Blindness doesn't get in the way of her wrestling dream

Determined Sullivan Middle student feels her way through competitions

Herald correspondentFebruary 10, 2011 

Perry Montuori, Sullivan Middle School's wrestling coach, understands the concept of "feel" as it pertains to his sport.

Montuori often scrimmaged blindfolded at Madonna High School in Weirton, W.Va., to strengthen his ability to depend on senses other than sight.

So when seventh-grader Anna Milligan says she feels equal to her teammates and competition, Montuori believes it. Milligan became completely blind when she was 3-years old after a failed cornea transplant surgery.

But underestimating her on the mat could be an opponent's biggest mistake. Milligan, who has thrived under Montuori's direction, is not lacking for confidence.

"I am equal to everyone else," Milligan said. "I look small, I'm blind, I'm a girl, but surprise; I have your back on the mat."

Most opponents didn't quite know what to make of Milligan when she hit the mat this past season. Standing at just over 4 feet, the 13-year-old alternated between the 100- and 105-pound weight classes in her first season, which she finished with a 10-15 record.

Montuori has become a mentor to Milligan. He's become a big fan of hers as well.

"I made Anna autograph a picture of herself for me, which she signed in Braille," Montuori said. "I can't wait to frame it and put it up in my office. That way whenever I feel down, I can see that little girl and it'll put a smile on my face."

A fire was ignited in Milligan the last week of June 2010, at a "Blind Skills and Thrills" summer camp sponsored by the South Carolina School for the Blind. The event, which introduces various sports to visually impaired children, included a beginner's course on wrestling. As she learned the basic techniques and pacing of the sport, Milligan realized she had found the outlet she'd been searching for her entire life.

"I needed something to let my aggression out on," Milligan said. "The whole reason I wanted to wrestle was because I had the strength God gave me, but also because I had the wits and aggressiveness for it too."

With wrestling season quickly approaching, Milligan expressed a desire to her parents, Christian and Cara Stevens, that she wanted to try out for the team at Sullivan. The Stevens family, which adopted Milligan when she was 7, initially believed that Milligan didn't quite grasp the strenuous, grueling path which lay ahead of her.

"I honestly thought she would do it for a week and be done with it," Cara Stevens said. "But the words 'you can't do that' have never applied to Anna since the day we adopted her. She'll just work that much harder."

"She said she wanted to wrestle and I kind of shrugged it off," Christian Stevens added. "But when she came home from school one day, telling us she had talked to coach Montuori, then I knew she was serious. She insisted that she could compete with the boys."

Milligan was undeterred in her pursuit to join the team, and Montuori became immediately drawn to her courage.

"They day I met Anna, I instantly fell in love with her guts and personality," Montuori said. "From that day forward she was my project."

And a project it was, both in terms of training and Milligan's acclimation to a team filled with perfect strangers.

Milligan battled constant leg cramps during conditioning practices as her body adjusted to the daily wrestling routine.

She often stayed after practices to master moves and positioning that she had to learn based on feeling alone (Montuori and teammate Jeremy Nguyen would always be there to assist her).

But through every bear crawl and every pushup, Milligan never complained.

"No matter how much I wanted to slack, I couldn't allow myself to do it," Milligan said. "I knew it would weaken me in the long run. I don't quit; it's not in my personality."

Milligan performed every practice drill her teammates did, albeit off to the side so she could feel her away across the gymnasium. She now has the boys' full attention, love and respect.

"During the beginning the boys were tentative towards me," Milligan said. "But they learned to accept me as the season went on. I love my teammates, and that's my main goal is to be a good teammate."

Montuori said Milligan "has inherited 14 brothers and three coaches that would do anything for her. Anna is the strongest wrestler with the most heart that I've ever had in my nine years of coaching wrestling."

Milligan's first season with Sullivan was a learning experience filled with unforgettable moments and triumphs. She recorded her first victory, which she cited as her biggest thrill, via pin fall in the first period of regulation during a preseason scrimmage.

In last week's York County Middle School Athletic Conference tournament, considered the biggest middle school event of the year, Milligan went 1-1 in her two bouts. Her victory came over a Dutchman Creek Middle School wrestler, a pin fall at the 17-second mark in the first period.

Milligan's second bout was a 9-2 loss to the second-seeded wrestler in her weight class. The Sullivan Falcons finished second overall in the tournament.

Milligan intends to continue her wrestling career past the seventh-grade: "to infinity and beyond," in her own words. And while others may consider her lack of vision an obstacle, Milligan believes she hasn't lost a step against her competition in a sport based so prominently around the senses.

"My opponents may be able to see, but I'm so used to my hearing that my ears work as eyes, too," Milligan said. "I'm not like everyone else, but in a way I still am."

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