Goddess Ma’alona-Faletogo was born with a rare sight disorder, but she and her parents decided long ago it wouldn’t limit her. It certainly hasn’t slowed her down on the mat, where she was undefeated in middle school.

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AUBURN — Your first impression might come from her quick smile or contagious laugh. Her sheer strength on the wrestling mat could catch your eye.

Later you may wonder why a teammate runs by her side, elbow in hand.

Eventually — perhaps when she is led to the center of the mat — the image starts to clear: This wrestler is blind.

While that might be what makes Goddess Ma’alona-Faletogo different from others in the Thomas Jefferson High School wrestling room, it doesn’t define her.

“We’re just very fortunate to have such a wonderful kid be part of our wrestling family,” said Harvey Cole, who is the head coach of the Jefferson boys and girls program.

A kid with talent, to boot.

Ma’alona-Faletogo, a freshman who was born with a rare eye disorder, started wrestling in sixth grade and went undefeated all three seasons at Totem Middle School, primarily competing against boys.

She won the 235-pound weight class in her first high-school tournament last month, and finished second in the next.

Jeff Muraki, Jefferson’s girls coach, said she is especially strong and a quick learner and believes see can qualify for next month’s state tournament, either at 235 or 190 pounds (she weighs around 200).

Ma’alona-Faletogo hopes to take it a step further.

“I want to be a state placer,” she said.

No sight, no limits

Ma’alona-Faletogo was born with Leber congenital amaurosis and can only see lights and shadows — not objects. But she sees no limits to what she can accomplish in life.

A 4.0 student who plays the ukulele, guitar and piano, she wants to attend Stanford and become either a pediatrician or social worker because she likes helping children.

“My goal is to get involved in as many things as I can and to not let my disability stand in my way,” Ma’alona-Faletogo said. “I don’t look at it as an obstacle. I look at it as an opportunity and a reason to try harder.”

Much of that outlook comes from her Samoan parents, Shannell and Kaisa, who encourage her independence.

“From the time Goddess was able to go to public school, I said, ‘She’s going to ride the bus just like every other kid,’ ” mom Shannell said. “She’s no different from anybody else. She just can’t see. But she can do everything else. We didn’t want to shelter her, because we know we’re not going to be around forever.”

Goddess — a name chosen by her father — is the oldest of five children. Sister Marianne, the youngest at 7, also suffers from Lebers, but not the three boys in between.

Doctors have not been able to explain why, Shannell said, adding the family draws strength from their faith.

Goddess was just weeks old when her parents began worrying about her vision — she always seemed to be looking up and didn’t make eye contact. An MRI at six months revealed no nerve damage, but it became increasingly apparent something was wrong.

“She was bumping in to everything,” Shannell said of her daughter’s early steps. “She would get big knots on her forehead and we bought her a bike helmet to protect her head.”

A specialist referred the family to an ophthalmologist at Children’s Hospital and at 16 months — the day before Thanksgiving of 2003 — tests confirmed what they feared and put a name to the condition.

“I already knew she was blind, but now I had confirmation,” Shannell said.

As well adjusted as Goddess appears today, it wasn’t always easy.

“I remember when I was little I used to cry all the time and ask my parents why I was like that,” Goddess said.

Some kids were kind and others cruel.

“I used to be bullied in elementary school,” Goddess said. “They used to say, ‘Try to catch me,’ or ‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ It was really irritating.”

She got involved in activities — track and field (100 and long jump), cheerleading and drill team — but said she didn’t start developing strong friendships until middle school.

Shannell admits her protective side came out when it was time for Goddess to start high school, a big step for any youngster.

“I told her, ‘I can quit my job and home-school you,’ but she said, ‘No, you’ve got to let me go to school. … I can take care of myself. I can do this,’ ” Shannell said. “I had to take a step back.”

‘You want to do what?’

Shannell was surprised when Goddess asked to try wrestling in sixth grade.

“You want to do what?” she reacted. “But she is a more physical type because she has to feel — her hands are her eyes. So I thought it could be good for her, and now she loves it.”

Cole and Muraki were told before the season a visually impaired wrestler was turning out and Muraki was thrilled to find out she was in the upper weights — his first in the four years of the girls program, which had been dominated by lighter wrestlers.

Ma’alona-Faletogo, who rarely uses a white cane, requires little extra attention. She has a keen sense of direction and hears extremely well. She recognizes most teammates by the sound of their voice.

“The majority of the time when she’s in here, she knows exactly where everything is,” Muraki said. “She wants to do it herself. … She’s fun-loving, very independent and always happy.

“In my opinion, she’s a blessing, a blessing and inspiration to all these kids.”

Teammate Jasmine Pleasants, a senior who won a state title as a freshman and placed second last year, enjoys seeing Ma’alona-Faletogo’s success, especially since her older brother, Harvey Pleasants, is also legally blind and wrestled for the Raiders.

“She always has a positive attitude, she works really hard and she’s super aggressive,” Jasmine said. “She’s like the nicest person ever, but then once she gets on the mat, it’s like she’s a whole different person.”

The only national rule provision for a visually impaired wrestler is that the wrestlers must maintain contact at all times. If an opponent breaks contact, the official stops the match and re-engages the two.

To start a match, Muraki walks Ma’alona-Faletogo to the center of the mat. If the wrestlers go out of bounds, the referee might walk her back to the middle — but more often her opponent takes care of that.

Mariah Stewart, Federal Way’s 235-pounder who placed fourth at state as a sophomore last year, was especially thoughtful when the two wrestled last month. After a blown whistle, Stewart — who was leading decisively — noticed Ma’alona-Faletogo was struggling with her head gear, so she helped her adjust it and gave her a big hug before the match resumed.

That drew an ovation from the crowd and raves from Jefferson athletic director Mike Grady, who sent an email the following day to Federal Way coach Travis Mango and school district personnel, describing what he called “nothing short of ‘incredible sensitivity’ as well as ‘sportsmanship’ to the max.”

“In all my 31 years of athletic involvement, I have never seen anything like this,” Grady wrote, adding he felt like hugging Stewart.

The story was featured in a local newspaper, although Stewart didn’t think she deserved the attention.

“It’s something I would have done for anybody,” she said.

Stewart said she is the one inspired by Ma’alona-Faletogo.

“You can see she’s not going to let anything stop her,” she said.

Mango concurs.

“Goddess is a great ambassador of our sport,” he said. “She works hard and is tenacious. Her work ethic and competitiveness truly comes through and she has turned her ‘disability’ into her ability to compete and push through difficult situations.

“From what I have witnessed, she does not allow things to hold her back and truly seems set on achieving all of her goals.”

And that’s the lasting impression Goddess Ma’alona-Faletogo hopes to leave.