Visually impaired wrestler eyes another state fight

JACKSONVILLE — Leo Tomich had tears of joy.

The wrestler made history last June in the state tournament sections of the Class 1A Illinois Wrestlers Coaches and Officials Association. He pinned his opponent to become the first Illinois School for the Visually Impaired wrestler to advance to the state finals since Nik Crosby in 1995.

“It was amazing, really,” said Tomich. “I’ve seen that name since sixth grade. Wow, now I’m where he was? You know, it’s amazing. It really is.

“I cried when I won the game and pinned the guy, and he (coach Ken Mansell) said, ‘You’re gonna say, you’re gonna say! I’m kidding, aren’t you? He’s like, ‘No, you’re gonna say, you’re gonna say!’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ I had tears, I cried.

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Naturally.

Not too long ago, the 6ft 1in heavyweight Macomb wondered if he would be able to wrestle again.

STEEL RESOLUTION

Tomich only has limited vision in his left eye due to glaucoma. In her second year, a detached retina in her right eye further aggravated her impaired vision.

Nevertheless, he started wrestling in the sixth grade.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Tomich said. “I didn’t know how to make a position. Now it’s like the last year I went to the state.

A health scare nearly deterred Tomich from wrestling after his freshman year.

A blood vessel in his left eye burst, likely caused during an off-season wrestling camp, and he was ordered to abstain from all athletic activity for five months.

“I couldn’t even bend over to lift my laundry,” Tomich said. “I had to ask someone to do my laundry for me. I could not do anything. I do not want to say anything. I could eat, I could drink water, I could pick up this stuff and eat. But I couldn’t do that all the time, lower my head or raise my head too much, and I had to sleep with three or four pillows to keep my head elevated.

Tomich described this moment as a harsh dose of reality.

“It was probably the time in my life where I was like, ‘Whoa, I could potentially lose my sight.’ You could lose it on the edge of this counter If I like to hit my eye on the edge of this counter, I could lose all my sight.

“That’s the risk I had. This injury really shook me up because I’m like, oh my God, I’m not as invincible as I thought I was. And I learned a really good lesson okay, appreciate your sight and appreciate your teammates because they’re the ones who really got me through this.

Tomich returned to wrestling his sophomore year in January – not without some trepidation. He said his aunt, Sarah Ross, reassured him.

“She called me before (the first game),” Tomich said, “and she was like, ‘Leo, your visual impairment didn’t stop you before. What are you doing now?’ And I’m like, ‘I just, I don’t want to lose my sight. It’s the only eye I have. She’s like, ‘Well, go over there and don’t worry about it. Do what you want. Do what you love to do and that’s the struggle.

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Tomich won that match and has thrived since then with an overall record of 79-24-1 and 44 career pins. He was also named to the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind All-Conference first team twice, as well as to the college conference three times.

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Tomich struggles with his eyes closed.

Participants, however, are required to maintain contact throughout the match.

Tomich later reviews the videos of the meetings with coach Ken Mansell.

“How it happened is we were struggling in games, and Coach Mansell explains it and I’m like, ‘Coach, I still don’t get it. I don’t understand,” Tomich said. “He’s like, ‘You know, what? I’m just gonna tape it,’ so he tape it, and he said, ‘That’s what you did wrong. I’m like, ‘Oh, is ‘Can I see him again?’ Then I can get closer to the screen.

Tomich credited his family as a cornerstone of his success — not to mention the rest of his co-op team, Illinois United. Weightlifting has become a regular routine lately alongside teammate Jaylen Brady.

“Coach Mansell and I bumped heads at times where we had different ideas for different things,” Tomich said. “I’m like, ‘You’re a pain, but you know what? You are a family and that’s how it is.

Mansell said Tomich learned by trial and error.

“It was the end of his second year, he did really well and was starting to click and last year it really clicked,” Mansell said. “When you feel a lot better about yourself, you’re more confident, so you go out and apply yourself to a greater level of success. And he beats kids he doesn’t have to beat on paper.

OTHER LAWSUITS

Tomich enjoys goalball even more than wrestling – a sport specifically designed for athletes with visual impairments. He will be aiming for a third NCASB title in the spring with the ISVI.

“We’re going to try again,” Tomich said, “and it’s going to be amazing. I’m ready.”

Tomich also won a public speaking contest that included other visually impaired schools in December and maintains a 3.4 GPA.

He also serves as a disc jockey after starting with a Ziploc bag of CDs in fourth grade. He recently received a mixer for his birthday and ultimately wants to pursue broadcasting in college.

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What is his goal for this wrestling season?

“I want almost every visually impaired person in the state of Illinois to know ISVI is here,” Tomich said. “They produce good athletes, they produce good people who are good at studies. Our teachers are amazing, our students are amazing. Everyone here is a big family and sometimes they drive me crazy like all families. That’s exactly what family does and we’re a good, tight-knit community here.

Contact Bill Welt: [email protected], Twitter.com/BillWelt

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