Blindness is no barrier to Lynn black-belt holder

Serguei Vassiliev, who is blind, tests for his black belt in aikido, throwing opponent John Murphy to the ground. Serguei Vassiliev, who is blind, tests for his black belt in aikido, throwing opponent John Murphy to the ground. (Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe)
By Terry Weber
Globe Correspondent / April 14, 2011

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Imagine the challenge of your first black-belt test in the martial arts: the years of practice, the nerves, and the questions about your opponent’s skills. Now, imagine putting on a blindfold just before the test.

Such was the challenge facing Serguei Vassiliev, 43, of Lynn. Vassiliev is blind and recently tested for his black belt in the Japanese martial art of aikido.

The test took place at the Shodokan Dojo, a martial arts training facility in Beverly. Three highly ranked instructors, acting as judges, sat alongside a mat with other aikido students in observance. Students were prepared to act as “ukes’’ (attackers) to test Vassiliev’s skills.

To begin, instructor Bernie Mulligan selected Vassiliev’s primary opponent: John Murphy of Derry, N.H. Murphy is 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, and Vassiliev is 5 feet 10, 150 pounds. Both have more than 15 years of aikido training. At the judges’ commands, Murphy launched attacks against Vassiliev, and each time Vassiliev subdued him with wrist locks, throws, or arm pins.

Next came a series of attacks with Murphy wielding weapons: a knife; a sword, and a wooden staff. Each attack ended with Murphy disarmed and restrained. Then two other students attacked Vassiliev simultaneously. He flipped and threw both.

“Serguei Vassiliev has a great awareness of movement around him,’’ said Murphy. “Normally, students practice with their opponents for months. But we never practiced together, so his skills are real and extraordinary. He has incredible strength in his body and mind.’’

How does Vassiliev defend himself without vision?

“It is not magic,’’ said Vassiliev. “It is work and practicing the moves. The attack must start and then I respond. In the movies, perhaps a blind man seems to know when and how the enemy will attack. It is extraordinary but not because they are blind. It is because they are great masters. Anyone, blind or not, can repeat movements, but for mastery of aikido, you must believe its philosophy.’’

Aikido is a Japanese martial art created by Morihei Ueshiba in the early 1900s. Ueshiba’s philosophy focuses on peaceful resolution of conflict. Aikido students learn to neutralize and redirect the energy of an opponent without causing serious injury. The desired result is harmony between peaceful and hostile energies.

According to the US Aikido Federation in New York, no statistics are available on the number of blind aikido students who have attained their black belt. “In my 40-plus years of martial arts experience, I have never trained another blind person,’’ said Mulligan. “I call it rare.’’

Mulligan, 83, recently reached the rank of shihan, or master teacher, from the Aikido World Headquarters in Tokyo. He has trained Vassiliev since 2002.

“I am happy to say that Serguei Vassiliev passed his black-belt test and demonstrated his skills superbly,’’ said Mulligan. “Vassiliev is a teacher amongst the students; he has faced many of life’s challenges with peace.’’

Vassiliev’s challenges started when he lost his vision as a young boy in his native country of Armenia.

“I consumed a bottle of about 150 vitamins when I was 4,’’ said Vassiliev. “My grandmother noticed a red rash on my face and rushed me to the hospital believing I may have the measles. A doctor gave me a measles vaccine, and I had a severe allergic reaction, which damaged my vision.’’

Vassiliev then suffered from painful headaches, nose bleeds, and diminishing vision. Further treatments only worsened his condition and left him blind. Frantic for better medical attention, Vassiliev’s family traveled to Moscow, where he was admitted to a hospital for six months. In Moscow, doctors were able to restore only partial sight in Vassiliev’s left eye.

Despite his impaired vision, young Vassiliev had a desire to learn English and a thirst for knowledge about life outside the Soviet Union. At the time, Armenia was a Soviet republic and the government censored alternative reading materials.

“Growing up in the Soviet Union, we could not openly learn martial arts or even yoga,’’ said Vassiliev. “But I went to a Russian school and some of my friends’ fathers were highly ranked military officers. They owned books about advanced military fighting and when I was 8, one of them gave me a book called “This Is Karate’’ by Masutatsu Oyama. From this book and others, I taught myself English and began my training in the martial arts.’’

Vassiliev completed high school in Armenia and moved to Russia to take advanced courses. “When Gorbachev was in power in the late 1980s, censorship was lessened,’’ said Vassiliev. “I openly attended martial arts schools and met my first great martial arts teachers.’’

In 1988, a devastating earthquake struck Armenia, and Vassiliev’s family home was destroyed. Soon Vassiliev’s family joined him in Russia. But even while personal freedoms were improving in the late 1980s, the economies in both Russia and Armenia were unstable, and eventually the Vassiliev family immigrated to America in 2002. They relocated without Vassiliev’s father, who died in Russia.

Shortly after settling in Lynn, Vassiliev underwent eye surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston. The surgery improved the sight in his left eye by 10 to 15 percent.

“It was good to see better in my left eye, but the improvement only lasted a few years,’’ said Vassiliev. “For a short time I enjoyed nature and seeing my loved ones, but now I am completely blind in both eyes. I must say, blindness is inconvenient, but I am grateful to my friends who help me with the inconveniences.’’

Vassiliev now lives on a state-funded stipend. His circle of friends includes fellow aikido students, members of the Russian and Armenian community in Lynn, and fellow musicians.

“People often ask me how I spend my time,’’ said Vassiliev. “When I am not practicing aikido, I am listening to audio books and learning how to play the drums, piano, and guitar. I want to record my own music because music brings harmony and joy to my life, just like aikido.’’

Upon hearing he successfully passed his black-belt test, Vassiliev smiled.

“Of course I am pleased I passed the test,’’ he said. “But do not congratulate me. Every day I face unseen challenges. Through aikido I learn to bring harmony to whatever life has coming next.’’