Even without sight, Jim Mastro is a visionary

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Jim Mastro was born blind in his right eye. All he could see out of it were intermittent flashes of light.

Thank god for two eyes.

But when Mastro was 11, in a boys-will-be-boys "sword fight," a neighborhood kid inadvertently thrust a curtain rod in the direction of his head. It found his left eye, the good one.

A series of delicate and complex surgeries in 1960, along with Coke-bottle-thick glasses, saved his sight. His doctors couldn't guarantee anything, but he could see again. And so as he grew into a teenager, he stormed into wrestling, leapt into gymnastics, threw himself into the shot put.

He was good.

But at age 17, about to enter his senior year in high school, as his doctors feared it would, his left retina detached. What Mastro describes as "a green curtain" slowly shaded his world. Colors and distance, faces and stationary objects, turned into memories.

Forty-two years ago, darkness fell on Jim Mastro.

In some ways, his story began right there, the lift-off to four decades of remarkable achievements that will be celebrated at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this weekend in Stillwater, Okla. There, Mastro, 59, will receive the Medal of Courage because, says Lee Roy Smith, the hall's executive director, "What he has accomplished over the years, given what most people would perceive as some sort of handicap or disability, is simply quite extraordinary, on the mat and off the mat."

For example, while a student at Augsburg College in Minnesota, Mastro won the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference 177-pound wrestling title. He was an alternate to the able-bodied U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling squad at the 1976 Montreal Games. He competed on six U.S. Paralympics teams and a host of blind international wrestling teams. He won medals in wrestling, judo, shot put, discus and "Goalball," an indoor game that merges soccer, bowling and team handball.

He also played and helped promote the growth of "Beep Baseball" for the blind, in which the softball beeps and bases buzz.

Meanwhile, he earned a Ph.D. in adapted and developmental physical education. He is a fourth-degree black belt in judo. He holds a tenured professorship at Bemidji (Minn.) State University. He has been married to his wife, Cheryl, for 33 years; and they have two children.

After the ceremony in Stillwater, Okla., on Saturday night, Mastro will return to northern Minnesota to supervise his annual labor of love, the Northern Plains Vision of Sports Camp for blind kids.

"People don't always feel that recreation, sports or athletics is important for people who are blind or, generally, disabled," Mastro says. "Never have these kids held a bat or run as fast as they can to a base, or done judo and had the feel of throwing someone. Without those opportunities, without the camp, they might not have the chance to do that."

Talk about a role model. Mastro has always seemed to find ways to get where he wants to go. History shows he lost his eyesight, but not his vision.

It is a recent Tuesday night in your standard-issue Division II gymnasium on a movie-set-like State U. campus in the Middle of Nowhere, Minnesota. Bemidji, a town of about 13,000, is 230 miles northwest of Minneapolis and known, mostly, as the curling capital of the United States. It produced both the men's and women's teams for the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics.

It is also home to Bemidji State, where Dr. James V. Mastro is a professor of professional education.

Here, on campus in the Memorial Hall gym, with mats neatly creating an island of white against the shiny basketball floor, Mastro conducts a judo class for about 20 students of various levels of competence.

In a white judogi, secured to his strong, squat body by a black belt, he stands barking out instructions as his charges sit around him, cross-legged on the mats.

"OK, all right, pair up," he says. "Those people who are new, pair up with somebody old. Try to turn them over and pin them. Everybody understand?"

Some students nod. That won't work for Mastro.

"Say 'aye!'" Mastro instructs.

The group responds: "Aye."

Mastro commands respect. At 5-foot-8, he is a powerful 200 pounds, a compulsive exerciser. Four or five days a week, he runs up and down 176 steps of Bemidji State's Tamarack Hall dormitory, repeating that climb and descent 15 times per workout.

Once, to raise money for his family to travel and watch him at the Paralympics, he lifted a 45-pound weightlifting bar 1,300 times in 15 minutes. Another time, before another Paralympics, he knocked off 3,076 pushups in an hour. A friend said, "Jim, I didn't get any pictures. Can you do a couple more?"

The Herculean feats are necessary because training on elliptical machines or treadmills involves pushing buttons that Mastro can't see, reading instructions that he can't feel.

Thus, the dorm steps.

"Go up 16 stairs, make a right, make a right, make a right," he says. "I get to the top. And go down, left, left, left. Do it again."

Students in the dorm know to expect him at around 9:45 a.m. They get out of the way.

For an exercise fanatic who is blind, running on a track or jogging on a street requires a human guide. Without one … well, stuff happens.

Years ago, when he was teaching in Minneapolis, he thought he had mastered a jog around his suburban block. There were no sidewalks. He knew where to turn. He knew how many steps he needed to get from his front door to the street. He was set.

Until a UPS truck making a delivery parked on the street one day as Mastro made his turn around the corner.


"I hit that thing and, wow!" he remembered of what brown did for him.

Still, he bounced back. Mastro always does.

"What I like about Jim is that I don't think he's ever felt sorry for himself," says Andy Piller, who earned his own judo black belt under his mentor, Mastro. Piller, 37, is a Bemidji veterinarian. "I asked him once if he was depressed at the time he lost sight in his good eye, and he said, 'No.' I think it's human nature to feel sorry for yourself, but not Jim. … He probably is the most confident guy I've met in my whole life as far as somebody who thinks he can do anything."

Later that night, over soup, a sandwich, 1980s music and NHL games on multiple-TVs at the local Applebee's, Cheryl and Jim reminisce.

They met at a friend's wedding and were immediately attracted. They both were students at Minneapolis's Augsburg College, and Cheryl had seen Jim around campus. Because he had mastered the lay of the land and, as always, knew how many steps were required to move from hither to yon, Cheryl, from a distance, wasn't sure exactly how blind Mastro was.

"His mobility was incredible," she says.

After their first encounter, they spoke by phone.

"He said to me, 'I'll pick you up,'" Cheryl remembers. "I asked, 'Well, do you drive?' Smart-aleck that he is, he said, 'Oh, sure, I just stick my cane out the window and everybody gets out of the way.'"

Their marriage, a year later, was met with some skepticism, especially by Cheryl's father, Art.

"There are certain stereotypes," she says. "My dad just couldn't get past the stereotypes."

Added Mastro: "People still have stereotypes of a blind person who sells pencils on the street corner. That was my stereotype because that's the only blind person I had ever seen before. Even now, as a professor, when I have to talk to a physiologist or kinesiologist or biomechanist, they have a stereotype of what people can or cannot do."

Indeed, after he earned his Ph.D., it took Mastro 13 years to get a full-time teaching job. He believes universities weren't ready for a blind professor, even one who specializes in teaching prospective teachers about the exercise needs of disabled people.

"It's not necessarily what Jim can or can't do,'' Cheryl says. "It's what society lets him do."

The next morning, in his everything-in-its-place office on the third floor of the Education Arts Building, Mastro sits in front of the laptop computer that speaks his e-mails to him in a robotic voice. A white cane with a tennis ball at its tip leans against the wall.

Mastro, his right eye partially shut, his left eye milky and minus an identifiable eyeball, turns his attention to the sport he loves and why it's right for someone with visual impairment.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, all the action occurs above the waist. There are no dives for the feet, no tackles. It's about upper body strength and throws.

"It's a sweet style for a wrestler who is blind," Mastro says. "You don't have to worry about leg attacks, about tripping."

At the start of a match, when his opponents had to move in closer, he could hear them. He could feel them. Attacks came from short distances.

But once, an opponent attempted to trick him.

"The guy tried to sneak around me," he says. "He went towards my right side. I felt him. I heard him. I headlocked him and pinned him. That was the last guy who tried that."

Still, his blindness brings poignant questions his way. Still, he longs for certain things. Still, he is perceived in certain ways.

Once, a blind friend asked him: Jim, what color is the wind?

"How the heck do you answer that?" Mastro says. "How do you understand that?"

And, yes, having seen once but no longer, he knows what he's missing.

"I miss being able to see," he says softly. "I've never seen my kids and I've never seen my wife. I'd like that."

Mastro cringes a bit at the "courage" part of the Medal of Courage he'll receive in Oklahoma. After all, he didn't rescue children from a burning building or leap on a hand grenade on the field of battle.

"Does it take courage for you to participate in a sporting event in competition?" he says. "I think of it as part of a normal life. It's courageous for everyone to go out and compete. It takes guts to go out there, you against the other person, and put your ego on the line and do well. I don't think I have any more courage than anyone else because I'm blind doing that.

"Now, I'm really honored to be getting that award and to be part of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame because wrestling has been a large part of my life. But courage? I don't know. I see sports as providing everyone with a normal life, completely."

But here's what's clear to see: Through sports, Jim Mastro opens our eyes to the power and spirit of achievement.

Jay Weiner is a sports journalist in St. Paul, Minn., who can be reached at jay@jayweiner.com.