Paralympian Osvaldas Bareikis: 'One just learns to live differently'

“I really want to do something, to move. Sometimes, when I’m with my friends, I’ll do a summersault, a front flip, or just start jumping around. People may think I’m a bit weird but I just don’t want to sit in one place,” Osvaldas Bareikis, 23, talks calmly about movement, activity, and crazy sensations.

It is not by accident that I use the word “calmly”. Either chatting or walking the tatami (special judo mat), even fighting, Osvaldas stays the same: calm. Even when in ten seconds time his opponent tackles him down seven times, he is calm. Osvaldas immediately stands up and grabs onto his opponents: shadows and silhouettes. Osvaldas’ sight is getting weaker everyday. He is partially sighted.

In 2013, this guy became the champion in the World Junior Judo Championship for Visually Impaired and participated in the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) World Games in Seoul; he is also the winner of the Lithuanian Judo Championship for Blind and Partially Sighted. He also was the only representative of Lithuania in the event of judo in the 2016 Paralympics.

This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.

Tried everything but judo

Awards and prizes do not seem to be prominent to Osvaldas, he is much more into telling stories on how he tried to defeat this or that opponent. So the awards are listed instead by his coach Algis Mečkovskis, who has trained 28 World, European, and Paralympic Games’ champions and medalists so far. Osvaldas usually competes against athletes his own age, whom he takes down without difficulty. However, when a 43-year-old Jonas Staškus, European judo champion of 1997 and bronze winner at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, takes up Osvaldas, the duel is completely different. It is something of a collision of generations, the young against the old. After Osvaldas is flung down to the ground, Jonas smiles and adds that “this kid has a future.” Experience defeats youth, but Jonas shares tips with Osvaldas and demonstrates the right way to do the moves. Osvaldas, still lying on the ground, listens carefully, but it only takes a minute for him to lift himself up and take up a fighting position again. This time Osvaldas is more successful, Jonas pounds his palm on the tatami and gives up. However, what we see is nothing but a result of many years of hard work.

Coach Algis remembers the moment he saw Osvaldas for the first time, when he came to the Lithuanian Sports Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted from Ukmergė. The encounter did not happen in the judo gym, first Algis saw Osvaldas playing goalball and taking part in swimming competitions. “In Lithuanian context, his results were very good in all of the sport events. Judo is a type of sport that requires all kinds of skill, from acrobatics and gymnastics to mobility and endurance. Osvaldas was versatile,” says Algis about his young wrestler.

Osvaldas, sitting on the tatami, counts on his fingers how many different types of sports he has ever tried: “Goalball, tennis, track-and-field athletics, even chess! But it wasn‘t enough, I wanted something different.“

A simple desire to flaunt

The results of every sport that Osvaldas tried were promising, but they did not make him happy. One time in the changing rooms, one of the classmates suggested him to sign up for judo. Osvaldas got hooked right after the first training session: “I liked it. I had to construct my own game, to devise the moves, and when I’d succeed and win, it would be the coolest thing in this sport!”

His skills were quickly spotted by the coach: “There was no lack of blind and partially sighted judo fighters, but Osvaldas was exceptional for his coordination and ability to perform movements during a sommersault. He knew how to piece everything together, which is very important in this sport.”

Osvaldas could not wait for throws and falls to be added to his training sessions. He wanted to move and understand how his body reacts to the fight, to feel the contact with an opponent. But, at first, there were no throws or falls. He was studying judo and its rules, various stretching exercises, and defence. He vividly remembers the gym where his first training sessions were held and talks about it as if it was his home: “The gym was tiny, about 3 meters wide and 6 meters long, like a bedroom. But, since I was little, it appeared to be huge, everything was new and unseen.”

Despite the fact that now Osvaldas fights in international judo tournaments, defeats the strongest opponents and wins medals, judo, at first, was just a game for him. “I wanted to prove my manliness and the fact that I’m stronger, faster, better than everyone. I wanted to flaunt in front of the classmate who suggested me to join judo. He had been training for longer than I had, but I learned faster and finally he couldn’t win against me. I flaunted so much that the classmate gave up judo,” laughs Osvaldas.

“One just learns to live differently”

When I came to the gym to meet Osvaldas for the first time, I had doubts if I am actually talking to the right person. His sight and orientation seemed just fine. There were no obvious signs that I am talking to a partially sighted person. There was no white cane around him. He did not inspect various surfaces with his hands or had any fear to bump into things, as blind and partially sighted people usually do. “Are you really that Osvaldas Bareikis?” I asked friendly. “That same one,” he laughed.

Osvaldas has glaucoma. It affects the optic nerve and increases intraocular pressure. “All I remember is that when I was a child, I was able to see everything, but in school they would already seat me in the first rows, because I couldn’t see the words written on the board. I didn’t notice that at first, just lived my life. Later I started to feel that I can’t read a book if the font is too small, or I couldn’t see some things anymore,” Osvaldas describes the first defects in his sight.

To Osvaldas, his poor sight is an encouragement to get more out of life. “Sometimes people don’t notice that I’m visually impaired, and when they find out, they are surprised. How can you be visually impaired when you’re doing everything a healthy person can?, they say. I just got used to living like that: I study, I do, and I succeed,” talks Osvaldas passionately.

And, he immediately adds, “one just learns to live differently.” Osvaldas had to learn to look at the sun, grass, and busy hard-working ants differently. “When I was little, I used to love watching ants and how they carry something bigger than themselves. I was very interested in them. But later I wasn’t able to see them… All I could see was that something’s moving. I started using magnifying glass, but soon it didn’t help either,” continues his thought Osvaldas.

He had to re-learn to recognise people, too. “I see people, their contours and silhouettes, but not faces. And when, for example, I see a friend walking in the distance, I recognise him from the way he walks: is he walking like a penguin, is he waddling, how his arms and legs are moving. This helps me orientate and recognise him,” explains Osvaldas.

Disposition and stability

As soon as Osvaldas steps his foot into the gym and sees tatami, he bows to it mentally: “All that’s in my head is the upcoming training session and how I’m going to exercise, leave all my energy here, and get tired. It’s going to be awesome.”

Osvaldas’ coach reveals that most people think that, for blind or partially sighted people, it is hard to do sports. But these are only myths and stereotypes. “They do everything just like the healthy. If they have to run, they run. If they have to jump, they jump. If they have to perform throws, they perform them. You simply have to demonstrate everything by touch, more physically. Sometimes the results of blind people in judo do not differ from the results of the healthy athletes. Not everyone with perfect vision could perform moves that these people do,” says A. Mečkovskis.

Personal and physical abilities of a person are more important when it comes to picking a good judo wrestler. And vision is not one of them. “Physical preparation is the most important. It is mostly related to speed and endurance. A fast person can train to endure, but an endurant person will hardly ever become fast. This sport demands the synthesis of speed, endurance, and strength,” these are the features of a successful judo fighter as listed by the coach.

He adds that Osvaldas’ strongest features are stability and disposition before the fight. “The right state of mind before the fight can create a miracle: one can win against a stronger opponent. State of mind is an art form.”

The most cunning opponent: psychology

Osvaldas has a slightly different opinion: “One must be patient, endurant, obedient to one’s coach and a good listener.”

However, one of the hardest tasks for every athlete is psychological preparation. There is no universal formula here, so each individual has to find their own way to strengthen psychologically and prepare for the upcoming fights. Some read a lot of books on sports and state of mind before the tournaments, others watch video material of their own and opponents’ fights, some train a lot or isolate themselves from their environs.

Osvaldas is also looking for his own way: before the games, he tries to spend more time alone, to think through his tactics and moves. Sometimes imagination helps. “Sometimes before the fight I do a warm-up session with an imaginary opponent. I fight him, I try to foresee his moves. Then I step onto tatami and try to do the things I thought through,” the wrestler shares his tactics.

Nevertheless, he admits that sometimes he is not able to overcome his psychology, which can trip him up at the most important moment.

“When I’m at the games and I see that huge tatami, a crowd of people, cameras… I get so excited that I don’t know what to do anymore, my head becomes completely empty. I stress the most when I and my opponent meet in the middle. I have to devise a way to defeat him, there’s not much time, and I still don’t know how to do it all. I start the fight and, for example, I decide not to do a certain move: let’s say when I see a situation where I could do it but I am slightly afraid to go and do it,” even now, Osvaldas wrings his hands when remembering fights in his past.

There is one story on how difficult it is to handle one’s psychology and pressure before and during the games. The message from the IBSA World Games 2015 in Seoul on was a brief one: “The only Lithuanian judo wrestler in the Games, Osvaldas Bareikis, won once, lost once and did not partake in the battle for medals.” But there was way more going on in Osvaldas’ head than that.

“I was psychologically devastated. I was about to fight with an athlete from Japan but I wasn’t well prepared psychologically. Perhaps I was overconfident and that’s why I lost so fast and by such a simple move… When I stepped off the tatami, I couldn’t see my coach or anybody else. I found a corner where there was no one, and cried for a while. But then I decided to rise up. I’ll get him next time,” Osvaldas speaks more silently than usual.

Not afraid to go blind – afraid to disappoint

This young judo wrestler has to withstand huge responsibility and pressure, but he is not afraid and walks onto tatami without hesitation. He is not afraid to go completely blind one day, either. Before anything else, he is afraid to disappoint the ones that believe him the most: his mother, father, sister, girlfriend, closest friends.

“Sometimes I want to give up everything, enough of this training. Then I am encouraged by my family and friends: ‘Come on, what else will you do? You can’t live without sport. Go and bring us a medal, we need you to make Lithuania proud.’ And I believe them. I repeat to myself: yes, I can really do this, I will bring you a medal, I will prove it to you. Parents and friends’ support keeps me going,” talks Osvaldas about people closest to him.

After the International Paralympics Committee redistributed the quotas, Osvaldas got a wild card to Rio de Janeiro. He delayed breaking the news to his family and friends until the last minute, when he was 100% sure that he will go to the Paralympics. “My mom was really happy, and I’ve already promised my sister to bring her various gifts from Brazil,” says Osvaldas.

Fighting the scales, fighting oneself

After he found out that he will participate in the Paralympics, he started even heavier and more physically exhausting training. Almost every day he spent 1,5 hours in the judo gym where he exercised, fought with opponents, listened to his coach’s commands, and perfected his technique.

Osvaldas had 2 main tasks. The first one was to be psychologically ready, and the second one was to lose some weight as he weighed 3 kg too much (69 kg instead of 66 kg, which is the category in which he will be competing). “If I am at the Paralympics and I weigh a hundred or even fifty grams too much, the Games will be over for me. I have to lose this weight, attend training sessions, and be psychologically ready. It’s going to be hard,” sighs Osvaldas. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish this task.

Osvaldas wasn’t very nervous so far, his whole attention was put towards training and preparations. He was sure, though, that he will start being afraid, excited, and shaky a few days before the Games. “I know I’ll be thinking if I’m actually ready or not. Can I go to Rio de Janeiro? Can I win?” these are the doubts of a young wrestler.

The gym, where we were talking to Osvaldas, was getting fuller as we speak. Jonas was waving his hand from a distance, coach Algis was also here, somebody was lifting a barbell. A training session had to start in fifteen minutes. The sounds make Osvaldas’ body go tense, as if he is only waiting for the whistle to attack his opponent.

“All the time, I am proving to myself that I can do it. This is a constant battle with myself. I can go to Rio. That is the reason why I went to the training sessions and to the tournaments, why I worked hard and worried a lot: all of that just to participate in the Paralympics. There will be a lot of big names, but I’m very persistent and my wish to defeat the strongest is what moves me forward. All the time, I am trying to prove that I will not come back without a medal,” Osvaldas fixes his blue kimono, tightens his black belt and ends the conversation.

Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

Osvaldas competed with 12 strongest fighters in men’s judo (weight category -66 Kg) and won the 5th place. In a fight for bronze medal he lost to three times Paralympic champion 41 years old Satoshi Fudzimoto from Japan.

When Osvaldas came back from Paralympics, he was happy with his results and assured that he is already eager to train for Tokyo Paralympic games.

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This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.