Seeing Is Believing With Blind Wrestler for Buena Park High

Juan Ruiz can smell his opponent.

Ruiz can smell the sweat that the wrestler in his arms has worked up in warmups. He can smell the soap he has used, his mouthwash, his shampoo.

Ruiz can feel the shape of his opponent. Ruiz can tell with his fingers how hard this young man on the wrestling mat has worked out, whether he lifts weights often by the size of his biceps, whether he bikes by the muscles in his thighs.

What Ruiz can't do is see his opponent. Ruiz can't tell if this other person has a smile on his face or a frown, can't tell by the look in an eye whether his opponent has a trick planned or is about to make a move.

Ruiz is a senior wrestler at Buena Park High, a 5-foot-4, 125-pounder who was born blind in Guadalajara. The third-youngest of seven children, he doesn't know what Leandro, the older brother who has never missed one of Juan's meets, looks like. He can't look into the eyes of his mother, Maria, and see the pride.

So Ruiz can only blush when he translates from Spanish his mother's words.

"She says that she is very proud of me," Ruiz said. "She says that of all her children, she is most proud of me."

His mother's eyes are glistening. Ruiz can't see.

As the winter break ends and practice starts again, Ruiz has an 18-1 record and high expectations. His only loss this season in the 125-pound class was in overtime to Anaheim Magnolia's Art Santillan, who is ranked No. 3 in Orange County in the division.

"I hope I get another chance at him," Ruiz said. "I know I can beat him."

Ruiz is awed by his success.

"I never imagined [this]," he said. "When I first got to high school, I was almost afraid to go out for wrestling."

The Ruiz family moved to the United States 12 years ago when Juan was ready for first grade. Maria and Guadalupe, Juan's father, came to America solely for Juan.

"My son, he wouldn't get educated in Mexico," Maria said. "Blind children, for them, there were no good schools."

The parents could afford to bring only Juan at first. They got jobs in factories and, one by one, they brought their family to Fullerton.

Soon after the family was together, Maria and Guadalupe started their own gardening business. But Guadalupe's liver and kidneys were failing. When Juan was in seventh grade, his father died. Maria kept running the business and raising her family. That didn't leave much time for worrying about Juan.

"My mom never had time to baby me," Ruiz said. "I always learned to just do things."

Ruiz learned to ride a bike, to walk to school. He learned Braille and skateboarding. Whether it took special note takers or accommodations for taking tests, he always attended public schools. When he was in seventh grade, not long after his father died, Ruiz discovered wrestling.

"We did it in [physical education] class," Ruiz said. "I loved it."

He was strong and quick. He had an athletic gait and an athlete's mind. He was interested in learning how to compete and how to sweat. As a freshman, Ruiz attended Anaheim and wanted to try out for the wrestling team, but hesitated.

"I was worried the coach wouldn't want me," Ruiz said. "I sensed people thought I wasn't serious."

But a teacher convinced Ruiz to try out and he made the junior varsity team, finishing the season with a winning record.

By the next fall, he had transferred to Buena Park. He felt the help available to him in class was better there. And as a sophomore, Ruiz wasn't afraid anymore to try out for the wrestling team.

"What I saw in Juan was a kid with great strength and agility and an excellent work habit," Coach Rick Zabala of Buena Park said. "He was willing to learn and willing to get better."

There have been uncomfortable moments on the mat. One wrestler who lost to Ruiz cried.

"He was embarrassed to lose to a blind guy," Ruiz said. "Sometimes I could tell guys weren't trying all their moves on me. I guess they didn't want to embarrass me. But after they'd lose, next time they'd use all their moves."

It used to be, Zabala said, that the crowd would always cheer loudly for Ruiz, the blind kid, the underdog.

"The people still cheer, but it's a little different now," Zabala said. "Now Juan isn't the underdog. Now he's expected to win. It's a great story."

It is not the only story of its kind in Orange County. Another blind wrestler, senior Ruben Torres, competes for Garden Grove Santiago at 189 pounds.

As for Ruiz, because he can't see when Zabala and assistant Sam Lopez demonstrate new techniques and moves, Ruiz has the role of guinea pig in practice.

"They call me the practice dummy," Ruiz said. "Coach demonstrates the new stuff on me. That's the best way for me to learn. I can feel the move."

Ruiz loves the feel of wrestling. He said his mind becomes involved. He doesn't hear the noise of the crowd, not even the shouts of Leandro, who has been his biggest fan.

"I get all my hyperness out, all my tension and worries," Ruiz said.

At first, Maria was afraid for Juan. She didn't want him to wrestle and wouldn't attend any of his matches when he was a freshman. Now, Maria said, 'I love wrestling. I see that my son won't be hurt."

If Maria wants to worry, Juan gives her plenty of other chances. He is a serious mountain biker. He follows a guide and laughs about taking a header over his handlebars and nearly going over a cliff.

Zabala said teachers and students are amazed when they see Ruiz biking between the wrestling practice room and gym.

"I want to try everything," Ruiz said. "I don't want to be held back."

Ruiz would like to win a Southern Section title, advance to the Masters meet and then the state tournament. Zabala said that's not pie-in-the-sky thinking. While Zabala believes Ruiz has the talent to wrestle in college, Ruiz isn't sure that's what he wants.

"I don't know about my future yet," Ruiz said. "I need to find what is important to me next."

Zabala said Ruiz is fearless and always willing to try new things.

"That's why Juan is such a success story," Zabala said. "Juan sees what's important."

Seeing can happen without eyes. That's the move Juan Ruiz can teach everyone.

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