Partially blind women’s rugby club player aims to bring awareness to students with disabilities through sports

Alayna Lopez is a member of the women’s rugby club team, despite her diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa. Credit: Grant Hoyt | Lantern file photo

Whether it be tracking down a football over several yards or connecting a bat against a baseball, many sports require an athlete’s eyes to see a moving object.

Yet, when a rare genetic eye disease threatens performance ability, sight turns from a strength into an Achilles’ heel. Mistakes and the ability to process information no longer become clumsy accidents, but rather physical inabilities. An athlete may have to step away from the field, along with the ability to see ever again.

For club women’s rugby player Alayna Lopez, a second-year in communication technology, the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa — a group of rare eye diseases that affects individuals from birth and currently has no cure, according to the National Eye Institute — in high school further fueled her passion to compete in sports, despite hearing she will lose her eyesight in the next six years.

Lopez, a Cleveland native, said she aims to bring awareness to students with disabilities in sports through her participation in this year’s women’s rugby club at Ohio State.

“Sports build character, they teach life lessons, and it’s important for every person, despite their disability, to experience that,” Lopez said.

Lopez said her journey in playing sports started as soon as she could pick up a basketball at 2 years old. She started playing organized sports in the fifth grade because it offered her a chance to step away from her issues at home, she said.

Lopez didn’t think her vision interfered with her athletic performance growing up because she has worn glasses since she was 11 months old, she said. She often attributed her mistakes while playing sports to her lack of awareness rather than her eyesight, she said.

These errors frustrated her while playing basketball, Lopez said, because she would get hit beside the head with the ball. She then turned to wrestling and track and field in high school.

Lopez said after enrolling at Ohio State, she still wanted to participate in sports. She looked to join a sport similar to wrestling and learned more about the women’s rugby club, she said.

“I was like, ‘Man, rugby seems pretty violent and aggressive,'” Lopez said. “I was like, ‘Oh cool, I get to tackle people and maybe it will be a little bit like football.'”

Lopez said she joined the women’s rugby club team and began practicing in fall 2022. She disclosed her eye disease to her coaches but did not specify the extent of it.

In October 2022, Lopez went to an appointment at Ohio State where she was informed that her condition had progressed more than she was previously told: She would lose her vision entirely in the next five to 10 years.

“They essentially told me that my vision is going to go out completely,” Lopez said.

Lopez said she had a difficult time telling her condition to her team and coaches because she was still in denial about her diagnosis.

“I have to start identifying with the fact that I have a disability,” Lopez said. “I’m not going to be able to do what I’m doing right now, specifically for rugby.”

Raeanna Levenson, assistant rugby coach at Ohio State, said she has a history of coaching players with medical conditions and was initially nervous about Lopez’s condition because of rugby’s violent nature. However, Lopez’s communication and worth ethic quelled that fear.

“Alayna is one of the hardest workers I’ve come across in any setting,” Levenson said. “If there were a way to make this sport accessible to somebody with legal blindness in the general team setting, she was the one to do it.”

Levenson said Lopez played at the fullback position, which allows her to stand behind the rest of the team and see the entire field straightforwardly. Lopez’s greatest strength and impact on the team comes from her mentality, Levenson said.

“Her greatest mental improvement throughout the season has been in her confidence and leadership,” Levenson said. “She is one of our most vocal players; leading the team on defense, communicating defensive positioning, calling for the ball and motivating her teammates.”

Lopez said the women’s rugby club gave her a reason to continue at Ohio State by providing her with a family and support system.

She hopes to stay involved with the club — even if she becomes unable to play — through photographing or filming the team due to the relationships she’s built.

“I hope people recognize that there is always a way,” Lopez said. “There’s always another path to go down no matter what obstacle there is, and there’s people out there who are willing to guide you and accommodate you in order to find that way.”

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