Bemidji State University professor Jim Mastro thought his athletic career was over when he lost his vision between his junior and senior year in high school. It was 1966, and Mastro was just 18.
Mastro dropped out of sports for nearly two years while he studied Braille, orientation and mobility, but then enrolled at Augsburg College and went out for wrestling. He didn’t make the team as a freshman, but three years later finished as conference champion.
His return to the mat sparked an athletic career that has seen Mastro inducted into numerous Halls of Fame and receive numerous honors. He received his latest honor on Saturday, May 31, when he received the Medal of Courage during induction ceremonies for the United States National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
The Medal of Courage award continues what has been a whirlwind of attention for Mastro so far in 2008. Earlier this year he was one of five Paralympic nominees for the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and his accomplishments were featured by ESPN in a story published at ESPN.com.
Mastro’s U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame nomination recognized his place in history as the first person ever to medal in four different Paralympic sports – Mastro medalled in judo, wrestling, track and field and goalball. He competed on seven Paralympic teams from 1976 to 2000, winning 10 medals, including four gold, four silver and two bronze. He also was elected flag bearer for the 1996 U.S. Paralympic Team.
Overall, Mastro earned 18 international medals in various sports and was a member of the U.S. team in the 1973 World University Games. He also became the first blind athlete to be a member of an Olympic team when he was an alternate on the U.S. Greco-Roman wrestling team in 1976. Mastro was inducted into the Augsburg College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1997 and the National Beep Baseball Association (NBBA) Hall of Fame in 1999 as a member of nine NBBA Tournament Teams and a three-time most valuable player.
Mastro says the Medal of Courage to him is as meaningful as the Olympic nomination, as both reflect a lifetime of achievement.
Mastro also holds the distinction as the first blind person to earn a Ph.D. in physical education in the United States. He taught at the University of Minnesota before joining the faculty at Bemidji State, where he teaches classes in education foundations, special education and adaptive physical education.
Born blind in one eye, Mastro lost the vision in his other eye in a mishap as an 11-year-old. Two surgeries temporarily restored his sight, but he lost it permanently at age 18.
If Mastro has any regrets, it’s that he dropped out of sports those two years after losing his vision. Instead of attending his northeast Minneapolis high school, he had a tutor his senior year and then studied a year at the Minneapolis Society for the Blind. At the time, he didn’t think sports participation was an option.
“We all have our stereotypes of people, and my stereotype of the blind was a guy selling pencils on a street corner,” says Mastro, recalling how he felt about his future when he first went blind. “If I had it all to do over again, I would have kept on wrestling and doing track and field.”
Mastro, who turns 60 in July, would love to medal in a fifth Paralympic sport, but can’t imagine what that would be unless new sports are added. In the meantime, he still practices Judo and stays fit by running 12 flights of stairs 15 times a day at BSU’s Tamarack Hall, a place, he jokes, where he never gets lost.
His hope for the future is that para-athletes, particularly the blind, have more opportunities to compete in a wider variety of sports. He has been a proponent for U.S. competitions in Power Showdown, a newer table game that combines the action of ping-pong and air hockey for blind or blindfolded players. Mastro includes the game in a camp for individuals with visual impairment that he started at Bemidji State six years ago.
“One of the things I want is for blind people to have the right to compete, the right to have as normal a life as possible,” says Mastro, noting that some children who attend his camp have never had an athletic experience. “To be given that opportunity is very important.”
• On the Web
ESPN.com feature story on Mastro, published 5/30/2008