Condensation fogged the storefront window of Cahill's Judo Academy in San Bruno, and the air inside was warm and close as about 25 athletes practiced hip throws, foot sweeps and falling techniques on a long, narrow mat.
In the back of the room, renowned coach Willy Cahill instructed 20-year- old Lori Pierce while she was modifying a hip throw. She set up the throw several times, stopping at the last moment before actually throwing her workout partner, Mike Alperin, a 200-pound green belt. At one point the 69- year-old Cahill stepped in and placed the palms of his thick hands on her face and gently adjusted the tilt of her head.
"There," he said. "Can you tell the difference?"
She nodded and resumed the starting position. Then, with amazing speed, she spun into her partner, lifting him off the ground, over her shoulder and onto the mat with a thud.
"Yes!" Cahill said to Pierce, who broke into a broad smile. "Again!"
Last summer, Pierce won a sliver medal in judo at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens (The Paralympic Games are an official equivalent of the Olympics for athletes with physical disabilities; they take part at the same city as the regular Olympics just after them). A couple of years before she took a gold medal at her first international competition, the Blind Judo World Championships in Rome.
Pierce, who lives in Colorado, was in the Bay Area to practice basic judo skills at Cahill's and, more importantly, to demonstrate judo techniques on behalf of the newly formed Blind Judo Foundation, a San Mateo nonprofit.
"Our mission is to bring judo to the blind and visually impaired community to help them develop confidence and adaptive skills," said Ron Peck, who founded the organization along with Cahill. "It's a great sport because along with leadership and character development, it offers balance and falling skills, which are critical to the blind and sight-impaired."
During her visit, Pierce gave a demonstration to about 70 kids at the California School for the Blind in Fremont. Along with Cahill and other specially trained coaches, Pierce worked out with the students and taught them some basic throws and falling techniques. "The kids were in awe of Lori," said Mary Alice Ross, one of the school's adaptive physical education teachers. "They were thrilled to work out with her, and they loved it when she slammed one of our students onto the mat. It was definitely a confidence-builder."
There's no better example of the confidence judo inspires than Pierce herself. During the Paralympics in Athens, she and another blind athlete stunned their coaches when they struck out on a self-guided tour of the bustling city, with its confusing grid and notoriously aggressive drivers. It was a tour many sighted visitors are reluctant to take without a qualified guide. Pierce, who speaks no Greek, said they had a great time. "It was really fun wandering around the city, like we did," she said. "People were very friendly, and if they didn't speak English, they helped us find someone who did."
Pierce is the youngest of eight children and was always included in whatever sports her siblings were into. But she said judo is the one she gets the most from. "I like trying new things," she said. "And judo has helped me develop the confidence to go for it."
The foundation was started last year, but there are already as many as eight judo coaches who have developed skills in coaching blind and sight-impaired students. In addition, Cahill's Judo Academy is equipped for blind and sight-impaired students. But Peck said that the foundation's most valuable resource is Cahill.
Mary Ross hopes money can be found because the kids would clearly benefit from it as they do from other sports, such as in-line skating, kayaking and rock climbing. "It's pretty amazing the things these kids do," she said. "It's also pretty amazing how much they are underestimated."
Lori Pierce and Willy Cahill