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High school wrestling: Blackduck High School student Stomberg doesn't let blindness deter her from pursuing athletics

Maddie Stomberg, top, grapples Gregg Colen during wrestling practice on Wednesday, Dec. 7 at Blackduck High School. Pioneer Photo/Ben Karkela

When Maddie Stomberg told her parents she wanted to join the wrestling team, they weren't surprised.

Sure, it might raise an eyebrow when a girl tries out for the wrestling team, but it's not unheard of. What might really surprise people, however, is the fact that Maddie is blind.

Maddie, 14, was born with Leber's congenital amaurosis, a rare, inherited eye disease. Though she can't see, Maddie has never been deterred from pursuing athletics.

Maddie's parents, Ryan and Bridget, approached Blackduck-Cass Lake-Bena wrestling coach Jay Reiplinger about joining the team.

"She's always been a daredevil," Ryan said. "Someone forgot to tell her she's blind."

The Stombergs were pleased to find out that the Minnesota State High School League already has rules in place for both female and vision-impaired wrestlers.

If a wrestler is blind, both wrestlers must always remain in contact with each other. If they separate, the referee stops the match and both wrestlers must come into contact again.

It turns out that wrestling is a great fit for Maddie, even though she has no prior experience.

Ryan occasionally goes to wrestling practice to watch his daughter. He recalled one practice where Maddie was getting tossed around and thrown to the mat by a more experienced teammate. Maddie had a smile on her face the whole time.

"She can't help it," Ryan said. "She loves the competition."

Her teammates know not to take it easy on her, though. If that happens, she gets angry.

"The reason I'm in wrestling is because I'm tough," Maddie said. "I holler at them if they take it easy on me."

Maddie, a freshman at Blackduck High School, would rather get beat down and thrown down to the mat than win easy.

Wrestling isn't the first sport Maddie has tried. She loves to play a sport for blind athletes called Goalball, where teams of three try to throw a ball that has bells embedded in it into the opponent's goal. Goallball is played at the Paralympics.

Maddie even tried her hand at cheerleading this fall, but she found it wasn't for her.

"I guess I'm just not a cheerleader," Maddie said. "Maybe I'm more of a tomboy than I thought."

One of Maddie's favorite activities is singing. This year, Maddie entered the solo event at the Minnesota state tournament where she sang "I Dreamed a Dream," from Les Miserables.

Maddie's mother, Bridget, persuaded her daughter to sing that particular piece because it would bring people to tears.

At the tournament, Maddie was nervous because it was only the second time in her life that she was singing competitively. It turns out she had no reason to feel that way.

She nailed it.

Though Maddie didn't bring anyone to tears, the judge awarded her a perfect score of 40 points.

"I was pretty shocked, but it was a lot of fun," Maddie said.

Maddie admits she talks a lot, maybe too much. She finds that her knack for chatter also helps her in another treasured competition: speech.

Though Maddie loves taking part in so many activities, wrestling has taken up most of her time lately.

Maddie initially feared her wrestling teammates might not be receptive of her, but she found the whole team has been very supportive.

"She's really dedicated," Cody Nord, assistant wrestling coach said. "She wants everybody to go all out, and she goes all out."

Maddie knows she won't get to wrestle as much this year as most of her teammates.

Opposing teams may not be willing to wrestle a girl. It's simply uncomfortable for many boys to wrestle a girl.

Her parents agree that gender will be the most difficult part of Maddie's adjustment to wrestling.

Maddie is not as physically strong as most wrestlers on the team.

Not yet, anyway.

She plans to spend plenty of time at the weight room this winter to improve her strength.

"I think she will be well received, but she is going to hit roadblocks," Bridget said. "Those will be good for her and she'll adjust to that quickly."

Maddie joined the wrestling team because of her strong desire to be athletic, but knows that wrestling will bring her face to face with many challenges. She isn't willing to back down from any of them.