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Children's Triumph of the Spirit Wins the Gold


MALIBU — Had he been going for the gold in Atlanta, Josh Leister, 10, couldn't have been more pumped. He'd just placed third in his equestrian event and, he explained, "If my horse hadn't been peeing, I could have come in second."

Big ambitions for a kid who looks at the world through thick glasses--without them he's virtually blind--and announces, rather matter of factly, "I've had 25 operations" to relieve pressure from congenital glaucoma.

But Josh was only one of 100 blind or visually impaired children, ages 5 to 12, competing in an Olympic-style event at Camp Bloomfield, the foundation for the Junior Blind's bucolic site in the mountains above Malibu. The event marked the foundation's 40th year of camping programs.

Spirits were high. Having just won the tandem bike race, Guy Stablein, 10, of Las Vegas shared a high-five with his pilot, volunteer Craig Furst. Just then, Furst's dad, Howard, also a volunteer, whizzed by with another young camper in tow, yelling, "You cheated!"

Actually, they'd won fair and square, and would pick up the gold medal in the event, a scavenger hunt on wheels with the camper reading clues from large print or Braille cards.

But, as Furst saw it, today "everyone won."

He was right.

The campers. The volunteers. Everyone who had the privilege of meeting kids like Guy and Josh, who lives in Manteca, Calif.

Guy was born with detached retinas--"I also have [lens] implants and cataracts"--but gets along just fine except when his glasses are "all cruddy and dirty." Like other campers robbed partially or totally of their sight, he's not sitting around feeling sorry for himself. "They accept it and deal with it," said Richard Rueda, 22, a former Bloomfield camper who's now a camp activity leader.

And, he said, at Bloomfield, "You're not made fun of, because everyone's in the same boat." In the mainstream world, he said, these kids may hear, "Oh, he can't ride a bike, he can't play ball. . . ," but here they find they can. Doing their best is all that's asked.

Case in point: Darren Lammers, 11, of Riverside, who, with the help of voice commands from a sighted teammate, rode an aging dappled horse through an obstacle course. All went well, until Darren had to hang a pair of Hula-Hoops over the head of a man-made horse in the ring. He missed.

"Great try!" boomed a voice over the loudspeaker. Hardly seated in the bleachers, Darren asked, "What are we going to do next?" And, within minutes, he was singing, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. . . ."

In the archery area, beepers behind targets made things a little easier, as did helping hands on archers' arms. Sighted youngsters also guided track and field competitors, gymnasts and swimmers.

Olympics are about role models, and these games were no exception. There was Greg Evangelatos, 34, of L.A. Blinded in a fireworks accident when he was 18, he "had a really hard time getting on my feet." Things started to turn around for him when he came to Bloomfield as a counselor. "These kids showed me their love of life," he said.

Four years later, in 1992, he bested other disabled skiers to win a gold medal in the giant slalom at the Paralympics accompanying the winter Olympics in Albertville, France, and, at the Summer Games in Barcelona, took a silver in the Paralympics cycling road race.

There was Klaudia Birkner, 23, of San Marcos, who lost her sight to cone-rod dystrophy at 15. In one week, she said, "I went from 20-20 to legally blind." In 1992 she took up skiing. "The first time I went down the bunny slope, I thought I was going to die," she said, but she was soon zipping downhill at 80 miles an hour, following another skier's voice commands.

In April, she took the gold in women's giant slalom at the U.S. disabled National Alpine Championships at Breckenridge, Colo.

She was tooling around Camp Bloomfield in a wheelchair, having fractured her spine in a fall after crossing the finish line in her winning effort. But she'll be back on the slopes. "I'll try anything once. If it doesn't kill me, I'll try it again."

As befits a proper Olympics, Bloomfield had a proper closing ceremony, against the backdrop of the flags of the countries for which the five competing teams were named. Sighted children helped teammates mount the winners platforms to receive the medals that some would still be wearing days later.

Emcee Dr. Jonathan Macy, an ophthalmologist and foundation board member, proclaimed all the children winners for having met so many challenges "in so many ways throughout their lives." A trumpet blast from members of USC's Trojan marching band punctuated his remarks.

"Shoot for the stars," Evangelatos told the youngsters. "On to Atlanta!" Or perhaps Sydney in 2000 or Salt Lake City in the winter of 2002.

Robert Ralls, the nonprofit foundation's president, watched from the sidelines. "Part of the point of this," he said, was that it also be a learning experience for the 100 sighted children from the Westside who volunteered as teammates.

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