AUBURN, Wash. — “I started wrestling in 6th grade. It was hard. I had to get used to all of the conditioning. It was stuff I later learned to love,” says 14-year-old Goddess Ma’alona-Faletogo.
She is a freshman wrestler competing in the 225 lbs weight class for Thomas Jefferson High School.
Thomas Jefferson Head Coach Harvey Cole tells me “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 punched her ticket to the state tournament after finishing the regular season 17-9 -- 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,” says Goddess.
She relies on different sensations when competing but also getting through everyday life. 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. Cause 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 as I can’t see but I can still do what I want to do cause it’s not going to stop me.”
“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,” says Goddess’s mother Shannell Ulu.
“I didn’t believe that I could do anything, honestly, wrestling helped me realize that, you know, yeah, I’m blind but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything. It made me step out of my comfort zone,” says Goddess.
“We treat her just like the other kids. She goes out there, gets her head gear on, mouth-guard, ready to go check in at the table,” says Cole.
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. I’m just shaking and then, when they put my opponent's hands on mine, I get even more scared and then, when 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,” says Goddess.
“There is no such thing as a disability, it’s an ability. I would say that is the biggest thing that she has taught me,” says Cole.