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February 2, 2003

A firm hold

From: Baltimore Sun, MD - 02 Feb 2003

Blind and nearly deaf, Loyola High's Nikos Daley has been able to grasp a little glory and much satisfaction as a junior varsity wrestler

By Lem Satterfield
Sun Staff
Originally published February 2, 2003

Preparing to take on his opponent from visiting McDonogh, Nikos Daley was unaware he was about to face Cory Haugh, the same wrestler who had pinned him in less than a minute during a previous match.

Loyola High School's junior varsity coach, Steve Thompson, escorted Daley to the center of the mat for the neutral, standing start. The referee motioned the McDonogh wrestler forward and instructed both boys to touch palms, leaning closer to Daley so he was sure to understand what was said.

Daley didn't recognize the other boy because he couldn't see him. He heard the words only faintly because he is almost deaf, and his hearing aids won't fit under his wrestling headgear.

Daley, 16, has been blind since birth. His hearing loss is believed to be linked to the same congenital condition. Despite his disabilities, the Loyola sophomore is an upbeat achiever, supported in a drive for independence by his family, friends, teachers and teammates.

"That he has the ability to perform as he does is absolutely amazing," said Dr. Theda Kontis, an otolaryngologist, or ear, nose and throat specialist, who became Daley's physician in 1999. "He talks and acts like there's nothing wrong. He handles his disabilities better than anyone ever could."

Daley was born in Greece and spent his early years in an Athens orphanage. He is one of five children adopted by Peter and Alex Daley, and the youngest in their family of nine children. Older brothers Tom and Paul, both 21, preceded him at Loyola, where they were wrestlers and football and lacrosse players.

Said Peter Daley of his youngest son's wrestling career: "I'm impressed with his progress. It'll take a lot more hard work than other people, but he'll get his share of wins."

On this afternoon against Haugh, Nikos Daley was not yet skilled enough to get a win. The pair was poised in the legal position for bouts involving blind wrestlers, "one palm down, one palm up, touching the other person's [hand] up to your knuckles," as referee Biff Davison described it.

Haugh, having wrestled Daley before, knew the drill. "You can do anything like in another match, except you have to maintain contact," the 125-pound junior said. But this time, Haugh noticed, Daley had improved his defenses.

"Obviously, being blind, it's going to be tough for him," Haugh said. "But he's going to get to wrestle every match the same way, but for a person who isn't blind, it kind of takes you out of your element."

Haugh, 17, pinned Daley in the second period, after gaining a new level of respect.

"I finally got the half-nelson in, but it was tough. This time, he was stronger."

And wiser. "When I lost the first match, I went back, tried to figure out what went wrong," Daley said.

Only afterward did Daley discover that he had been in a rematch. He said he hoped to meet Haugh once more that day to "get my revenge." Instead, he faced 16-year-old Quin Pierson.

In their exhibition bout, Daley was on his back three times as he fought off Pierson, a junior, who got the pin with 23 seconds left in the match.

In contrast to opponents such as Haugh and Pierson, who have wrestled continuously for years, Daley most recently competed in a recreation council in eighth grade. This season, his first as a high school wrestler, he finished with four wins in 12 tries after going 2-2 in yesterday's junior varsity tournament at Archbishop Curley.

Daley skipped competition as a ninth-grader to allow himself to get used to high school. Daley is the only blind student to ever attend Loyola, said Debbie Cotter, computer science chairwoman and director of educational technology, who meets with him daily to oversee his instruction.

Nationally, there are 56,000 blind or visually impaired children, according to the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes. In Maryland, the organization has 17 members who compete in high school sports, said Nicole Jomantas, communications director. Daley's mother said she is not aware of his belonging to the association.

A favorite of teachers

At Loyola, Daley earns mostly A's, mastering academics with the help of a Braille note-taking device and a system that assists his hearing. His teachers wear a type of microphone that transmits signals directly to his hearing aids. Classrooms are marked in Braille so Daley can identify each room.

"But he has learned these things by direction. And he does use a cane," Cotter said. "He's come miles since he was first at Loyola. He was a timid little guy who needed someone else to get from class to class - but he needs no one now."

Cotter, who describes her role as "almost like a mother-child relationship" with Daley, is but one of several professionals who have nurtured him. Another is Bronwyn Welsh, an employee of the Baltimore County schools who teaches Braille.

"I don't really think I've told him," said Welsh, who instructs Daley once a week, "but he's the one who got me doing this."

Ten years ago she was his first-grade teacher at Reisterstown Elementary. "That was the year they started inclusion, saying that all children, regardless of their disabilities, should be in a regular classroom," she said. "I had never been around a blind person," she recalled, but she improvised, coming up with various tactile teaching methods. She also tricked him into becoming more independent.

"I would make up bogus notes for him to take to the office, and I would call down ... to let them know that Nikos was coming," Welsh said. "They would watch for him, and he would just be so proud of himself that he could go down to the office and come back on his own."

Another fan is Daley's mobility instructor, who said she has taught him use of a cane and related skills "off and on" since he was 6. "I look forward to seeing him every week," said Pam Satterlee-Williams, who said the teen has asked about using the cane to help him ride a skateboard or perhaps a snowboard. "He has guts, an adventuresome spirit, and he's certainly not timid."

That outgoing outlook started at home. "Nikos' family has always allowed him to do things, physically, that anybody else would do," she said. "The Daleys would adapt bicycles, making them a tandem. They did all sorts of things."

Peter Daley, 58, said his youngest son was encouraged to play outside the family's 11-bedroom house in Reisterstown much like the other eight children.

"Even now, there's a series of posts and a chain-link fence that goes down the walk in front of our house," said Peter Daley, a director of human resources for Home Depot in Westminster. "Nikos would hold on to that chain and know if he was at the end. Nikos would use his Big Wheel, drive down, turn around and come back."

Nowadays, he said, his son rollerblades to the end of the block.

"He roughhoused with his older brothers," said sister Gina Ruppert, 28. "He's not been coddled. He was expected to pull his weight like everyone else in terms of chores and everything."

Tough love at home

Alex and Peter Daley are devout Catholics who gather with their children to pray the rosary shortly after Sunday dinner. Around the house are sayings drawn from biblical lessons, such as one painted in red letters in the family room: "Don't forget to be kind to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it."

The saying, said Alex, 56, "basically means everybody's welcome into our house."

That certainly applied to Nikos, a Greek toddler whose picture she spotted in an adoption magazine. But unlike their previous adoptions of four Korean children, the process of obtaining Nikos was lengthy.

When Peter Daley brought him from Greece in July 1991, he was a scared 4-year-old who could neither see his surroundings nor have them described in a language he understood. A Greek-speaking friend came over several days later to interpret.

More than a decade later, Nikos still recalls his arrival. "We used to have this sink with a fountain to it that was really cool," he said. "I've always liked water, and I kept turning it on and off. I remember just going through the house, touching everything to see what was there."

"For about a month," Alex Daley said, "we couldn't get him to eat anything but cornflakes."

Nikos wasn't the first to join the Daley family under difficult circumstances. Alexis, adopted at 2, endured a bone staph infection. Kara, who has cerebral palsy, could barely walk when she arrived at 4.

The Daleys loved their children through their various problems, but it was tough love.

"My parents wouldn't do everything for me, which was the best thing for me," said Kara, 20, who played soccer for Sacred Heart. She is especially close to her little brother, helping pick out his clothes and counseling him. "Nikos could have similar problems dealing with people as I did, people laughing and teasing. Since I've already gone through [it], I can give advice on what to do or say."

Visualizing for fun

Around his house, Daley is rarely without his best friend and neighbor, Marcus Gillen-Davis, 17, a junior at Franklin High. "He's really been a godsend," Alex Daley said.

Playing video games in the Daleys' basement is a favorite shared pastime. "I usually tell him [Nikos] if something is approaching or if someone's getting really close and starts shooting at him - but he takes care of the rest," said Gillen-Davis.

Daley, his fingers moving nimbly on the PlayStation controller, explains that he visualizes the objects on the screen based on the way his friend has described them before. "He tells me what's going on, and I'm used to the sounds. But this one's Final Fantasy 8; I'm really good at this!"

What else besides video games does Daley enjoy visualizing?

Extreme weather, he replied. "We were almost in a hurricane at the beach once. My mom was freaking out, but I just took it all in. I've seen hailstorms and tornadoes. I've seen blizzards. The sounds of the weather are very interesting," he said, adding that he wants to become a meteorologist.

To help prepare him for the future, whatever the career, Daley and his parents belong to a club, Transition to Independence, sponsored by the National Foundation of The Blind. It conducts exercises and provides mentors for blind youngsters.

Meanwhile, in the afternoons at wrestling practice, Daley has a mentor in head coach Kenny Taylor, who is closing in on a degree in adaptive physical education.

"I have experience working with physically and mentally challenged kids, many of whom were in wheelchairs or had problems that inhibited them from being mainstreamed into a regular school," Taylor said. "What amazed me was how these kids enjoyed life. It's the same thing with Nikos."

"I really like Coach Taylor," Daley said. "He's really glad when you win, not that uptight when you lose, and he's always confident you can do it. He encourages you."

For the more than two dozen boys on Loyola's wrestling team, Daley's decision to wrestle meant adjusting to a person who couldn't get around on his own. After one early practice, an assistant coach was supposedly the last to leave, but realized Daley was still in the room behind him.

Taylor called a team meeting and asked all the wrestlers to help their teammate.

"They had seen him pick up his cane and find his way over to the door. They didn't realize he really didn't know where he was," Taylor said. "After that, the kids realized he needed some assistance and to make sure he was all right.

"Since then, everyone's checking to see, 'Where's Nikos?' or 'Is Nikos on the bus?' "

"When he gets into group drills," Taylor said, "whoever is working with him that day is responsible for helping him."

At a recent practice, one of Daley's two partners took Daley's outstretched hand and sat him down against a wall out of harm's way. When Daley ran sprints, freshman Alex Keller ran beside him, shouting "left," or "right," to keep him on course.

At one point, however, it appeared Daley's teammates had forgotten him as he took a break between drills. The momentum of two tumbling wrestlers brought them dangerously close to Nikos, one of their legs just missing his head.

After drills, "he'll just stick out his hand and wait until he feels your hand before he does anything," Taylor said. "I told him he can't just sit down on the mat like that. He's got to indicate that he needs help."

Later, Taylor walked Daley through a drill, demonstrating moves and winding up the instruction with a sort of pirouette to face his student. "It's a half-step, not a circle. It's like doing the cha-cha," he said. "Then you're ready to attack."

Taylor then critiqued Daley's successful imitation."That's a nice standup. But get better hand control."

Commenting on his progress, Taylor said, "He picks things up fairly quickly, but I like him to do it over and over again."

Putting skills to the test

The next day, Daley was using his moves for real.

Daley battled Calvert Hall's Michael Gray, 14, through six minutes of regulation and a one-minute extra session.

At that point, Gray said he told himself: "Whoa, he's pretty good."

In the 30-second double overtime, one wrestler wins by escaping before time runs out, the other by holding his opponent down for the duration. Daley's arms had grown heavy, and his chest was on fire.

"I was counting the seconds in my head because I was getting tired and I wanted the match to end," he said.

"I basically locked my knees around his knee, putting half-nelsons on him. He almost did get away, but time ran out."

Daley's hand was raised in victory, his first win in high school.

Gray was among those who congratulated him. "He was really good. He had skills," Gray said. "Just because he's blind doesn't mean he doesn't have strength."

Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun