BOXING BLIND: Man puts up fight after losing his sight

Tom Wagner of Youngstown, right, who is blind, works out with his trainer Phil Albenze of Austintown...by R. Michael Semple

AUSTINTOWN — Tom Wagner, 52, of Youngstown, wouldn’t go down for the count after losing his sight.

Now he hears one count for a jab, two for a right cross, three for a left hook — and comes out swinging.

Going blind led him to try new things in life, he said. One of them is boxing.

Wagner began going blind in 2018 when a blood vessel popped near his right eye, and he lost sight in it. At that point, he was working for General Motors in Lordstown, but when the plant closed in 2019, he was transferred to Spring Hill, Tenn. In June of that year, he had surgery on his left eye in an attempt to save his sight — but it didn’t help.

By 2020, Wagner had lost sight in both eyes and moved back to the Mahoning Valley to be with family.

He lost his sight due to diabetes, and he has had six surgeries on his eyes, but now can see only light every so often.

To have spent most of his life with sight only to lose it recently was hard, Wagner said. Especially in the beginning, he was depressed because he just didn’t know what a blind man could do, he said.

“There was a time when I was sitting in my apartment and I was down, because I didn’t think I could do anything,” Wagner said.

He spent a lot of time listening to music and eventually found the Blind Surfer, also known as Pete Gustin, on YouTube. Gustin became famous for becoming a blind surfer and now does voice acting and has a YouTube channel on which he tries things such as rock climbing, bowling, hiking, skate boarding, and yes, surfing, and talks about his experience as a blind man.

Wagner said Gustin gave him inspiration to get out and do things that were new to him since losing sight. He decided to start working out because he was gaining weight. He first tried to go to one local gym, but it turned him away. Wagner then reached out to Phil Albenze, who owns Body by Phil in Austintown.


“I told Tom up front, when he asked if I could train a blind person, ‘I don’t know how, so we’ll have to work together to figure it out.’ And, we have,” Albenze said.

Wagner started going to Albenze’s gym in June and at first there was a lot of trial and error. They worked together to find a routine that worked for Wagner and worked to find ways to get him around the gym, and to use the equipment in different ways than Albenze’s other clients. He said Wagner’s openness and willingness to learn and to try everything have made their partnership succeed.

Now, Wagner goes to Body by Phil three or four days per week to do circuit training, which includes boxing for cardio. Albenze guides Wagner’s gloved hands to the punching mitts he holds — one for a jab, two for a right cross, three for a left hook, four for a right hook, five for a left uppercut and six for a right uppercut. Then, Albenze calls out numbers in a sequence, and Wagner hits the mitts.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting in the ring, but I’ll take Phil anytime,” Wagner joked.

Other than the mitts, Wagner also hits a punching bag that has a 300-pound base filled with water and sand — and he can move it along the floor.


Regular circuit training and a better diet have helped Wagner start to regain strength and stamina. He said he’s happy he found Albenze, because not many people would have been so willing to put in the work with him.

Wagner has a goal of becoming a bodybuilder, a field in which Albenze has experience.

Outside of the gym, Wagner still enjoys music and is working on figuring what else he can do. He also enjoys getting tattoos and is working on a back piece. He said he hopes his story helps others with disabilities to have the motivation to try new things and live life.

He said a good support system helps: Wagner’s mom, Pat Wagner of Hubbard, takes him to the gym and helps him get around. He said she has been his rock.

“I wouldn’t give up. I almost gave up. If there’s something you want to do, do it,” Wagner said to others with disabilities. “You can’t stop living. You only have so much time on this Earth. You can’t just sit at home. You have to work with it and work around it.”



Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today