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."
Burke, who qualified for the Division I nationals last season, beat Sapolin 5-2 and went on to win the tournament. "His level of intensity is pretty amazing," said Burke. "I guess he wrestled a lot before he went blind. No?"
Burke pauses in disbelief when he learns that Sapolin didn't take up the sport until after he had lost his sight. "You're kidding," says Burke. "That's awesome."
Jon Shweky, a Violet co-captain and Sapolin's practice partner, says, "At first I didn't want to beat him, because he was blind. Now when we wrestle, he can tell me what move I was going to do next. It's really been a learning experience. He's taught me that wrestlers don't need to see what they're doing; they just feel it."
Says Mat McClenahan, the team's other co-captain, "I see things in a different light. Knowing Matt puts things in perspective. I hurt my knee and complained endlessly about it, but you never hear Matt say anything about being blind. It's not an issue."
At practice, Sapolin is Scarpone's "throwing dummy." Each new move is demonstrated on Sapolin. Thus, his teammates learn by watching, but Sapolin gets to feel every joint-wrenching crunch. "Yeah, it's good because I learn the moves first-hand," says Sapolin with a chuckle. "But Jason will demonstrate it a few times, and then we drill the move, so I wind up getting three times as many beatings as everyone else. Some dummy I am."
Whenever Sapolin is knotted in Scarpone's grip, Sapolin's Seeing Eye dog, Jay, watches protectively from the adjacent coaches' office, his eyes following the action on the mat. Jay, a golden retriever, can do nothing but sit idly and sigh in protest, because his leash has been securely pinned beneath one of the legs of the trainer's table. "We leave Jay in the office because he tends to attack the guy Matt's wrestling," says Scarpone, "and we'd rather not have someone bitten during practice."
When Sapolin isn't with a wrestling buddy or his girlfriend, Katy Fifield, or a fraternity brother, Jay leads him through the streets of NYU's Greenwich Village campus, dodging the harried pedestrians, errant taxis and random, hazardous construction sites. "Jay is Matthew's lifeline," says Sapolin's mother, Miriam. That's why it was so devastating in October when Jay got hit by a car. The veterinarians said Jay could never work again. Without Jay, Sapolin had to go back to using his cane.
"It was obvious that Matt wasn't comfortable with the cane," says Scarpone. "He would be walking around the Village waving it, not like a mild-mannered blind person, but like a wrestler with a cane, poking people and knocking things over." Luckily, Jay's dislocated hip healed, and he was back on the job six weeks after the accident.
Growing up in Islip, Sapolin was sent to school with all the other kids in the neighborhood. His mother and his father, Morton, owners of a dry cleaner, didn't believe in special schools or special treatment. "I come from a very independent family, and I didn't have time to coddle Matthew," says Miriam. "Plus I really don't believe in it.
"He once gave a speech in class when he was about seven, called 'I'm Not Handicapped, I Just Can't See.' That's just the way he's been treated. His friends see him the way I see him. I had to smile when one of his friends gave him a present this Christmas. It was a camera."
Some people, however, were too nearsighted to see beyond Sapolin's blindness. In sixth grade, he wanted to try out for the school's percussion group, but wasn't allowed. There was no way a blind person could play the drums, the teacher said. Instead, Sapolin took private drum lessons and, when he was 13, formed a rock band, The Eggplants, that played at parties and local clubs. Later, adding heavy metal to their repertoire, The Eggplants became The Iron Eggplants.
In junior high, some of Sapolin's gym teachers wouldn't permit him to take their classes, and school officials didn't want him wrestling because they were concerned about the possibility of an injury.
"When they told me I couldn't do certain things, that's when my mother would go down to school and kick some butt," says Sapolin.
Says Miriam, "One of the reasons he's been so successful in wrestling is that he was once told he couldn't."
The only obstacles he has encountered at NYU are minor in comparison. With a full load of courses, followed by practice, which some evenings can keep him in the gym until as late as seven, Sapolin had trouble finding readers willing to work around his schedule. Fortunately, now most of his textbooks are recorded on tape. And like most wrestlers, he grumbles about the time he had to lose 15 pounds in three days and about the mealtimes he has spent sucking on ice cubes and eating stalks of broccoli and grapefruit sections.
But all the hard work is worth the final goal. Says Sapolin, "Being an All-America is what I want to shoot for—and to be tough, super tough."