Uzoamaka Ibeh gives VCU winning look
It was supposed to be a routine checkup. Sure, she was starting to squint a little more when her first-grade teacher wrote letters on the chalkboard. But nothing could have prepared Uzoamaka Ibeh or her family for what was about to happen that day at the eye doctor's office. "Cover your left eye and read these letters for me," the doctor said.
L-P-E-D. Ibeh nailed it. P-E-C-F-D. Perfect again.
"OK, great," the doctor said. "Now cover your right eye and read me these letters."
Ibeh obeyed, and immediately everything went black, even though she still had her left eye open.
"I can't see anything," Ibeh told the doctor. "I don't even know what's there."
She couldn't even see hints of the gargantuan E on the top row of the Snellen chart that others probably could read from the lobby.
Since that moment 14 years ago, dozens of doctors have evaluated Ibeh, now a 6-foot outside hitter for Virginia Commonwealth University. What they can determine is that she is blind in her left eye. What they can't agree on is why. Some say that she is so near-sighted that her eye can't see anything. Some blame genetics. Others simply have no idea.
"When I first found out, I didn't really care," said Ibeh, who has 183 kills for the Rams this season. "But I looked at my parents and they were freaking out, so I had to tell them to relax and reassure them that I could still see."
Such is the attitude Ibeh has brought to her life ever since that diagnosis. Never wavering, the 21-year-old has lived as normally and fully as she would have without the impairment -- and that includes her career in volleyball, a game she started playing as a freshman when her high school, Colonia (N.J.), debuted the sport. By the time she was a senior, Ibeh had helped lead Colonia to a 27-2 record and a conference championship. Ibeh, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria (her father works at the United Nations in New York), was named Middlesex County player of the year.
Despite her accolades and obvious physical prowess, Ibeh faced prejudice during the college recruiting process. On one occasion, a coach asked why she wore goggles. When he found out, "his face explained it all," Ibeh said. "He backed up a little bit, like, 'She might be a problem.' "
Ibeh, the youngest of 12 children, wasn't a problem for VCU, however, as then-head coach James Finley brought her to the Rams and redshirted her during the 2011 season. Now a sophomore, Ibeh, who has started all 31 of VCU's games this season, has supplied current coach Jody Rogers with a front-line weapon to make a run at an Atlantic 10 championship. The Rams finished their regular season with a 24-7 record and enter this weekend's conference tournament as one of the favorites.
"It's so commendable in this generation where people sometimes say, 'Oh, poor me,' that we have a student-athlete who doesn't look for any sympathy," said Rogers, who previously coached Beth Robbins, a former player at the University of Indianapolis who was deaf in one ear.
Rogers sees similar intangibles in both Robbins and Ibeh: extra-sharp focus and emotional resiliency that come, in part, from their impairments, but that can manifest themselves into a behavior that permeates throughout a team.
"When you're talking about women and coaching women, that emotional element is such a huge component to winning," Rogers said. "She changes people because she gets them excited about volleyball and excited about winning."