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Heart of gold
By AARON MANAGHAN
John Lowry might not be able to see more than two feet in front of him, but that hasnt stopped him from seeing gold.
Lowry, 6 years old, is legally blind, a result of the hereditary condition ocular albinism. But with a lot of heart and hard work, Lowry claimed two gold medals in his tournament debut.
It was fun, the Esquire Hills Elementary School first-grader said. But its boring that I had to wait a long time.
While Lowry has been able to overcome his condition thanks to help from his parents, Walt and Michelle Lowry, and his Do Jang (or school), Team McEuin Taekwondo, the road to his successes were anything but easy.
A life-long condition
At Johns three-month-old checkup, his pediatrician noticed his eyes involuntarily moving back and forth, a symptom of ocular albinism known as nystagmus. Thats when he was diagnosed, Michelle said.
Ocular albinism, a hereditary condition in which the eyes lack melanin pigment while skin and hair show normal or near-normal coloration, has rendered John with 20/200 to 20/400 vision. That means objects a person with normal vision can see at 200 and 400 feet, John cant see until hes 20 feet away. The condition affects less than 200,000 people in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Really, John cant see clearly more than two feet in front of him. As hes gotten older, the family has faced numerous hurdles to overcome.
The older he gets, the more challenges fall into our laps, Michelle said.
First, John was having problem finding his friends at recess.
Also, in first grade, theyre really hitting reading hard, Michelle said. The words were too small. He couldnt see the board.
Those things were fairly easy to overcome, as John simply moved closer in class, for example, but even that came with its own set of challenges.
With school, and with John not being able to see, it was teaching him to be confident enough to talk to the teacher, Michelle said.
Wanting to help him improve his confidence, his parents thought sports would be a good outlet for John.
We did soccer, Michelle said of Johns first foray into athletics. Being very competitive, and John being legally blind, he just wasnt as competitive as what was needed on that team. Team sports just werent Johns thing.
Johns parents began to hear whispers on the sidelines as John would have trouble seeing the ball until it was close to him.
Hes had some tough times, Walt said.
A sport with an extra kick
After looking at the possibility of baseball (and the realization that it too would be tough for John to adjust to), his parents decided to try a martial art, landing on taekwondo.
We thought itd just be a fun experience, Michelle said.
Of course getting John into a martial art came with its own set of parental concerns.
The worst thing you can see is seeing your son or daughter taking a shot to the ribs, Walt said. It kind of worried me at first. But weve got all these big pads. Its safe.
Letting John participate in taekwondo was part of treating him like every other growing boy.
We just have never treated John like hes blind, Michelle said. He can do anything, some just with accommodations.
From the very beginning, John was hooked, thanks largely to instructor Brian McEuin, 21.
Brian was just wonderful with him, Michelle said. The first time (John) went he let John and my daughter flip him. They were just sold.
Well-versed in taekwondo, McEuins family has operated the school since 2000. His brothers, Casey and Jason, also are accomplished taekwondo athletes. Brian himself is a five-time national gold medalist, placing fifth at the world championships as a member of the 2003 junior world team.
I felt it was just another challenge, he said of welcoming John. I actually thought itd be kind of cool to see what we could do with him.
Team McEuin has never been one to turn people away, he said.
I like to say that people in taekwondo are not kids or adults, McEuin said. Theyre instructors and students. In class, everyone bows. Everyone says yes sir, yes maam. Everyone obeys the rules. When were in our school, our gym, everybody is the same.
Having worked with deaf students before, Johns condition presented some unique challenges, as the kicking-based martial art requires close combat. But McEuin said John had no problem transitioning into the class.
A lot of taekwondo, its not all in what youre seeing, McEuin said. A lot is listening to your coaching and learning how to kick.
Weve had some kids that were deaf, he continued. That seemed like it was gonna be hard, but it was actually easy because they were really paying attention. Whats great about John is hes really good at paying attention and listening.
In order to help John, he stands at the front of the class during instruction. McEuin said in terms of the sport itself, it was just teaching him leg positioning and foot placement more than anything else.
There was a lot of physically putting his feet and legs in position to actually learn the kick, he said. But one thing about John, hes got really good muscle memory.
With nine months under his belt, Johns been loving it.
Its fun. Im part of a team, John said. My coach is good. Hes fun. I always have fun. And I work hard because I have to kick hard.
When asked about his sport, John begins to talk with an enthusiasm only a chid can bring. Once he gets going, he can be hard to stop. But thats a good thing, McEuin said.
Oh yeah. Hes got a lot of it., McEuin said of his students enthusiasm. Hes a talker too. Hes funny. He was funny from the day he came in here. It made me feel like this would be simple.
In fact, John blended in so well John looks like your average boy, Michelle said that McEuin had to let his other students know.
Actually, for a while nobody even knew John was blind, McEuin said. There were times where I had to tell some of the kids he cant see. But once they figured that out, they helped John out, helped me out.
Johns confidence built more and more from there.
Self esteem for one, Walt said when asked what his son has gained from the sport. Confidence, the big one. That sense he can do anything he wants to do. There are obstacles, but all it takes is determination, courage and time. And hes got lots of courage.
Going for gold
That courage shown through on March 8, when John competed in his first tournament, the Lees Martial Arts Open at the Tacoma Trade and Convention Center.
With his first competition came some added anxiety for his parents. But McEuin and John laid out some simple goals for his competitive debut.
Pretty much just not take it seriously, McEuin said. Its to have fun. And to understand the other kids arent there to hurt you. But we were also training him hard.
In the competition, John advanced to the finals match for his age group, ending regulation time tied at 7-7. That meant the match would go to sudden death.
It was very exciting, Michelle said. Im not usually a loud person, but I was yelling with the rest of them.
The competition was tough, Walt added.
I was so proud, Johns dad said. He was really fighting this tough kid, sparring him.
John was ready for it.
Im going to put the smack down on the crack down, Mary Stivers said John said before the match.
Since the first point would end the match, McEuin instructed John to use his listening skills more than anything.
Brian said, When you hear me say now, kick, Stivers, McEuins mother who is also involved with the school, said. You have to do it right when you hear me say it. Brian said now, he scored.
He had that look in his eyes like, Yeah, this is it, Walt added.
All you heard was that (slap) of the pad, Walt continued, slapping his own chest pad to recreate the sound. I was taking pictures but my eyes were tearing up.
Walt wasnt alone. That point gave John his first victory and a gold medal.
I was pretty proud personally, McEuin said. He had a big crowd when he was fighting. I think he had the whole audience in tears. You wouldnt have been able to tell theres anything wrong with his eyes. Its really amazing.
Another interesting caveat for Johns family was that the scoreboard at the tournament was much larger than normal. It was large enough in fact that for the first time John could see it.
It was big enough that John could look at it, Michelle said. It was just kind of neat because its not normally something hed look at.
That experience only helped grow his love of the sport.
Ive won three gold medals so far, John said. Its pretty fun. Im really fast. Its really hard, but I work hard all the time.
His parents said theyve noticed more and more the benefits for their son.
Its wonderful, Michelle said. Its great exercise. Hes always excited to go. And the older kids have just embraced him. Its been a really positive experience for us.
Fun for the family
Shorlty after John started, he convinced his dad to join him.
He said, Hey dad, youre a dad but you should try this. Its a lot of fun, Walt said.
Walt did, and the two have only grown closer since.
This is the best, Walt said. This is the high point of my week. Father-son bonding, being with a team. Its really fun.
McEuin said it benefits both father and son in class and out.
Its great to see John kick that high, McEuin said of the pair sparring. And dads pushing him. Its making John better. And for Walt, its fun. Its a bonding experience.
Johns 4-year-old sister Angela joined for a while before deciding to trade in her pads for ballet shoes. Still, with the travel involved and the sense of community within the school, the Lowrys have become a taekwondo family.
We are a taekwondo family, Walt said. We talk taekwondo. Its something we all have an interest in. This is a family thing.
Next to Johns newfound confidence, thats also what Michelle has enjoyed most.
Thats a lot of fun to see them get all ready for class, practicing their kicks and forms, she said of her husband and son. Its been nice bonding time for them. Anything with dad, hes happy.
Of course for John, getting to spar with dad has its own advantages.
(I like) kicking him hard, John said. I can get him a lot. But sometimes dads get really busy and they dont have time to do taekwondo.
Still, he finds plenty of time to use dad as a practice dummy, Walt said prompting a new rule.
Kick the kick bag and not your dad, John said.
More important than any medal have been the skills and lessons John has learned in his short time with Team McEuin taekwondo, Michelle said.
Its really built his confidence, she said. He plans on being a black belt and then moving on to other martial arts. Its something hes really latched onto and wants to continue.
Johns just a prime example of what all kids can be doing, McEuin said. Its just a matter of finding adults that can work with them.
Now, John is learning braille, although his condition is a stable one and will not necessarily get worse over time.
Hes picking it up like you wouldnt believe, Michelle said.
Part of whats enabled John to do so much is that hes never been treated like a victim.
He wasnt really aware of it, Michelle said of his condition. John, hes never seen 20/20. He doesnt know any different.
Thats helped him stay positive in the face of challenges like those hes encountered with taekwondo.
Its amazing, McEuin said. Its almost like he does see it. Hes got brains, thats for sure.
John said hes taken much from taekwondo.
They help me learn a lot, John said. How to kick hard, spar and just have fun.
Thats something everyone deserves a shot at, McEuin said.
Kids deserve a chance to find something they love doing, something for fun, he said.
John has certainly found his.
I just love taekwondo, John said with a wide grin. Its fun, fun, fun.