Gander’s Jackie Oates doesn’t let retinitis pigmentosa keep her from competing in the gym or on the ballfield
Sports seems to come naturally for many. An outfielder racing across the grass to snag a fly ball or a gymnast moving confidently between bar to bar in a routine can make those actions look as easy and as a graceful as walking.
“I do have a lot of problems seeing, and a lot of people know that, so sports kind of makes me feel normal, and it makes me feel that I’m capable of doing more than people think,” says Jackie Oates (shown above). — Photo by Matt Molloy/Transcontin
However, what if you couldn’t see the ball in the air? What if you couldn’t tell if you were inches or feet away from an uneven bar? Would it mean you shouldn’t pick up a bat or stay away from the gym?
Not if you’re Jackie Oates, who suffers from a condition called retinitis pigmentosa (RP).
“My macular is pigmented. There’s blistering over it, which impairs my night vision, so I can’t see in the dark at all,” said Oates, whose eyesight is between 50 over 20 and 70 over 20.
“I also have tunnel vision ... I have 10 degrees around each orbital, so I can’t see the sides, I can’t see down, and I can’t see up.”
Despite this, the soon-to-be MUN student belongs to the Airial Gymnastics Club, is a member of Gander Collegiate’s girl’s softball team, and is also a dancer and cheerleader.
Oates has been involved with gymnastics for 10 years, and said she still gets a little apprehensive while competing on certain apparatuses.
“Beams and bars are definitely the hardest. You’re not allowed to look down when you’re on beam, and you have to keep your chin up. I rely on my muscle memory to walk across the beam, to do cartwheels and to do leaps,” she said. “It is difficult and I get a little scared sometimes because I don’t know where my feet are going.
“Most of the time it works out pretty well,” she added with a laugh. “Sometimes, my feet come off the beam and I fall, but that’s a part of gymnastics, and I’m OK with that.
“For bars, I don’t have any depth perception, and I can’t really tell how far away things are. When I go to jump from bar to bar, sometimes I think the bar is closer and I jump for it and miss it, and sometimes I think the bar is further away but I’m too close. It’s really frustrating, but it’s all about the feeling and getting used to it.”
The veteran gymnast may have lots of experience on the mats, but the softball field is relatively new territory. However, during her quest to find sports she can play and enjoy, Oates said softball fit the bill. However, like gymnastics, Oates had to do a lot of learning on her own.
As for softball, Oates can’t keep her eye on the ball, rather she sort of computes where it will be.
“I can see the ball coming in, but when it gets to a certain area, it’s not there anymore,” she said. “After swinging a bunch of times, I kind of know where the ball is going to go, so, again, it’s about muscle memory.
“I can see the ball coming in, but when it gets to a certain area, it’s not there anymore." Jackie Oates
Sometimes, my swing is off because I don’t exactly know where the ball is going, so some of it is chance.”
When she’s out on the field, things get a little more dicey. Pop-ups can get a little tricky, and although she doesn’t have a lot of problems picking up a ground ball, don’t expect to see her play at first base catching throws from across the diamond.
“When people hit it and the ball goes straight up in the sky, I have absolutely no idea where it’s going. I can see it when there’s contrast ... but when it starts to come down, I’m able to see it, and I have to move myself around,” said Oates.
“When the ball is on the ground I can see it because it’s a white ball on brown ground. However, if someone threw a ball at me really, really fast, I can’t see it because my eyes won’t pick it up.”
But despite all the adjustments that she has to make and the occasional frustration, Oates could never consider life without athletics
For her, it’s all about competing, and feeling that rush of energy moments before she heads to the plate, out in the field, or steps up to the beam for a gymnastics competition.
“My parents put me in sports when I was little, and I really, really enjoyed it,” she said.
“I liked being active, I liked the adrenaline rush I got when I competed, I liked trying new skills, I liked pursuing it, and it’s something that rally excited me.”
Oates is currently using eye drops to help with her RP, but said it will be years until she sees the full effects of the medicine. In the meantime, though, she has no problems proving the naysayers wrong, and proving to herself that she can do pretty much anything.
“Some people have said to my parents, ‘Why are you letting her do gymnastics? It’s so dangerous ... she’s going to kill herself.’ My mom always says, ‘She’s enjoying herself, she knows what she’s doing, and she knows her limitations.’ I’m really good knowing what I can and can’t do,” said Oates.
“I do have a lot of problems seeing, and a lot of people know that, so sports kind of makes me feel normal, and it makes me feel that I’m capable of doing more than people think. Some people think, ‘She’s blind, she can’t do that,’ and I like going out and showing them I can.
“I do what I want — carefully.”