AUBURN, Wash. -- A 14-year-old wrestler from Auburn, Washington, is dominating her sport without seeing her opponents.
“I started wrestling in sixth grade, it was hard," said 14-year-old Goddess Ma’alona-Faletogo, who is blind. "I had to get used to all of the conditioning. It was stuff I later learned to love.”
She is a freshman wrestler competing in the 225 pound weight class for Thomas Jefferson High School.
“I didn’t believe that I could do anything, honestly, (but) wrestling helped me realize that," Goddess said. "It made me step out of my comfort zone."
Her wrestling coach, Harvey Cole, told KCPQ, “The first time I got to work with her one-on-one, it was amazing. She stood me straight up, all of a sudden she’s behind me and the girl threw me to the ground. It was like, holy moly!'”
Goddess isn’t just competing, she’s winning. She'll wrestle in the state tournament after finishing the regular season with 17 wins and 9 losses, a feat she attributes to her keen sense of touch and her athletic ability.
“I try to feel for whatever angle is open. I try to figure out what side they are not watching. Say I’m standing in front of them and my hands are on their shoulders and they are angled out more to the right, I’ll sneak around to their left to get behind them,” Goddess said.
She relies on different sensations when competing, just like she does while navigating life's other obstacles. Goddess is one of just a handful of kids in the state of Washington diagnosed with Leber Congenital Amaurosis, a rare sight disorder preventing Goddess from being able to see.
“When I was little I seen it as a disadvantage 'cause I always wanted to go outside and play by myself. It was kind of embarrassing having my little brothers having to look after me because I couldn’t see, but now I look at it as motivation. I can’t see but I can still do what I want to do 'cause it’s not going to stop me,” Goddess said.
Goddess’s mother, Shannell Ulu, said, “We try and build her confidence and let her know that it doesn’t matter. You know there are people who don’t have arms, who can do better things than people who do have arms, you know. So here you are with no vision and look what you are today.”
Watching Goddess take down her opponents is proof enough that she's living out that lesson.
“We treat her just like the other kids," coach Cole said. "She goes out there, gets her head gear on, mouth-guard, ready to go check in at the table."
The only difference is that she and her opponents must be touching during the entire bout. If they lose contact, the referee stops the match and takes the wrestlers back to the middle of the circle where the match continues.
“When I go out on the mat, I’m shaking and I’m scared, like I get that feeling that I want to forfeit because I don’t know what to expect out there, and I hear people in the crowd and they are all screaming my name," Goddess said. "Then the whistle blows, all my fear goes away and I’m just, like, I’m having fun out there."
Win or lose, Goddess continues to strive to reach her potential and inspires those around her to do the same.
“If you don’t believe in yourself, then you won’t be able to do what you want to do,” Goddess said.