News at 5
    You'd be hard pressed to find anybody call wrestling an easy sport.

    Maybe that's why wrestlers at the Oklahoma School for the Blind gravitate to the sport. Easy isn't something they're used to.

    "Our kids have had to overcome more obstacles," said head coach Rob Culie. "To see them succeed is the biggest reward I can get."

    There are nine wrestlers on this year's team and they've all overcome their own challenges.

    Jonathon Phelps, 16, from Valiant, Oklahoma, is fully blind.

    "I am blind with a little bit of light perception," said Phelps. "I can see shadows. If a truck or a shelf - if something is outside I can kind of tell before I hit it. That's about all I can see."

    Phelps was born at 26 weeks with retinopathy of prematurity.

    "The doctors told my mom when I was born that I would be a vegetable or I wouldn't make it," said Phelps.

    Kinzie Peters was also born with retinopathy of prematurity.

    "I was born premature three months," said Peters, 16, from Ponca City. "It's had its challenges but I've overcome those."

    Tai-yauri Thomas basically came into the world with cancer.

    "I was diagnosed with retinoblastoma when I was 18 months (old)," said Thomas, 16, from Oklahoma City. "I went through (chemotherapy) and radiation up until I was 2 or 3."

    Cameron Hughes deals with two visual impairments.

    "Esotropia is where both my eyes push inwards," said Hughes, 17, of Broken Bow. "I don't feel it, and I'm very glad I do not. Nystagmus is where my eyes move uncontrollably."

    Owasso native Conner Hilton can relate to them all.

    "I was basically born blind," said Hilton, 16. "I can see out of one eye and that's it."

    In a world that's always counted them out, these kids have been fighting from the start.

    "They tried to tell me that my vision was going to stop me," said Thomas.

    "It bothered me a lot, so I wanted to prove them wrong," said Peters. "So I did."

    They do their proving on the wrestling mat. It's a neutral playing ground; really the main sport they can compete in against other athletes with full vision.

    "It gives me the feeling I have power," said Peters.

    The only alteration to a match with a blind wrestler is that both wrestlers have to be in contact with each other at all times. If not, the ref stops the match and has them reset.

    It's a place where nobody can tell these wrestlers that because they can't see, they can't do.

    "You're not in my shoes right now, so you can't really be saying that I can't," said Hughes.

    It's always harder when they wrestle athletes that can see, but when they win those matches, there's no greater feeling.

    But it's the team that's given them more than any match can. They call each other a family. It's a word many teams use but in the case of the Oklahoma School for the Blind, it probably carries a little bit more truth. The school is residential, so the kids not only practice and compete together but go to school together, eat every meal together and live there.

    Seeing their commitment to the sport and each other inspires their coach every day.

    "The care and the love and the passion that they have - they push me to be a better person," said Culie.

    As for the future, the sport has given them confidence these kids say they'll take with them off the mat.

    In Kinzie Peters' case, she hopes to stay on the mat and take her skills to the next level: college.

    "I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to even though I am visually impaired," said Peters.

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