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FEATURE: Blindness didnít deter Marcus Hernandez from winning Colorado state title

When Marcus Hernandez of Pueblo South High School won the Colorado state high school wrestling title on Feb. 18 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, it was no ordinary victory. Hernandez is legally blind from a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa that eventually causes blindness.

"There's really no useful vision I have," said Hernandez. "It's not completely black, but blurs and outlines of shapes. I can't make out a person's face if they're right in front of me."

Prior to his failing vision, Hernandez enjoyed playing a variety of sports from a young age.

"I pretty much tried every sport when I was younger. I loved sports," said Hernandez.

Hernandez was competitive year round in basketball, baseball, soccer and eventually wrestling at the age of six.

"My dad got me into it," Hernandez said of wrestling. "It was just another sport."

But as his eye sight began to deteriorate in the fourth grade, Hernandez found he could no longer participate in any of his former sports.

"I didn't think I could even wrestle and got out of it for a while," Hernandez said. "Then one of the coaches found out about the touch method and that's how I got back into wrestling."

Hernandez began wrestling again while in the seventh grade using the touch method, which insures that both wrestlers remain in constant contact throughout the match. Before his eye sight worsened, Hernandez was able to see well enough to wrestle like his teammates. However, the touch method presented itself as an entirely new technique that Hernandez had to practice to perfect.

Hernandez made the varsity wrestling team at 119 pounds as a sophomore in high school. His coach, Jerry Sisneros, in addition to the assistant coaches, found that they had to make adjustments as well for Hernandez's style of wrestling.

"He does well because he's been in the program for years. He doesn't need a lot of special instruction," said Sisneros. "He's really comfortable with the three positions-top, bottom and neutral. When it's something new, we have to talk him through it and his wrestling partner. He's got most of the technique pretty much memorized. We take our time, slow it down and spend a bit of time with him."

Due to his poor vision, Hernandez's coaches and teammates all take a part in his learning process and technique perfection.

"In practice, when the coach shows us the moves, my partner shows me. If he doesn't know it, then the coach or assistant coach will take me aside and show me hands on," Hernandez said. "Hands on is pretty much how I learn."

Hernandez's technique and off-season practices have helped him end the 2005-2006 regular season with an impressive 30-4 record and an opportunity to wrestle in the state championships for the 4A title at 125 pounds. In 2005, Hernandez placed second in the state championships, just falling short of his goal.

This year, the only one standing in between Hernandez and a gold medal was Tommy Valdez of Alamosa High School, an opponent who had beaten Hernandez twice before.

"We had been beaten twice by [Valdez] in the Regionals and at the Top of the Rockies Tournament," said Sisneros. "We had to make some adjustments the day before [state finals]. We thought the first was a fluke and then the second time we knew we had to get something going."

In preparation for the meet, the coaches viewed tapes of his earlier matches with Valdez, and worked with Hernandez on some adjustments.

"I knew I could beat him," Hernandez said. "The first two times I wrestled him, I don't think I wrestled like myself. I thought he knew me, knew my style. I always felt I could beat him if I wrestled smarter. Luckily I was able to do it in the state finals."

Hernandez took a lead early on in the match, but had to step up his intensity when Valdez closed the point gap. At the end of the match, however, Hernandez remained the victor with a final score of 7-6.

"Personally, I felt he was the better wrestler," said Sisneros. "You could just see the intensity he went out there with. He went out there with a big heart. When he won [the state title], I was so happy for him. He's such an inspirational wrestler. It's a great feeling to watch him win the state championship."

After defeating Valdez, the nearly 20,000 attendees at the Pepsi Center gave Hernandez not one, but two standing ovations.

"I was pretty happy," said Hernandez. "It's what a high school wrestler works for. Ever since I was six it was all I thought about. All of the work in the off-season paid off and I was able to achieve my goal."

Hernandez's joy after the win was echoed in his family and friends who supported him throughout his wrestling career. After his father watched his son win the state championship, he was moved to tears. His coaches also were excited with a victory that was well deserved for an athlete with the dedication and skill that Hernandez possessed.

"He's very knowledgeable of the sport. He did things to make himself a year-round wrestler," Sisneros said. "He has a lot of the ingredients of a champion and he proved it on the weekend of our state championship."

As a high school senior, Hernandez is just like any other teenager. Although he had to make adjustments in the classroom, such as learning Braille and ordering all of text books in Braille or on tape, his daily routine is like that of his friends.

"Outside of school I try to live as normal as I can live. I like to hang out with my friends, play cards, just pretty much what any normal teenager does," said Hernandez.

And like most of his peers, Hernandez intends to pursue a higher education after graduation. His immediate plans are to attend Pueblo Community College to obtain his associates degree, before transferring to Colorado State University-Pueblo and possibly enter the field of health.

As for his wrestling career, Hernandez ended it on a high note with his win at the state championships.

"I'm done. I've finished. I'm done wrestling," Hernandez said.

While Hernandez has closed a chapter in his life, his remarkable defeats and triumphs in his high school wrestling career prove that his lack of sight never diminished his broader vision of what he knew he was capable of achieving.
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