Clear view ahead for legally blind wrestler

PORT ANGELES ¬­– Brian Hergert’s nose presses against the computer screen.

A wrestling match he’d finished a few hours earlier plays inches from his face.

The Port Angeles High School freshman moves his head about at different angles to get a better view through his thick Coke-bottle glasses in an attempt to dissect the 103-pound varsity match.

His eyes make out only the colors and outlines of the two grapplers on the screen in front of him, but he can still illustrate the scene’s detail to his family.

Even after he turns away from the screen he continues to describe the action as it is happening.

Of course, legally blind almost from birth, Hergert never actually saw the match as everyone else in that gym, including his opponent, did.

Yet the sounds coming from his computer illuminate every action as he recalls those few moments on the mat.

“I listen to it,” he said. “I can remember what’s going on.”

Hergert desperately wants to claim his first win.

So much so that he talks about it constantly to anyone who will listen . . . about the time he almost pinned his man in Port Townsend and North Kitsap, about the time he made it into the third round in Sequim and Kingston.

Any piece of information he can get, even the little he sees on his computer screen, he consumes and digests voraciously.

“I think that’s all he talks about anymore is wrestling,” Brian’s mother, Teresa, said. “He feels just like anybody else [wrestling], that he really isn’t different.

“People think that you are different, but you really aren’t.”

Different circumstances

Brian and his twin brother, Brandon, were born 13 weeks premature.

The circumstances of their early births made both prime candidates for retinopathy of prematurity, a disease of the eye that can result in retinal detachment and in some serious cases, blindness.

Both contacted it. Brandon was able to recover without losing his vision. Brian wasn’t quite as fortunate.

Despite multiple surgeries, his left retina ended up fully detached. His right eye remained intact, but only provides what doctors describe as “useful vision.”

Shapes, outlines and colors are apparent to him, especially if he’s wearing his glasses.

But he can’t read a chalk board, count fingers past two feet or make out facial distinctions. He reads books in Braille and has a special program that reads off Web pages on his computer.

Before this winter, the only sport he’d ever played outside of physical education class was T-Ball. Once live pitchers were introduced, he went to the sidelines.

So while his twin brother was competing and excelling in the world of air rifle shooting — his team, the Capital City Junior Rifle team in Olympia, qualified for the National Junior Olympics this summer — Brian was without a sport.

When his special education instructor Tim Roos approached Erik Gonzalez in December about Brian joining Port Angeles’ wrestling team, the longtime head coach was all ears.

“I thought ‘Absolutely,’ ” Gonzalez said. “There’s been lots of substantiated stories around the country of blind kids that have gone on to have great success.

In my mind it was the perfect sport for him.”

Feeling it out

Gonzalez has always taught his wrestlers to feel an opponent.

In previous seasons he’s blindfolded wrestlers during practice sessions in order to give them a better sense of “feel.”

“Wrestling is really a feel sport more than it is a visual sport,” Gonzalez said.

“Your sight, it’s important, but having said that, it’s more of a feel sport than it is a sight sport. In that respect it’s not really difficult [to teach Brian] because you’re trying to teach a guy how to feel certain things.”

Given his limited vision, feel is pretty much all Hergert has to work with. In order to learn new moves, he must feel the actions of his teammates movement by movement.

During practices, assistant coach Tom Wahl designates a wrestler who will work with Hergert.

They lead him around the mat during drills and warm-up sessions and help him learn new techniques. Every day another wrestler volunteers.

“It’s been fun and a challenge to figure out how to transmit information,” Wahl said.

“But we’ve gone from just single moves [the first few weeks] to now I’m having the kids put together all their moves in a series. Now we’re even challenging him even further to put them all together.

“He’s coming along a little bit. He doesn’t advance as quickly, but he is learning. Balance and position challenge him, but he’s getting better and better. It’s just like with any wrestler, he just needs mat time.”

In search of victory

The rules are simple for Hergert’s matches: He and his opponent must maintain contact from the opening whistle.

The referee has them clench hands to begin the match, and if contact is broken, he stops the clock and locks both wrestlers back into place.

“I’m trying to pin the person,” Hergert said when asked to explain what he does during matches.

“What I’ve kind of gotten myself to start off with I would pull their wrists and try to get behind them so I can pick him up and put him in the referee’s position on the mat.”

Hergert has made his way out onto the mat eight times this season, losing each match by either pin or decision. It’s a fact that has not been lost on him.

“I would do anything to get that first win,” he said. “The one goal I have is I want to pin someone. Get first [in a tournament] and pin someone.”

He lost out on that chance at the end of the regular season after contacting an infection on his left knee prior to the Battle for the Axe two weeks ago.

Rather than face off against the Port Townsend wrestler he’d come so close to pinning, he was stuck in a hospital having his knee drained.

The injury also kept him out of the sub-district tournament last weekend, effectively ending his season. His career, however, is just beginning.

“I’m a little addicted to [wrestling],” Hergert said. “I’m definitely sticking with it. This is really one of the sports I can physically get hands on, so I like all of it, everything.

“When you can throw them on to the mat, and all the other stuff there is to it, there’s nothing that I don’t like about it.”

If his knee can heal in time, Hergert is already talking about joining the Peninsula’s freestyle club team in the spring. Whatever it takes to get better.

“[Wrestling] gave him a chance to be more involved in an organized sport, or anything organized for that matter,” his father, Kevin said. “Brian seems to have a hard time fitting in with other people. This wrestling team has really boosted his confidence a whole bunch, from the coaches right down to the wrestlers.

“He’s really focussed in on what’s happening at that time. He really learns a lot. When he goes into the second or third round, then he says, ‘Well I made it that much further.’ “

Said Gonzalez, “He says every day, ‘I’m going to win tonight. It’s exciting to hear his excitement and dedication. It’s an inspiration for all of us.

“It reminded me of why I do what I do. It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about the growth we are able to provide the kids.”

Try telling that to Brian when he’s sitting in front of his computer.

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Sports Reporter Matt Schubert can be reached at 360-417-3526 or at matt.schubert@peninsuladailynews.com.