Heart of gold

Legally blind as a result of a condition called ocular albinism, 6-year-old first-grader John Lowry uses taekwondo to get his kicks, taking his first gold medals and learning life lessons in the process.


Sports editor

John Lowry might not be able to see more than two feet in front of him, but that hasn’t stopped him from seeing gold.

Lowry, 6 years old, is legally blind, a result of the hereditary condition ocular albinism. But with a lot of heart and hard work, Lowry claimed two gold medals in his tournament debut.

“It was fun,” the Esquire Hills Elementary School first-grader said. “But it’s boring that I had to wait a long time.”

While Lowry has been able to overcome his condition thanks to help from his parents, Walt and Michelle Lowry, and his Do Jang (or school), Team McEuin Taekwondo, the road to his successes were anything but easy.

A life-long condition

At John’s three-month-old checkup, his pediatrician noticed his eyes involuntarily moving back and forth, a symptom of ocular albinism known as nystagmus. That’s when he was diagnosed, Michelle said.

Ocular albinism, a hereditary condition in which the eyes lack melanin pigment while skin and hair show normal or near-normal coloration, has rendered John with 20/200 to 20/400 vision. That means objects a person with normal vision can see at 200 and 400 feet, John can’t see until he’s 20 feet away. The condition affects less than 200,000 people in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Really, John can’t see clearly more than two feet in front of him. As he’s gotten older, the family has faced numerous hurdles to overcome.

“The older he gets, the more challenges fall into our laps,” Michelle said.

First, John was having problem finding his friends at recess.

“Also, in first grade, they’re really hitting reading hard,” Michelle said. “The words were too small. He couldn’t see the board.”

Those things were fairly easy to overcome, as John simply moved closer in class, for example, but even that came with its own set of challenges.

“With school, and with John not being able to see, it was teaching him to be confident enough to talk to the teacher,” Michelle said.

Wanting to help him improve his confidence, his parents thought sports would be a good outlet for John.

“We did soccer,” Michelle said of John’s first foray into athletics. “Being very competitive, and John being legally blind, he just wasn’t as competitive as what was needed on that team. Team sports just weren’t John’s thing.”

John’s parents began to hear whispers on the sidelines as John would have trouble seeing the ball until it was close to him.

“He’s had some tough times,” Walt said.

A sport with an extra kick

After looking at the possibility of baseball (and the realization that it too would be tough for John to adjust to), his parents decided to try a martial art, landing on taekwondo.

“We thought it’d just be a fun experience,” Michelle said.

Of course getting John into a martial art came with its own set of parental concerns.

“The worst thing you can see is seeing your son or daughter taking a shot to the ribs,” Walt said. “It kind of worried me at first. But we’ve got all these big pads. It’s safe.”

Letting John participate in taekwondo was part of treating him like every other growing boy.

“We just have never treated John like he’s blind,” Michelle said. “He can do anything, some just with accommodations.”

From the very beginning, John was hooked, thanks largely to instructor Brian McEuin, 21.

“Brian was just wonderful with him,” Michelle said. “The first time (John) went he let John and my daughter flip him. They were just sold.”

Well-versed in taekwondo, McEuin’s family has operated the school since 2000. His brothers, Casey and Jason, also are accomplished taekwondo athletes. Brian himself is a five-time national gold medalist, placing fifth at the world championships as a member of the 2003 junior world team.

“I felt it was just another challenge,” he said of welcoming John. “I actually thought it’d be kind of cool to see what we could do with him.”

Team McEuin has never been one to turn people away, he said.

“I like to say that people in taekwondo are not kids or adults,” McEuin said. “They’re instructors and students. In class, everyone bows. Everyone says ‘yes sir, yes maam.’ Everyone obeys the rules. When we’re in our school, our gym, everybody is the same. “

Having worked with deaf students before, John’s condition presented some unique challenges, as the kicking-based martial art requires close combat. But McEuin said John had no problem transitioning into the class.

“A lot of taekwondo, it’s not all in what you’re seeing,” McEuin said. “A lot is listening to your coaching and learning how to kick.

“We’ve had some kids that were deaf,” he continued. “That seemed like it was gonna be hard, but it was actually easy because they were really paying attention. What’s great about John is he’s really good at paying attention and listening.”

In order to help John, he stands at the front of the class during instruction. McEuin said in terms of the sport itself, it was just teaching him leg positioning and foot placement more than anything else.

“There was a lot of physically putting his feet and legs in position to actually learn the kick,” he said. “But one thing about John, he’s got really good muscle memory.”

With nine months under his belt, John’s been loving it.

“It’s fun. I’m part of a team,” John said. “My coach is good. He’s fun. I always have fun. And I work hard because I have to kick hard.”

When asked about his sport, John begins to talk with an enthusiasm only a chid can bring. Once he gets going, he can be hard to stop. But that’s a good thing, McEuin said.

“Oh yeah. He’s got a lot of it.,” McEuin said of his student’s enthusiasm. “He’s a talker too. He’s funny. He was funny from the day he came in here. It made me feel like this would be simple.”

In fact, John blended in so well — “John looks like your average boy,” Michelle said — that McEuin had to let his other students know.

“Actually, for a while nobody even knew John was blind,” McEuin said. “There were times where I had to tell some of the kids he can’t see. But once they figured that out, they helped John out, helped me out.”

John’s confidence built more and more from there.

“Self esteem for one,” Walt said when asked what his son has gained from the sport. “Confidence, the big one. That sense he can do anything he wants to do. There are obstacles, but all it takes is determination, courage and time. And he’s got lots of courage.”

Going for gold

That courage shown through on March 8, when John competed in his first tournament, the Lee’s Martial Arts Open at the Tacoma Trade and Convention Center.

With his first competition came some added anxiety for his parents. But McEuin and John laid out some simple goals for his competitive debut.

“Pretty much just not take it seriously,” McEuin said. “It’s to have fun. And to understand the other kids aren’t there to hurt you. But we were also training him hard.”

In the competition, John advanced to the finals match for his age group, ending regulation time tied at 7-7. That meant the match would go to sudden death.

“It was very exciting,” Michelle said. “I’m not usually a loud person, but I was yelling with the rest of them.”

The competition was tough, Walt added.

“I was so proud,” John’s dad said. “He was really fighting this tough kid, sparring him.”

John was ready for it.

“I’m going to put the smack down on the crack down,” Mary Stivers said John said before the match.

Since the first point would end the match, McEuin instructed John to use his listening skills more than anything.

“Brian said, ‘When you hear me say ‘now,’ kick,” Stivers, McEuin’s mother who is also involved with the school, said. “’You have to do it right when you hear me say it.’ Brian said now, he scored.”

“He had that look in his eyes like, ‘Yeah, this is it,’” Walt added.

“All you heard was that (slap) of the pad,” Walt continued, slapping his own chest pad to recreate the sound. “I was taking pictures but my eyes were tearing up.”

Walt wasn’t alone. That point gave John his first victory and a gold medal.

“I was pretty proud personally,” McEuin said. “He had a big crowd when he was fighting. I think he had the whole audience in tears. You wouldn’t have been able to tell there’s anything wrong with his eyes. It’s really amazing.”

Another interesting caveat for John’s family was that the scoreboard at the tournament was much larger than normal. It was large enough in fact that for the first time John could see it.

“It was big enough that John could look at it,” Michelle said. “It was just kind of neat because it’s not normally something he’d look at.”

That experience only helped grow his love of the sport.

“I’ve won three gold medals so far,” John said. “It’s pretty fun. I’m really fast. It’s really hard, but I work hard all the time.”

His parents said they’ve noticed more and more the benefits for their son.

“It’s wonderful,” Michelle said. “It’s great exercise. He’s always excited to go. And the older kids have just embraced him. It’s been a really positive experience for us.”

Fun for the family

Shorlty after John started, he convinced his dad to join him.

“He said, ‘Hey dad, you’re a dad but you should try this. It’s a lot of fun,’” Walt said.

Walt did, and the two have only grown closer since.

“This is the best,” Walt said. “This is the high point of my week. Father-son bonding, being with a team. It’s really fun.”

McEuin said it benefits both father and son in class and out.

“It’s great to see John kick that high,” McEuin said of the pair sparring. “And dad’s pushing him. It’s making John better. And for Walt, it’s fun. It’s a bonding experience.”

John’s 4-year-old sister Angela joined for a while before deciding to trade in her pads for ballet shoes. Still, with the travel involved and the sense of community within the school, the Lowrys have become a “taekwondo family.”

“We are a taekwondo family,” Walt said. “We talk taekwondo. It’s something we all have an interest in. This is a family thing.”

Next to John’s newfound confidence, that’s also what Michelle has enjoyed most.

“That’s a lot of fun to see them get all ready for class, practicing their kicks and forms,” she said of her husband and son. “It’s been nice bonding time for them. Anything with dad, he’s happy.”

Of course for John, getting to spar with dad has it’s own advantages.

“(I like) kicking him hard,” John said. “I can get him a lot. But sometimes dads get really busy and they don’t have time to do taekwondo.”

Still, he finds plenty of time to use dad as a practice dummy, Walt said prompting a new rule.

“Kick the kick bag and not your dad,” John said.

Life lessons

More important than any medal have been the skills and lessons John has learned in his short time with Team McEuin taekwondo, Michelle said.

“It’s really built his confidence,” she said. “He plans on being a black belt and then moving on to other martial arts. It’s something he’s really latched onto and wants to continue.”

“John’s just a prime example of what all kids can be doing,” McEuin said. “It’s just a matter of finding adults that can work with them.”

Now, John is learning braille, although his condition is a stable one and will not necessarily get worse over time.

“He’s picking it up like you wouldn’t believe,” Michelle said.

Part of what’s enabled John to do so much is that he’s never been treated like a victim.

“He wasn’t really aware of it,” Michelle said of his condition. “John, he’s never seen 20/20. He doesn’t know any different.”

That’s helped him stay positive in the face of challenges like those he’s encountered with taekwondo.

“It’s amazing,” McEuin said. “It’s almost like he does see it. He’s got brains, that’s for sure.”

John said he’s taken much from taekwondo.

“They help me learn a lot,” John said. “How to kick hard, spar and just have fun.”

That’s something everyone deserves a shot at, McEuin said.

“Kids deserve a chance to find something they love doing, something for fun,” he said.

John has certainly found his.

“I just love taekwondo,” John said with a wide grin. “It’s fun, fun, fun.”