U teacher trains for Paralympics

by Tris Wykes

Jim Mastro’s workouts can be hit or miss propositions.
Like any dedicated athlete, the 47-year old Mastro is a training zealot. Weight-lifting, sprints and technical workouts all hone his abilities as an international competitor in judo, the discus and the shot put.
But every now and then, Mastro, who is blind and a University physical education instructor, gets pointed in the wrong direction.
Take the time he was jogging through his Fridley neighborhood, he unwittingly entered a church parking lot and became disoriented.
“I was lost in that parking lot for 15 minutes,” Mastro said with a hearty laugh. “I knew there was a driveway, but I couldn’t find it. I finally had to stand still and wait for a car to come by so I could tell where the road was.”
Another hazard of Mastro’s jogs is parked cars. He tries to run in the middle of the street and concerned neighbors usually remember to pull their cars into their driveways. But there have been some memorable collisions.
“I hate UPS trucks,” Mastro said. “You don’t bounce off them, you hit them square.”
If Mastro can’t coordinate schedules with a training partner, he will sometimes visit a local park and throw the shot in a sandy area near the swings.
He aims for a telephone pole laid on its side because the noise of the shot hitting the pole tells him the shots resting place.
“But if I miss the pole there’s hell to pay,” Mastro said. “There have been times when I’ve been looking for that stupid shot for half an hour. If someone was watching me they’d think I was crazy.”
Mastro’s not insane, just keeping a pace that has allowed him to perform and often excel in four of the previous five Paralympics for disabled athletes from around the world. He will participate in his fifth such competition August 15-25 in Atlanta. He leaves for two weeks of training in Colorado Springs July 28th.
Mastro also has an impressive academic resume, he became the first blind person in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D. in Physical Education in 1985. He has worked for the Braille Sports Foundation, written for Feeling Sports magazine and since 1988, taught University graduate courses on how to adapt physical education for individuals with disabilities.
But in spite of his education and experience, Mastro has been frustrated in his attempts to land a full-time teaching position at the college level.
“There’s a lot of stupidity in the world,” Mastro said. “If you go outside certain stereotypes, it upsets people.”
Mastro, whose body resembles that of a pit bulldog, has been breaking free of stereotypes since he became legally blind at age 18. He was born blind in his right eye and injured his left eye at 11 years old when he was struck with a curtain rod while pretending to sword-fight with a friend.
Two operations restored vision in Mastro’s left eye to 20/20 with glasses. But in 1966, shortly before the start of Mastro’s senior year at Edison High School in North Minneapolis, the retina in his left eye detached. Four more operations were unsuccessful, leaving him with only light perception in his left eye.
“I can see light but I couldn’t tell you where it’s coming from,” Mastro said.
Before he became completely blind, Mastro had been a conference champion in wrestling and a state tournament participant in the shot put as an 11th-grader. Without sight, his athletic career was abruptly halted.
“When I went blind (school officials) didn’t really know what to do with me,” Mastro said. “Everyone has stereotypes of what a blind person is and does, and playing sports wasn’t part of it. My stereotype was that blind people sold pencils on street corners because the only blind person I’d seen was doing that on Hennepin Avenue one day when I was a kid.”
But as a freshman at Augsburg College in 1968, Mastro wanted to try out for the wrestling team. The coach and the wrestlers were agreeable, but a doctor Mastro consulted was not.
“I went to him, and he said I shouldn’t wrestle,” Mastro said. “I asked why, and he said `Because you’re blind.’ I decided that if that was the only reason, I was going to go out.”
After several unsuccessful seasons, as a senior Mastro won a conference championship at 177 pounds. Following graduation, he became increasingly involved in Greco-Roman wrestling, in which only upper body holds are used, and qualified at 198 pounds for the U.S. team in the World University Games.
Mastro was an alternate to the 1976 U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team but wound up participating in the first-ever Paralympics that year in Toronto. He won a gold medal in freestyle blind wrestling and has gone on to earn eight more Paralympic medals in three competitions since.
The 1996 Paralympics will feature more than 4,000 athletes from 108 countries competing in 16 sports. The athletes will stay in Atlanta’s Olympic Village and use many of the facilities that are part of the regular Olympics.
Paralympic athletes compete in one of six categories: para- and quadriplegics, cerebral palsy athletes, amputees, the blind, dwarves and Les Autres, a blanket category featuring, among others, athletes with muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
Mastro, who is the only Paralympic athlete to medal in four sports, will compete this year in the shot put, the discus and judo. He became involved with the latter sport, a martial art in which participants wrestle in belted jackets and pants, after freestyle wrestling was dropped as a Paralympic sport before the 1988 games.
The 5-foot-8 Mastro won the heavyweight title at last year’s blind judo world championships but will drop down a weight level to 209 pounds for the Paralympics. His stiffest competition will likely come from Austrian Hanl Walter, the world champion at 209 pounds.
“Jim was tired of playing against guys who were (6-foot-6) and 300 pounds, and he’s probably the only guy in the world who can defeat (Walter),” said Larry Lee, coach of the U.S. blind judo team.
Under Lee’s guidance the American team has steadily improved. It did not win a single match at the 1988 Paralympics, but after Lee became coach, the Americans won 17 matches and three silver medals in 1992, second only to the Japanese.
Now, Lee is counting on Mastro, one of the 1992 medalists, to help lift the U.S. to an even stronger performance.
“We have a chance to take five (out of seven medals in judo) and Jim’s crucial to that,” said Lee, who coached sighted athletes at the international level before coaching the blind.
“He stands out because of his intelligence. At some point you’re going to run into someone who’s just as skilled as you are and then it becomes a strategic match. That’s when I know Jim’s going to win.”
Lee is known for the demanding training camps he runs before competitions. With that in mind, Mastro has recently intensified his preparations for the pre-Paralympic camp he will attend in Colorado Springs.
Last Friday, Mastro worked out at a martial arts studio in Bloomington with former Gophers football player Rene Capo, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic judo team at 209 pounds.
The two men grappled in several different sessions over the course of an hour and a half, tugging, tackling and grunting until their hair hung in strands and sweat ran off their noses and chins.
“Jim has such incredible strength,” said Capo, a Gopher noseguard in the early 1980s and a U.S. Olympian in 1988. “He’s the elite of the group he competes in. He’s got good technique, and for what he’s working with he’s great.”
During one of his practice bouts with Mastro, Capo closed his eyes and ventured into his opponent’s world of sightless combat.
“I did it to get a sense of reacting on feel rather than sight,” Capo said. “You still have an awareness of where you’re at but I wouldn’t want to be in that situation permanently.”
Mastro has no choice. However, his sporting achievements have outshone those of most sighted athletes and helped give him a full life.
“When I went blind I thought my athletic career was over,” Mastro said. “But sports were a big part of my life, especially my social life, and I found out that I wasn’t a different person. I was the same person in a different situation.”