Community Spotlight: Inclusion is One Love
I, and half a million subscribers associate Anthony Ferraro with the up-beat, high-energy, blind guy, who drove a Ferrari, skateboards, plays guitar and, well… grills peaches and does the dishes on his YouTube channel. But on meeting Anthony, I learned about the man behind the escapades. He shared his story, and what motivates him to do what he does.
A regular, blind childhood
Taking us back to the beginning, Anthony told me what it was like to grow up with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a degenerative condition that often causes severe vision loss or blindness at a young age. He was diagnosed as an infant, and he explained how this affected his childhood… and how it didn’t.
“My parents were told to get me a Braille education but treat me like every other kid. That’s basically what happened. I grew up, the youngest of five, surfing, skateboarding and riding bikes. I went to a school for the blind to learn how to read and write in Braille and learn how to be independent. In 7th grade I integrated into sighted school. I went from being in a school of blind people to being the only blind person. There was a lot of anxiety, I wanted to fit in. That’s when I found wrestling.”
Finding his sport
Anthony’s brother Oliver, was a talented wrestler, ranking 5th in State at high school. Anthony, realizing ball sports were not for him, decided to follow in his brother’s footsteps. In wrestling, he found a sport he could be involved in, and that could accommodate his blindness.
“It wasn’t practical for me to play baseball or basketball, with passing and catching, as my vision was changing. At first, I was able to see the blurry outlines of people and maybe I could make out some objects and colors. Over time, it changed and now I’m left with light and color perception.
So, I started wrestling. There’s a rule because I’m blind, that we have to stay in constant contact, the two hand touch rule, and if we break away, the referee blows his whistle, and we have to come back to the center.”
In the years to come, Anthony would be recognized as a top athlete and an extremely talented wrestler, but there would be challenges along the way.
“I was really bad at wrestling; I think I won one match in 7th grade. But then I started going to this club and I really worked. I wanted to get good at this. I put in all this time, had tournaments every weekend and I got better. In 8th grade, I ended up winning the Tri-County middle school tournament.”
Although Anthony had proved he was more than able to compete with his sighted peers, he found this didn’t level the playing field.
Anthony had received a letter of acceptance from the private boy’s high school his brothers attended. The school were sourcing Braille learning materials and working on improving accessibility ready for his arrival. However, with the death of the President of the school’s board at that time, his place at that school was brutally taken away. He received a letter rescinding his place at the school, saying they would not be able to provide the accommodations Anthony needed after all.
“They accepted me and then they took it away. It was heartbreaking, I was 14 years old, and told i can’t go somewhere because of something I can’t control. That really hurt.
The wrestling coach at another school reached out, and I went from not being allowed to go somewhere, to being welcomed with open arms.”
Throughout high school, Anthony competed against sighted wrestlers, and he won. He was the wrestling team’s captain for three years and was on the varsity team for four. But his success wasn’t celebrated by everyone.
“Once I started winning a lot and getting good, kids and their parents would say ‘he has an unfair advantage because of the two hand touch rule.’ They even said, ‘He’s faking his blindness to get an unfair advantage’. And I’m just a kid, I just want to fit in at high school. Wrestling was my one way of doing that. But it became almost political. It used to really get to me, but I started to build the muscle that helps me ignore all that.”
There was one very special person who always celebrated Anthony’s success. His older brother Oliver. Oliver recognized the power of his little brother’s story and wanted to share it with as many people as he could.
When Anthony won the District Championships in his junior year, Oliver, who had a passion for film-making, made a short clip of Anthony talking about how he navigates the challenges of being a blind wrestler. When the clip was posted online, film-maker Chris Suchorsky contacted Oliver with the intention of helping them tell Anthony’s story. This would eventually become ‘A Shot in the Dark’, the award-winning, feature-length documentary that has inspired so many, since its release in 2017. The film takes the viewer through Anthony’s senior year, as he worked towards his goal of becoming the first blind State Champion. It also highlights some challenges Anthony would need to work through as a blind teenager, growing up and looking ahead his future.
The film is special to Anthony for a very personal reason. It was Oliver’s idea, and his dream. On the day before a meeting scheduled with Chris, Oliver suddenly passed away. At the time of the tragedy, which left Anthony and his family devastated, Chris made a promise to finish the film. Viewers might assume the film is about triumph in the face of adversity, but to Anthony, it’s about love.
“We put the trailer on Kickstarter because we needed money for postproduction. We told the whole story, everything that had happened, and suddenly the trailer went viral. We raised $84,000. There was such an outpouring of love from all these strangers. It was incredible. It was a labor of love for Chris, and for me, it’s a love story told for my brother.”
Anthony talked about how hard he found the two years that followed Oliver’s passing. Working through his grief, he spent time at home, wondering how to move forward. Then one phone call gave him the direction he needed.
“I was sitting at home, kinda feeling sorry for myself. I’d see things about wrestling and it would make me feel like I’ve got this unfinished business, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then I get a phone call and they say ‘Is this Anthony Ferraro? This is the United States Olympics Committee…’ I was like ‘Er- I think you have the wrong number!’”
After seeing Anthony wrestling in ‘A Shot in the Dark’, the Committee invited Anthony to train to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020. As wrestling was not a Paralympic sport, it was suggested that he train in Judo for Team USA.
“When these opportunities come, you have to take them because they don’t come often.” Anthony explains.
He described the following three years as “packing ten years of judo into three."
He found himself immersed in an intensive training schedule, travelling to different countries almost every month, to compete. Anthony made quick progress and was fighting at his best, when just weeks before the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games was due to open, he sustained an injury that left him unable to fight for several months.
“I just had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to get better in time. It was really brutal. But now I’m in training for Paris 2024.”
Despite the challenges and heartbreak Anthony has described, he still seems to exude positivity. He has an energetic way of expressing himself and as a listener, you can’t help but feel a little of his positivity rubbing off as he speaks. From training for Team USA to climbing Machu Picchu, he never seems to slow down.
“Oh man! I really think a lot of it comes from God, a higher power. I feel very connected, and I pray a lot. People see me positive all the time, but I try to remind them, I’m not a superhero. Somedays it’s hard for me to get out of bed. I feel like I’ve experienced a lot of grief, and you’ve got to try to keep going, but sometimes, you just need to take a day. I’ve always had an amazing support system. Kelly, my wife, is my rock. She puts it best when she says, ‘I can hold out my hand to guide you, but you gotta pull yourself up.’ It’s very true. No-one else can do the work for you. So, taking that time for yourself and your mental health is extremely important.
I’m blind, and sometimes, that can suck, but I never forget there are people in way worse situations than me. So, you gotta live, you gotta love life.
Sharing his message
Anthony shares his experiences across social media with his huge following on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Snapchat. He and his good friend and fellow blind skateboarder Dan Mancina also share their joint adventures through their brand, ‘Four Bad Eyes’, which includes a popular podcast and social media channels. With an already full training schedule that requires such a high level of commitment, Anthony explains why he will always make time for these awareness raising activities.
“Ever since I was 7 or 8 years old, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just want to help people. That was always my response. I wanna leave a legacy in this world. Losing my brother, I’ve been trying to keep his legacy alive. He left so much positivity on this earth and maybe I could leave some of that behind when I go. If 70 years from now, I’m gone, a kid scrolling on the internet finds some of my videos. Maybe he’s in a rut and it picks him up, that’s an incredible thing.”
Offline, Anthony is also a motivational speaker, delivering inspiration and education to audiences across the country. Anthony told me how these experiences have had an impact on him, as well as the audiences he speaks to.
“Sometimes I suffer from imposter syndrome. It’s a vulnerable thing, putting yourself out there like that. I don’t know if anyone cares. But sometimes I’ll get this message, and someone is like ‘Hey man, thank you so much for what you said and what you’re doing. Don’t ever stop. You just helped me get out of a rut.” And sometimes that really helps me, when I’m having a bad day. You know, it’s everyone helping each other. That’s what it’s about.”
The adventure continues…
Anthony is now focusing on training for Paris 2024, while continuing to travel and find adventures with his amazing wife Kelly, his partner in life, fun and work.
It was great to meet Anthony and understand what motivates him as an athlete and an advocate. Before we let him go though, we had one last question…
What is inclusion to you, Anthony?
“Inclusion to me, is giving everyone a chance, not leaving anyone out because of stigma, or because of fear. Inclusion is picking each other up and helping one another overcome obstacles. Inclusion is one love.”