Sorry it’s been a while since my last update, but I have literally been around the world and back. Took a while. First off there was a trip I took to Turkmenistan in the spring. I was asked to go by the U.S. State Department as a Sports Envoy. When I first received the news, I had no idea what I would be doing or what they required of me. To be honest, I had never even heard of Turkmenistan. I was just amazed that out of so many people I was chosen. It is still hard for me to fathom everything that has happened to me and that continues to happen to me.
I soon learned that Turkmenistan is in between Afghanistan and Iran, but it is not an Islamic government. Turkmenistan was once a part of Russia and now has its own dictatorship. The U.S Embassy in Turkmenistan wanted to help strengthen our ties with the Turkmen people through sport. They decided to do that through the sport of blind judo because Turkmenistan does not have a Paralympic Judo team. The State Department saw the ESPN story that aired in 2013 and thought that I would be a perfect fit. They also chose Paralympic national team coach Heidi Moore, and Lisa’s husband, Navid. Navid is a physician, and in Turkmenistan, there is an unfounded belief that if blind or visually impaired people participate in any physical activity, their vision will worsen. Because of this, blind and visually impaired people were not allowed to participate in sports. We wanted to prove to them that this was not correct.
When we got to Turkmenistan the schools and judo clubs were really skeptical about letting visually impaired people try judo, but after the first class that Heidi and I taught, and Navid’s presentation on visually impaired athletes in the U.S, they jumped at the idea of having letting blind kids workout with us. Seeing children and adults alike, run, jump, and actually play around for the first time was breath taking.
Early on in our week there, we put on a clinic for Turkmenistan’s Olympic judo athletes. They were very skeptical, wondering what they could possibly learn from a blind guy. But after I threw them around a little, they respected me and began asking all kind of questions through the interpreter. Heidi and I were able to teach them some new techniques and ways of training. We invited them back the next day for the blind judo clinic, and to our surprise they not only came, but also helped to teach the blind children who were trying judo for the first time. We were told that having their top athletes interact with disabled people was a first, that a huge barrier came down that day. Gotta admit, I cried a little when I got back to my room that night.
Turkmenistan is a pretty crazy place, but I’d go back again any time. The best part about the whole trip was the impact that we had on these people who were told their whole life that they could not do sports because it was too dangerous. I am learning just how much my once-perceived weaknesses can be used for good and meaningful purposes. You can see more photos from Turkmenistan by following the Multimedia link of our website.
This past spring, I also did a few speaking engagements for the Franklin Covey Foundation. They are well-known for the book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and now they do educational conferences to help teachers teach the habits to their students. They requested me and Lisa to speak and use our story to inspire teachers to invest in students like me who may have a lot of things working against them growing up, to show them that with a little love and support, it’s never too late. They flew us out to Kentucky and Columbus, Ohio, and each trip was a great experience.
In April, me, Lisa and Leroy were asked to speak at a conference for Gibson, Crutcher and Dunn, which is a law firm. One of the lawyers saw our story and requested that we speak about poverty and teamwork. He felt that the law firm had lost their sense of family and thought our story was perfect to share. We didn’t know what to expect, but everyone was so welcoming to us and generous in supporting our future goal. The conference was at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado, and while we were there, Leroy and I got to hang out, and Lisa and I got to dance at their after party. We also had the amazing chance to see Lisa almost murder a waitress for trying to take her waffle in caramel sauce before she was done with it one morning. The whole experience was fantastic.
This past April, I traveled to Brazil for the Grand Prix Infraero in Santo Andre, Brazil. There were more than 150 visually impaired judo athletes from a dozen countries. I went 3-1 for the day, with three Ippon victories. My only loss was to Sam Ingram from Great Britain. He is the same guy who I lost to in London in 2012. I fought him much better than I did in London and came close to beating him, but now I know what I need to do next time we fight. (Can’t tell you what it is in case he reads this. Ha!) Still, it was my first tournament in eight months because of my shoulder injury, so I was pretty happy.
In May, I took gold at the U.S. Championships in Reno, NV. The rest of this summer is really busy for me. I am traveling to multiple training camps throughout the country in order to peak for the International Association of Blind Athletes World Games September 4-6th. Two years ago, they were in Turkey. This year, Colorado Springs is hosting them. It’s my first qualifier to Rio 2016, so if you are anywhere near Colorado in September, you better get your judo on and come cheer me on.
Also this summer, I was promoted to black belt and learned a bunch of new songs on my saxophone. Sometimes I don’t know which I’m more excited about.