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Blind martial artist champion
Posted on Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 7:55 am
by IDMA Editor

Jim Stevens is proof of what can be accomplished if a person doesn't give up.

It's not like he didn't want to give up (he did -- many times), but his daughters wouldn't let him.

Good thing he listened to them because Stevens is the only legally blind man and the oldest man to ever win the men's fighting competition at the martial arts Tournament of Champions -- an event with martial artists from across the country.

Not only that, but he's also a world-renowned artist in scrimshaw, a form of art where the artist makes tiny etches in ivory and then fills them in with pigment to make glorious designs.

Did we mention he's legally blind?

Jim Stevens may be blind, but that didn't stop him from becoming a martial arts champion or a world-respected scrimshaw artist.

"Basically, if you were 3 feet away, I could see one of your eyeballs, but not your eyebrow," he told AOL News.

Stevens is 59, but his story really begins in 1970 when he served as a sergeant in the Army and was shot in the head during a combat mission in Vietnam.

"It left me with bullet fragments in my head and permanent severe migraines," he said. "Twenty-three years later, in 1993, the fragments caused a stroke in my visual cortex and left me legally blind."

Soon, he lost his job as a college professor at the University of Colorado and his wife him left to raise two young daughters on his own.

It wasn't easy by any means and, as you might expect, the situation caused some problems with his oldest daughter.

"I got my oldest daughter into martial arts in order to learn some self-discipline," he said. "It worked out well. So well that my youngest said, 'It worked for her, why aren't you doing it?'"

Out of the mouth of babes.

That was in 1998, and Stevens connected with his daughter's sensei and asked if there was any way a blind man could learn martial arts.

"Basically, he made me sit on the floor for four months," Stevens said. "He said I had to learn to listen. After that, I was allowed to stand for three months."

The seven months of listening lessons did pay off for Stevens.

"After a while, I could hear the uniform moving over the body and knew what body part was going to move," he said.

Stevens spent a few years studying martial arts before he finally entered a tournament in 2002, but it wasn't just any tournament. This was a national tournament featuring champions from all across the country.

"My sensei made sure no one knew I was blind until after the competition was over," he said. "I left the tournament with a broken nose, three cracked ribs, a torn rotator cuff, dislocated knee -- and the first-place trophy as Tournament Champion."

At the time, Stevens was only a brown belt, and he laughs that even though he had beaten black belts to win the tournament, he was still required to fly to California from Colorado to take his test.

Stevens was happy with the achievement, but there was something missing, and it took his daughter to figure it out.

Before Stevens went blind, he had done a lot of scrimshaw, but he figured he had to give it up because of his lack of sight.

"My daughter told my sensei I had once been an artist," he said. "He told me that martial arts is an art as well and that art teaches art and that it was time for me to take what I had learned and use it for art."

Stevens went back to his scrimshaw, and although it's not easy for anyone -- blind or not -- he gets great satisfaction from it.

"This is basically the perfect art for someone with my level of sight since you etch small dots and all I can see is a pinprick anyway," he said.

Stevens' artworks are sold around the world, from Tokyo to Moscow, for as much as $4,000 a piece.

Although it is illegal to sell most ivory, Stevens gets around that by only using the tusks of extinct woolly mammoths that he buys from miners in Alaska.

Despite his struggles, Stevens is happy with his life -- and apparently Hollywood is as well. An Emmy-winning writer named Paul Cooper is writing a screenplay on his life and there is interest from various studios.

So if his life does become a movie, what should the moral be?

"Don't quit," he said. "I did quit, but I had children who wouldn't let me. One time, my youngest daughter came up as I threw away a piece and she said, 'Daddy, you promised not to quit!'"

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