BLACKDUCK, Minn. - Fearless has a thousand definitions, but one must be reserved for Maddie Stomberg, who stands before her entire freshman English class delivering her forensics speech.
Fearless can also be defined by what Maddie does after school.
Maddie, who was born blind, joined the Blackduck boys wrestling team last fall. The Minnesota State High School League believes she is the first blind girl ever to wrestle sighted boys in Minnesota.
"I like to fight," she says. "I'm probably a little bit too much of a fighter."
Assistant wrestling coach Cory Nord first experienced Maddie's tenacity when she was a student in one of his math classes. Not long after, she tested up to a higher level. "Probably the best word I can use is highly motivated," he says.
Each evening after school Maddie joins the junior varsity wrestlers in practicing moves she can't see, but must feel her way through.
"Stay on your belly and then hook my leg," a teammate tells her as he guides Maddie's hands to the proper position. Many of the wrestlers have been grappling since elementary school. Maddie is new to the sport. Close your eyes for a few seconds and imagine her learning curve.
That Maddie considers herself a fighter surprises no one who knows her family. She comes from a home where overcoming challenges is second nature. At the Stomberg dinner table, blind sisters hold the majority seats.
15-year-old Kennedy, 14-year-old Maddie and 9-year-old Julia were all born without sight. "It has never made a difference to us though," says Bridget Stomberg, the girls' mother.
When they married, Bridget and Ryan Stomberg were not aware of the rare gene defect they both carried that combined to give each of their daughters a 25 percent chance of being born blind. The odds beat all three. It was the last time any of the Stomberg girls declared defeat.
"I think early on we decided, you know, we were not going to let that affect us or them," say Ryan Stomberg.
So last fall Maddie tried out and became a varsity cheerleader. It was not her cup of tea. "I don't like hairspray and I don't like make up," she shares. "And I didn't like my cheerleading skirt either."
Maddie made it through the football season leading cheers before making her move to the wrestling team, deciding she'd rather be playing a sport than cheering for one.
And as for being blind? "It's not an obstacle; it's just an annoyance," she says.
At a recent three-school meet, Maddie's grandmother couldn't resist approaching Maddie with a hug and kiss as she prepared for her match. "Oh, I love you," she told her. "I'm proud of you."
"Ah grandma, not in front of the guys," her mother playfully scolded.
Maddie is not lacking for family support. Her parents and sisters cheered from the stands during her meet, as did several members of her extended family.
"My husband came home and said, 'You're not gonna believe this, Maddie wants to go in for wrestling,' recalls her grandmother, "and I said 'Well good for her.'"
Adapted rules for blind wrestlers have been in place with the MSHSL since the 1970s. Under those rules an opposing wrestler must maintain physical contact with his blind opponent during the entire match.
Maddie felt fortunate to pick up two matches during the three-school meet against Bemidji and Fosston. At some meets she doesn't get to wrestle because no boys are willing to compete with her - not because she's blind, but because she's a girl.
At the three-school meet Maddie was pinned halfway through the first match. In her second match she went the full three rounds, before losing on points.
"Hey, good battle," Coach Nord assured her as she came off the mat. "That's just our next step, alright."
A few minutes later Maddie sat at the edge of the stands sharing stories of the ring with two girls from school. "It was awesome," she tells them in her toughest deep voice. All three girls erupt in laughter.
So far season Maddie has picked up just one victory, but she appears anything but beaten. "I'm going to work over the summer and I'll get a heck of a lot stronger," she says.
Maddie Stomberg doesn't need wins to own the title of first, or eyes to see beyond her fears.