Seif Saqallah doesn’t think of himself as any different than his teammates on the varsity wrestling team; he just happens to be totally blind.
The visual impairment, which he’s had since birth, isn’t slowing him down any. He’s wrestling on the Lakers’ varsity squad in the 112-pound weight class. Not only is it his first year on the team, it’s his first year in the sport.
“He’s an inspiration to others,” West Bloomfield coach Greg Alessi said. “He’s a great teammate, great kid to have around.”
Hooked since first contact
Seif’s first taste of wrestling came at a sports camp last year for visually impaired students in Kalamazoo. The camp was part of the United States Association of Blind Athletes, an organization that provides athletic opportunities in various sports for individuals with visual impairments.
At the camp, Seif tried wrestling, judo, track and field and swimming. He took to wrestling almost immediately. He loved the sport’s aggressive nature and physicality. So, he set out to join the West Bloomfield wrestling team when school started in the fall.
His parents had reservations, but none related to his visual impairment. They were worried, perhaps as most parents are, about him taking part in a contact sport and balancing his schoolwork with practice every day.
According to Seif, they relented pretty quickly. “Let me put it this way — they trusted me to me to do it and they trusted me to screw up, they’re good like that,” he said, with a smile.
The first time Alessi heard about Seif was in an email from Athletic Director Pat Watson. Watson let Alessi know that he should expect a blind student to come out for the team.
Alessi didn’t hear from Seif’s parents or even Seif himself — the junior just showed up for the team’s preseason conditioning like most other students.
“I hear from concerned parents all the time,” Alessi said,” But other than the email that he was going to show up for the team I didn’t have a big conversation about it with anybody. Parents didn’t contact me, never heard anything from him.”
Just one of the team
In the run-up to the season, Alessi asked Seif, “What can I do to help?” His answer was simple. “Nothing.” The only thing Seif needed was a rope for when the team did running exercises so he could tether himself to a teammate.
Alessi shared a story about how Seif wanted to play dodge ball with the team at a practice. “I said Seif, you can’t see. He said, 'So what? I want to play!' It was great.”
“He’s fearless,” freshman teammate Christian Velez added.
Seif wasn’t worried about winning or losing when he joined the team. His biggest concern was his teammates would handle him with kid gloves.
“I was afraid people would take it to easy on me,” he said. “That lasted five minutes.”
With his positive attitude, he fit in seamlessly with the Lakers squad.
“He’s very articulate and open about (his impairment),” Alessi said. “I give him a lot a credit.”
Velez and Seif met in an economics class and became friends through the wrestling team. The freshman is one of the Lakers’ wrestlers that walks Seif through different holds and moves after Alessi teaches them at practice.
What other wrestlers learn visually, Seif has to learn through feel. He will grab teammates and assistant coaches to have them walk him through the moves, showing him how to do them properly.
“He’ll grab kids and say, 'Show me what coach is showing you right now,'” Alessi said.
Learning on the mat
With Seif’s visual impairment, the way he wrestles is by keeping in constant contact with his opponent.
“One finger is all it takes,” he said.
Since all matches start at the same point, the beginning of a match, or round, is easy for him. It’s when his opponent starts to move that he needs to rely on touch to get him through the match.
“With him being totally blind, he has to rely on his senses,” Velez said. “(Seif) is dependent on touch and he has to anticipate where his opponent is going to go. He’s remarkable at that.”
Hearing Seif and his coach talk about it, the only thing holding back the 112-pounder is his lack of experience.
“If Seif had been doing this the last five or six years, he would be so accustomed to it,” Alessi said. “Lets face it, people don’t need eyes to wrestle. A lot of it is feel. There have been some very successful national and international wrestlers that are visually impaired.”
Alessi describes Seif as strong for his size, coachable and someone who moves well on the mat. With those natural abilities, Alessi believes Seif will be very successful once he learns how to be a control wrestler.
When Seif allows an opponent to float around the mat, it can be difficult for him to execute his offense.
“Sometimes you know where they are, but you don’t the angle they are coming at you so you don’t know exactly what they are going to do,” Seif said.
Right now, he’s learning to do that as he goes. Alessi put him on the varsity team and at this point in the season, Seif is West Bloomfield’s starter in the 112-pound weight class.
“I love it,” Seif said, smiling. “I’m not winning as much as I want, but you learn through the losses.”
He’s already wrestled in the 16-team West Bloomfield Invitational, the Oakland County Championship and a variety of other dual meets. Seif has picked up three of four pins this season and continues to improve.
Seif and the Lakers will hit the mat next Wednesday night at WBHS. The quad meet against Andover, Troy, and Royal Oak starts at 5:30 p.m.