When fate took hold of matt Sapolin, its grip seemed more like a half nelson than one of life's innocent turns. At age five, Sapolin lost his eyesight to retinal cancer, but he wasted no time turning potential obstacles into mere challenges. In gym class a plastic hockey puck was filled with beans, pennies or uncooked pasta so that he could follow the puck's rattle when playing floor hockey. A baseball was placed atop a cone so that he could make contact on every at bat, and his classmates would stand behind the bases and call to him so that he would know where to run. A string was tied to the basketball net, and he would grab its end to judge the distance from the net for a short jumper.
When Sapolin played these games, allowances were made. But there was one sport in which he could compete on equal terms—wrestling. Sapolin was in first grade when a phys-ed teacher showed him how to do a single-leg takedown. Now, 15 years later and wrestling at New York University, he is proving that he is not only equal to, but in most cases also much better than, his opponents.
With a 13-9-3 record for the Violets through Feb. 5, Sapolin, a 158-pounder, has focused on yet another challenge: He hopes to become one of the best Division III wrestlers in the country. "The Division III nationals are not out of Matt's reach," says NYU coach Sonny Greenhalgh. "He's got the potential to win them some day, and he has a shot at All-America."
Before transferring to NYU in September from the University of Hartford, Sapolin, 21, had last wrestled in 1988, when he was captain and MVP of his Islip (N.Y.) High team. When he decided to continue his philosophy and sociology double major at NYU, Greenhalgh spoke to people in both admissions and financial aid on his behalf. Sapolin has four years of eligibility because he did not wrestle at Hartford, which doesn't have a team, and after he completes his undergraduate work next year, he plans to wrestle and attend graduate school at NYU.
"I transferred because of the academics, plus I really missed wrestling," says Sapolin. "At Hartford, I found myself rolling around on the hardwood floor with my buddies in the hallway. It's good to be back on the wrestling mat again."
As he awaits his turn to take the mat for NYU in meets, Sapolin nervously chews the zipper on his sweatshirt. He jogs in place, strips down to his deep purple singlet, adjusts his ear guard and places his hand on the shoulder of assistant coach Jason Scarpone, who leads him to the circle. Sapolin shakes his opponent's hand, and the two wrestlers stand facing each other in the neutral position, knees bent, a few feet apart.
Regular rules apply to Sapolin, except when he and his opponent are in the neutral position, which occurs at the start of the match and after an escape. Normally, wrestlers don't make any contact in the neutral position, but when one of them is blind, they must touch hands, with one wrestler placing his left palm up and his right palm down, and the other doing the opposite.
Though most schools for the visually impaired offer the sport, it is unusual for a blind wrestler to compete against sighted athletes, especially on the collegiate level. Says Sapolin, who insists that he be known as a tough wrestler rather than as a tough blind wrestler, "Anyone could wrestle with his eyes shut. A wrestler doesn't need to see. He uses his other senses. You just need to feel where a guy's hips are, have a good sense of balance, stay focused and listen to your coaches. I don't think sight is a tremendous asset."
Perhaps Scarpone best describes Sapolin's vision on the mat: "Matt's like an artist. He constructs a picture in his mind of what he should be doing. He has never seen good wrestling, but he is able to use mental imagery." Sapolin possesses what his coaches call "a feel for the mat," as well as superb balance and strength.
Still, Sapolin's blindness hurts him in certain situations, such as when Sapolin reaches for a fleet opponent's ankle or when he unknowingly inches out of bounds. Perhaps the missed opportunities are the most frustrating. "If only he could have seen that coming, he could have had an easy two points," Greenhalgh will sometimes say to no one in particular while coaching from the sideline. Some opponents argue that they are the handicapped wrestlers in a match with Sapolin. "I didn't know he was blind until we got on the mat," said Seton Hall's Joe Burke while toweling off after taking on Sapolin for six grueling minutes at the Hunter College Invitational in January. "The whole time, I was thinking about it. I had to adapt my tap-and-go style of wrestling to his tie-up style. He made me stay in close contact with him so he knew where I was."