RICHMOND, Va. – In English, the Nigerian name Uzoamaka translates to something along the lines of, the good road, or the road is beautiful. It’s fitting, since Uzoamaka Ibeh’s road to this time and place has been an undeniably a good one.
But Ibeh’s path has also been distinct, and to her, the road looks a lot different than to most, both literally and figuratively. Not only has the VCU redshirt sophomore and Colonia, N.J. native defied the odds, the way she views the world has taught her to be dismissive of those odds.
She sees the world differently not only because she chooses to, but because she has to. Ibeh is legally blind in her left eye.
If the idea of someone playing a fast-paced Division I sport like volleyball, in which uncommon hand-eye coordination is essential, shocks you, it’s okay, Ibeh gets that reaction a lot. But it’s her matter-of-fact approach to her disability that’s probably most notable.
“Sports, with my vision, it never stopped me,” says Ibeh, who will turn 21 on Nov. 11. “I just kept it to myself, honestly.”
When Ibeh was seven years old, she says a teacher recommended she see an optometrist. During the exam, the doctor asked her to cover her right eye and read a chart of letters on the wall. Not only could Ibeh not read the chart, she couldn’t see the wall or anything else. The optometrist tried to correct the problem by placing different sets of prescription lenses in front of Ibeh’s left eye. It didn’t matter. Ibeh saw nothing.
“And I was like, ‘isn’t that normal,’” she recalled. “He asked if had always been like this, and I said, ‘yeah.’ He said, ‘that’s not normal.’
Ibeh says the only all she sees out of her left eye is a large, black circle, surrounded on the periphery by a lighter, blurry area; Other than that, nothing. Ibeh says her vision has always been like this, and that doctors have told her the eye is otherwise healthy, just incredibly near-sighted. Ibeh also has some near-sightedness in her right eye, which is why she wears thick, black-rimmed sports goggles on the volleyball court. Her eye doctors will not allow her to wear contacts, she says, for fear of scratching or injuring her right eye.
Richmond-based Optometrist Dr. Joseph Droter has not examined or treated Ibeh, but says, generally speaking, that people with vision impairments in one eye can face a number of challenges when competing in highly coordinated activities such as volleyball, specifically with field of vision and depth perception. But he also says those people learn to adapt.
“It’s not that they have zero depth perception,” he says. “We’re using information from the left and right eyes to measure depth perception. People with one eye learn to look at different clues…they learn to zero in on those kinds of clues.”
Ibeh says her vision impairment is a non-factor on the volleyball court.
“It just felt natural,” she says. “I honestly never had any problems when it came to playing. Thank God, I never had problems with my eyes switching over or anything. It just literally felt natural.”
VCU Coach Jody Rogers and Ibeh’s high school coach, Tom Hennessey, both said they’ll occasionally notice plays where it appears she loses sight of the ball momentarily, but did not consider those instances to be serious or common enough to raise concern.
“There are times you notice she kind of lost the ball or something, but that’s not a hinderance because she’s playing great anyway,” says Rogers. “It wouldn’t stop me from playing her. Once in a while she loses the ball, but that happens to every player. What’s the difference?”
In fact, Ibeh is just starting to come into her own. She’s started every match at right side hitter for VCU this season. She ranks third on the team with 173 kills and is VCU’s fourth-leading blocker (76 total blocks). This, after redshirting the 2011 season and appearing in just 10 of 31 possible matches last year.
It’s not just Ibeh’s ability to overcome her vision impairment that makes her road to Division I volleyball remarkable.
The youngest of 12 children, Ibeh’s parents emigrated from Nigeria around 1980. The family settled in the Bronx, N.Y. initially, before moving to Colonia, about 25 miles from New York City, in the early 90s.
Ibeh says athletics were popular in her family, but volleyball wasn’t on her radar until high school. A gifted athlete – Rogers says Ibeh is a physical “specimen” – she grew up playing basketball. During her freshman year, Colonia fielded a volleyball team for the first time. Hennessey, a baseball coach and teacher by trade, was named coach.
Hennessey admits he knew little at first, and focused on building a team around athleticism. During tryouts, Ibeh, a precocious 6-footer with powerfully muscular legs, stood out. Like the program, Ibeh’s volleyball experience was almost non-existent.
“We all didn’t know anything. It was a mess. I just played volleyball just to play. I never thought I’d be doing this,” Ibeh says.
But Hennessey, Ibeh and the program grew together. Hennessey could spot a raw athletic talent when he saw one. He recommended Ibeh also play club volleyball during the offseason. Eventually, she gave up basketball altogether to focus on volleyball.
“She’s got tree trunks as legs,” Hennessey says. “I honestly thought the first time I saw her jump that she was going to be special. You can’t teach that. You could see that immediately. I didn’t know much about volleyball, but you see something in a girl like that and it makes you hungrier for success. I wanted to get better for her as well.”
In Ibeh’s senior year, Colonia finished 27-2 and won its conference tournament. Ibeh was named Middlesex County Player of the Year.
Although Ibeh refuses to consider her blindness a disability, she’s often worried that other people might. She’ll discuss her vision if asked, but will rarely offer the information otherwise.
Hennessey says he didn’t know Ibeh was blind in her left eye until sometime around her junior or senior year. Rogers says Ibeh mentioned she had some problems with her vision last spring, but didn’t reveal the full extent until recently.
“I don’t want to say much about it because I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Ibeh admits. “I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I feel I’m just like everyone else.”
She also says that in high school, after telling a college coach of the full scope of her vision problems, he backed off and stopped recruiting her.
So she kept her mouth shut and played volleyball. Along the way, few people have noticed any difference. There are times when Ibeh’s vision comes to the forefront. She doesn’t have a driver’s license yet because it required special permission from her optometrist. Ibeh also says she jokes around with her teammates about the way she sometimes reads books and newspapers with her head cocked to the side.
“We crack jokes about my vision all the time. It doesn’t affect me. I find it funny,” she says.
But for the most part, her career has progressed like any other, and is blossoming in step with the Rams’ surprising 24-5 campaign.
“That’s all her,” Rogers says. “That’s her working her butt off in the weight room, getting her body and the mental aspect of the game ready to play and compete. That’s what she did, because she didn’t like sitting.”
“I feel like, finally. It’s been a long time, and I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long and I’m grateful to finally have it, and I want to do well with it,” she says.
The road ahead may be uncertain, but to Ibeh, it looks just fine.