'You don’t have to see to wrestle': Legally blind high school wrestler wins state championship

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Jay Spencer is legally blind, but it hasn’t stopped him from wrestling — or bringing home the first state wrestling title in the school’s history. (Getty Images)
Jay Spencer is legally blind, but it hasn’t stopped him from wrestling — or bringing home the first state wrestling title in the school’s history. (Getty Images)

Jay Spencer is a high school senior and varsity wrestler at St. John Paul II (Alabama) High School. On Sunday he won the state title, becoming the first wrestling athlete in school history to win a state title.

That would be an accomplishment for any high school athlete. But it holds even more meaning for Spencer, because he’s been legally blind since he was a child.

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Spencer learns by feel — and a lot of practice

Spencer was diagnosed with Leber congenital amaurosis 10 (LCA 10) when he was just 3, which currently limits his vision to just a corner of his left eye. But it didn’t stop him from falling in love with wrestling, and he’s been doing it since he was 5 or 6. He wrestled in middle school, but when he watched high school wrestling, he was determined to be part of it. Spencer told AL.com that high school wrestling made him think “Wow, I can compete and be part of something great.”

Spencer tried several sports (he also played varsity football for St. John Paul II High School), but says that wrestling is the easiest to pick up because it can be learned “by feel.”

“It does have some challenges, but I can ask coach, ‘Can you practice that one with me?’ or say ‘Let me work it on you and correct me if it’s wrong’; nothing that things like that can’t fix.”

James Dowd, Spencer’s coach at St. John Paul II High School, had doubts at first. But he was quickly convinced by Spencer’s dedication. Via AL.com:

“He proved me wrong wrestling against him,” Dowd said. “As his coach, I’ve seen his work ethic. He’s made it work. It is a touch sport. It’s right in his wheelhouse. You don’t have to see to wrestle.”

Saying that Spencer learns “by feel” is a little deceptive, though. Assistant coach Duke Labasi told AL.com that Spencer would never admit that his eyesight is a challenge, but it requires him to put in a lot of additional time learning the moves.

“He knows that he has to put in extra work. He won’t admit it, but he’s behind the power curve, because it’s not easy to show him moves. You don’t show him anything, everything is a feel for him.”

Despite those challenges, Dowd said that Spencer’s very limited sight can actually help him sometimes. “He can’t get frightened by the venue or by the opponent. He doesn’t get intimidated. All he knows is it’s a pair of hands about to touch him, and that’s it.”

Spencer doesn’t know if he’ll wrestle again. He’s received interest from several Division II and III schools, but he’s not sure what his future holds. It’s possible, however, that Jay’s future could include getting his sight back.

A possible cure?

The Spencers were alerted to a gene-editing procedure that could lead to cure for LCA 10 in September. The procedure locates the related gene and then snips out the mutated portion. After the surgery, Spencer’s vision would slowly get better over time.

The procedure is still in clinical trials, and Spencer has been accepted to Phase 2 of the program. There was a worry about timing though, since Spencer said he wouldn’t be able to participate in the surgery trial until after the state championships. But things ended up working perfectly: Phase 1 was delayed, so Phase 2 surgeries haven’t yet started. And Spencer is ready whenever he gets the call. Via AL.com:

“I’m still just kind of waiting anxiously,” Spencer said, “because I’m not sure when I’ll hear back from them saying, ‘Yes, we’re going to go ahead start with the trial.’ That could this week or that could be two months from now. I guess my emotions haven’t really changed (from first hearing about the potential cure), but I am still excited and hopeful.”

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