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Photograph by Mary Spicuzza

Blind Faith

Blind judo athlete Marlon Lopez sets his sights on a world-class gold medal

by Mary Spicuzza

MARLON LOPEZ doesn't look any different from his black-belted peers as his judo team begins its warm-ups. He hurries in a few minutes after a dozen or so teammates have already assembled. Despite the late start, the San Jose State University student has no trouble keeping up as everyone runs laps and begins stretching.

Still, the dojo, or studio, looks very different to Lopez, a 24-year-old senior who hopes to graduate this June with a kinesiology major and nutrition minor. Lopez has 20/400 vision and sees a world of shadows, blurred figures and colors. Yet in the high-intensity studio of Yoshihiro Uchida Hall, known as a national hot spot for the sport, Lopez doesn't get special treatment. And judging by his impressive collection of medals, he doesn't need it.

Like everyone else, he endures torment from his peers.

"You're doing a story on Marlon?" a teammate asks with a smile. "So that's why he came to practice."

Despite the teasing, Lopez seems to be doing something right. He won a gold medal at the Pan Am Union games held in Colorado Springs last October, which included athletes from both North and South America. Along with six other U.S. athletes, Lopez qualified for the world-class Paralympic Games to be held in Sydney, Australia, next October.

Founded in the late 1800s by Jigoro Kano, a pacifist who saw martial arts as a path to living in peace with others, judo involves throws, grappling and striking. Like wrestling, it requires such constant physical contact that one wonders whether being blind gives competitors an edge by encouraging them to trust their other senses.

"Some say that you've got to feel the guy, that you can't see his feet when you're wrestling anyway," Lopez says. "From time to time I know what he's going to do before he does it. Not usually, though. But there are some totals [totally blind participants] who are forced to do it all by feel."

Lopez is considered a partial, or partially blind. He lost his sight when he was 9 years old due to complications from Johnson's syndrome and a severe reaction to medication.

Four years later a class he didn't take at the Braille Youth Center in Los Angeles changed his life.

"Fitness was one class, judo was another," Lopez says. "I was taking fitness, but one day there was a judo competition across the hall. I saw it, and I was hooked."

While Lopez may have initially started just for the exercise, eight years later he has numerous tournament victories under his black belt. He won a silver medal at the 1996 Junior Collegiate tournament, and bronzes at both the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta and the 1998 world championships in Madrid.

"But I'm going for the gold in Sydney," he says, smiling from behind a pair of slick shades.

Skeptics may shrug off the ability of a blind athlete who can beat other totally or partially blind competitors, but Lopez has grappled with plenty of fully sighted opponents and come out on top.

Walter Dean, Lopez's team leader, writes, "One of our major problems is that we do not realize that these athletes are the best in the world. Often confused with the Special Olympics, in the Paralympics are the world's best judo athletes that happen to be blind."

Dean is trying to raise money for Lopez, calling his cause "Americans Appeal to Americans."

A foursome of San Jose State students have noticed Lopez's unique abilities and also taken up the cause. Carlos Borva, a physical education graduate student, and three other students enrolled in Nancy Megginson's human performance graduate seminar have made fundraising for Lopez their semester project.

While the United States Association of Blind Athletes will pay for Lopez's trip to Madrid, the Colorado-based organization doesn't have the funding to send him to the preparatory tournaments before his big competition.

"I'm going to be pretty nervous," Lopez confesses. "I'll need all the help I can get."

Borva, a full-time physical education teacher at Piedmont Middle School and part-time masters student, met Lopez through Megginson. But he knows that practice sessions don't compare with real tournament experiences and wants to see Lopez get his well-deserved gold.

As for Lopez's future beyond Sydney, he says that he will keep doing judo but may shift from tournament-focused training to recreational workouts. When asked about his post-graduation plans, the soon-to-be graduate makes it clear that his mind is now on the sport.

"People keep asking me about my career plans, and I don't know what to tell them," Lopez says, with the unmistakable angst-ridden tone of a typical college senior. "Right now I'm just trying to focus on judo. I'll think about that after Sydney."

Those wishing to lend support can contribute to Marlon Lopez, U.S. Association of Blind Athletes (USABA-Judo Team), 33 N. Institute, Colorado Springs, CO 80903. For details, call 719.630.0422.

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From the April 27-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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