Tennis gives blind people new hope in Colombia

Tennis gives blind people new hope in Colombia

Group of blind, visually impaired people have found ways to do sport as they overcome limitations, obstacles, achieve new goals

By Laura Gamba

BOGOTA, Colombia (AA) — Gabriel Gonzales travels two hours by bus twice a week to get to tennis practice. When he arrives at the courts, "Gabo," as his friends call him, stretches and warms up like any other tennis player who gets ready for a match.

But something sets Gabo apart from other players: he has been blind since childhood. Learning to play the sport at 45 has not been easy.

"You have to be disciplined, practice a lot, be consistent, train hard, and remove the obstacles that fill your head with limitations," he told Anadolu.

In blind tennis, players don't have to keep their eye on the ball. In fact, they have to "see" the ball with their ears.

"My eyes are my ears and my ears allow me to describe, calculate, measure, and perceive the ball," he said.

He snaps his fingers when entering the court to listen to the echoes of possible walls or hazards, and then touches the strings that are taped to the floor with his hands and feet to determine the boundaries of the court.

The courts are roughly half the size of a standard tennis court and the rackets are also smaller.

The ball is made of yellow or black foam rubber, depending on the level of visual impairment, and is bigger than a conventional tennis ball.

To make its movements easier to hear, the ball is fitted with a smaller plastic ping pong ball with five pellets inside. Players have two or three bounces to return the rattlesnake-sounding sphere to their opponent, depending on vision loss. Blind players, like Gabo, use blindfolds to avoid any kind of advantage.


- Tennis for the visually impaired

Gabo says he lost sight in his left eye at 8 years old, blaming the measles which contracted five years earlier. At 10, a hard blow caused him to lose his right eye, too. Since he was 12, he has gotten used to walking alone in a bustling city like Bogota, Colombia's capital.

He learned the grid-planned, diagonal, and transversal streets, and even how to identify building numbers. His cane helps him identify avoid obstacles and adjust to changes in the pavement, and he uses his smartphone to set up points of interest and intersections to arrive safely at his destination.

One of his regular spots is the Salitre Sports Complex tennis courts, where he has been going for two years when he first learned about the Pasion Por el Tenis Foundation, which teaches children and adults with visual impairment how to play the sport.

"This has given me confidence and allowed me to dare to do things I wouldn't have thought I would do," said Gabo.

The foundation was created in 2019 by Nathalia Benavides, 42, who was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was 20, while playing in a tournament organized by her university in Bogota as she studied journalism.

That day, she began missing the balls. Her coach complained that she was not focusing but she knew that concentration was not the problem.

Retinitis pigmentosa is a hereditary condition that kills the rod cells of the eye's retina, which makes a person lose their peripheral vision, though they are still able to see things directly in front of them.

"The dream I had since I was 10 of becoming a professional tennis player faded away, but the idea of tennis for the blind and the visually impaired was sown," she said.

Years later, Benavides realized that blind tennis was already a reality in Latin American countries like Argentina and Mexico. In 2019, she traveled to Spain to see an international tournament and loved what she witnessed.

"It was wonderful. It was my motivation to come back and make this project a reality," she said.


- Overcoming challenges

Blind tennis was created in 1984 by Miyoshi Takei, a student at an institution for the blind in Saitama, Japan. Along with his physical education teacher, they adapted the sport for blind people and Miyoshi fulfilled his dream of playing tennis.

The foundation has 18 players of all ages. Among them Mario Pena, a 32-year-old art teacher, who suffered macular dystrophy at age 8. The damage caused him to lose his central field of vision, leaving him with 20% of his peripheral vision, which allows him to see shadows when the ball is approaching.

"It happened to me overnight. I used to be the first one that kids in school picked in their soccer, basketball, volleyball teams and then I was completely left out," he said.

Pena was a disciplined child at school and he had good grades, but the educational system in Colombia was not accommodating to those with disabilities so he was pushed aside and kicked out of school because he could not perform tasks like other children.

"If you can't read, you stand aside and listen while the others learn, the teachers used to tell me," said Pena.

Colombia is home to 2 million visually impaired people, many of whom find it difficult to carry out day-to-day tasks in cities that were not built for people with disabilities.

One day, Pena received a message on WhatsApp "as if it had fallen from the sky" that said blind tennis existed in the country and since then, his life has changed.

"I'm not looking to earn money, I'm looking to enrich myself with this sport that allows me to escape from routine and distract myself from stress, from work and from a society that is often not easy on people with disabilities," he said.

Benavides and Pena are raising funds to attend the IBSA World Games 2023 on Aug. 18-27 in Birmingham, England, with hopes of raising the profile of blind and low-vision tennis. But, they are struggling to pay for tickets and travel expenses because they have no external support.

Pena said he cannot remember being so excited to be able to participate in a professional event of this magnitude. But, perhaps just as importantly, it would also be his first time on a plane.

"And I'm going to get on a plane to participate in this huge competition, just imagine!" he said.

He smiles, as he visualizes the adventure that awaits him.

Donations can be made on the website: https://armatuvaca.com/vaca/oe185012gLN20230

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