Calvert Hall wrestler disables doubts with his drive to excel


December 19, 1991|By Dave Glassman | Dave Glassman,Special to The Evening Sun

When Pat Leahy first started wrestling, just two years ago, there were telltale signs he'd been a gymnast.

"If he was thrown, whenever he went airborne his legs would straighten and his toes would point," said Calvert Hall wrestling coach Roy Lobdell. "Not the best way to land."

It was, in fact, the possibility of bad landings that helped lead him from vaults and high bars to the mat. Not that he was just an ordinary gymnast. He'd placed second in the state in class IV when he was 15. But some of the events in gymnastics posed a threat to his safety, and he would never be an all-around performer.

Because Pat Leahy is legally blind.

Even with a 10-12 step approach instead of 50 steps, and with a strip of bright, white cloth laid down to help him find the end of the takeoff board, the vault was an adventure.

"I had seen Pat miss it," said his mother, Kay Leahy. "Go over it. Go under it. There were times I had to leave, I couldn't watch. He kept a sense of humor about it, though. He'd say, 'You can go out and get my mom now.' "

And though he's still new to it, Leahy, a senior wrestling at 125 pounds for the Cardinals, now has a sport that keeps him close to the ground, involves him with schoolmates and provides collegiate athletic potential as well.

Because of a genetic disorder (his parents both carry a recessive gene), Leahy has had impaired vision since birth. "I just have a little peripheral vision," he said. There is a large blank spot in front of him. He can sense images and contrasts, but no details. "He might feel an object on the couch," Kay Leahy said. "Is it the cat or is it a blanket?"

Touch, of course, is central to Leahy's wrestling. There is a rule requiring constant contact between competitors in matches involving blind wrestlers. But there's more to it than that. "When we're wrestling on our feet, I have to know where the guy's legs are," he said. "I have to go into a match being very offensive, using my strength a lot. [Vision] doesn't make much difference for anybody when you're tangled up on the mat."

After a difficult sophomore year -- "When I started, I was horrible," Leahy said -- he had a 12-15 record as a junior, going 5-2 at the end of the season. This year he's disappointed by his 3-5 start, but not discouraged.

"Last year I could tell I was getting better," he said. "I've always had the confidence I could do it."

That confidence, no doubt, stems from the support he's gotten from his parents. Bill Leahy is a manufacturer's representative, and Kay is a nurse. "We decided to mainstream him from day one," Kay said. "The gym teacher at Pot Springs Elementary, whose first comment was 'What's he doing here?', gave him every opportunity to feel comfortable with sports. By the time Pat was in fifth grade, he was taking Pat with some other boys to Canada where he water-skied."

He swam competitively for several swim clubs and has learned to ski expert slopes with sighted guides behind him calling commands. He plays in backyard wiffle ball games, hitting off a tee and pitching to a bright white target. No, the confidence is not lacking.

"If you tell him he can't do something because of his handicap, he'll tell you that's wrong," said Calvert Hall teammate Tim Sparwasser. "He might ask you to find his headgear, but that's about it. "

"He is a good wrestler," Sparwasser said. "He practices about the hardest on the team. He's just had all-around improvement. At the beginning, he had great strength and speed. Now he's got good moves and technique. No one makes exceptions for him and I don't think he'd appreciate exceptions."

Last summer Leahy worked with Andre Miller, a Division I wrestling All-America at Wilkes College and now Loyola College's lacrosse strength coach. Miller, who with a partner runs a personal fitness company, became not only Leahy's trainer but his friend as well.

Four times a week they worked with weights for an hour, then wrestled for an hour, followed by uphill sprints and hundred-yard --es in the summer heat. "He never stopped," Miller said. "He always came back for more."

Miller is the professional trainer but said, "I'm getting to meet somebody who inspires me. He's always so positive."

And he believes Leahy, despite his late start in the sport, has a future wrestling in college, possibly at the Division I level. "Pat will catch up because of his hard work," he said. "This isn't the end of the road. He's going to wrestle through college. As he gets more seasoned and gets 'mat savvy,' he's going to be a real good wrestler."

There's little doubt Leahy will be in college next year. With the aid of a talking laptop computer, electronic magnifier, and taped books and lectures, he's compiled an 89 average. He's applied to six schools and, whichever campus he traverses with his white cane, "I really want to major in meteorology," he said.

"I have a weather station at home. When there's a snowstorm I stay up all night and hook up my computer to Accu-Weather."

And there's more. Fellowship of Christian Athletes, church youth group. It's hard to believe Pat Leahy has a disability.

"One of my friends used a term I really liked -- 'differently-abled,' " he said. "I just have different challenges and things to overcome. Everybody does. But there's not much I'm doing different than anybody else."

Just more of it.

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