James Cheek, who attended Nevada High School, wrestled with a team from Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired (IESBVI) at the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind (NCASB) Conference Tournament held in Janesville, Wis., on Jan. 20. This year, the IESBVI Rams included five wrestlers from across Iowa who are blind or visually impaired. They placed fourth among the 10 competing teams. The Iowa team has not placed in this tournament since the early 1970s.

Cheek finished third in an 8-man bracket, receiving a first-round bye. In the semifinals, he lost by fall to Carlos Mendrano of Tennessee. “He stormed back through consolation matches with two quick first-period pins,” said his coach, Jay Colsch, who is the northeast regional director for IESBVI. “He pinned Jackson Pruett of Kansas in 38 seconds, then claimed third place by pinning Ronnay Howard of Wisconsin in 17 seconds. He finished with three wins and one loss on the day. Cheek records four wins against three losses in this first year of NCASB wrestling.”

The wrestlers work around challenges their sighted peers do not encounter. They are also creative in solving the miles of separation between them. Members of the IESBVI team live not only in Iowa City, but in Hinton, Council Bluffs, Nevada and Marshalltown. Colsch relies on local volunteer and assistant coaches to review wrestling basics a few times during the season, and occasionally gathers the team together for group practices. The Rams participate in a camp and a dual meet before the NCASB Conference Tournament.

The wrestling season begins in December and ends in late January. This year, the team met in Iowa City for group practice, traveled to Dubuque for a day-long camp with wrestlers from Wisconsin, and traveled to Jacksonville, lll., for a dual meet.

“There are inherent differences in strategies used when coaching wrestlers who are blind,” said Colsch, who has coached the IESBVI Rams for the past two years. He previously coached wrestling at Waukon Junior High, Waterloo West High School and Waverly-Shell Rock High School. The team uses a rope to mark mat boundaries, and fan belts are often used for coaches to guide athletes when running laps. Building strength and endurance for overall conditioning is not simple, but usually modifications can be found.

His wrestlers benefit from 1:1 demonstration of moves, as well as competition against other wrestlers of similar age, weight and skill level. “There is a need for practice partners, who have functional vision, to allow wrestlers who are blind or visually impaired the opportunity to feel how moves work,” said Colsch. “As coaches, we encourage practice partners to help one another successfully execute moves before gradually applying resistance.” When demonstrating a move, Colsch typically explains why the move works so his wrestlers develop confidence in using that move.

Colsch notes the importance of celebrating progress that eventually leads to personal victory.

“As wrestlers continue to make progress, winning is just something that begins to happen,” he said. “It’s a threshold that they eventually cross. Our coaches are quick to point out what our wrestlers do well when they compete. Then, we build upon that.

“Wrestling is so personal,” he said. “It takes courage to compete in this sport — knowing spectators will judge your abilities in comparison to those of your competitors. Losses can be humbling. On the other hand, wrestling can also be the most rewarding of all sports in the sense that success is achieved through personal courage, strength, endurance and technique. It builds confidence and character.”

One of Cheek’s teammates placed first in his weight division; others placed second and third. The other wrestler did not place. “I am pleased with the team’s effort and how they all placed,” said Colsch. “Even the wrestler who did not place led at times during both of his matches.”

Twelve states participate in the NCASB, which hosts competitions for member schools and programs for students who are blind and visually impaired. Aside from wrestling, hosted competitions include cheerleading, forensics, goalball, swimming and track.