Growing up with a visual impairment, school was not easy for Australian Steffan Nero. He remembers struggling with anxiety and being “very quiet”, “lonely” and “probably weird too”.
His life changed when he discovered sports for the visually impaired, especially cricket.
“I was actually a different person when I was around other visually impaired people. I was actually a very outgoing, very energetic person,” Nero told CNN Sport.
“You are part of a group. You have all had the same experiences. You can all talk to each other, obviously, especially when you have older players as well… They have lessons that they can (teach you) obviously how to do things too.
” It’s a big family. You all try to help each other, to push each other, but also to support each other. You have a brotherhood…build bonds with your friends that will last forever.
This brotherhood helped Nero establish himself as an international athlete in several sports and in June he etched his name in sports history when he scored a record number of blindfold cricket runs.
Nero scored 309 runs against New Zealand, beating the previous record of 262 which was set in the 1998 Blind Cricket World Cup by Pakistan’s Masood Jan.
His record effort saw him featured in national and international media – this is when the feat began to hit home for Nero.
“I always say, ‘Just take that first step.’ It will probably be the hardest thing you have ever done. But once that happens and you get involved in that kind of group… in that community, I think things get a lot easier and can be a very rewarding experience.
“Particularly in Australia, there are so many sports available now. There’s goalball, there’s tennis, there’s football, there’s cricket, the AFL, golf.
Nero was born with two visual impairments.
He suffers from a rare inherited condition called achromatopsia which causes sensitivity to bright light and loss of color vision. According to the UK’s National Health Service, it affects around one in 30,000 to 40,000 people.
Nero was also born with congenital nystagmus, which is involuntary eye movement, meaning he has trouble “focusing on anything”. [and] everything is very blurry.
Due to these conditions, playing sports at certain times of the day – with specific lighting conditions, such as when the sun is low – can be particularly difficult for Nero as his eyes have difficulty concentrating.
Nero remembers being introduced to the sport when he was playing cricket with his father at the park. Eventually, however, they had to stop because he couldn’t see the ball well enough.
He instead dabbled in other sports; he practiced karate for a few years, he played goalball – a Paralympic sport – as well as football, representing Australia in several of them.
But it wasn’t until two of his friends suggested he come and try blindfold cricket that he really found the sport for him.
At first, playing cricket was all about fun for Nero, although adapting to a completely new sport was difficult.
Blind cricket differs from the valid version in several ways. Teams are made up of players with various visual impairments, the ball is hard plastic with ball bearings inside to allow players to hear the ball and bowlers under the arm rather than over the arm.
Nero recalls a training session where one of the most established players, Lindsay Heaven, took him under his wing.
“He taught me a lot about different shots and also taught me a lot about life,” Nero explained.
“And he said, ‘If you really push hard in this area, you can be successful in this sport. And that kind of encouragement and support pushed me to train more and more.
It wasn’t easy though. Nero was not selected for the 2015–16 Ashes series against England; something he says he used as motivation to push forward.
This motivation helped Nero become a regular Australian international.
In 2017, he benefited from the tutelage of Pakistani coaches who were flown to Australia to train batting technique as he tried to “replicate players from the two best countries in the world (India and Pakistan),” according to Australian cricket.
And in June, all that training paid off on his record-breaking afternoon.
Nero says in the match against New Zealand he was just getting started “as obviously any opener would, just trying to put his team in a position of strength”. It wasn’t until he hit the 200 mark that he realized he might be onto something special.
Having achieved 309 steps out – surpassing the previous Australian record of 222 held by Eugene Negruk – Nero recalls the fatigue he felt afterwards.
“I was just walking away and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I didn’t realize it because I was in the zone,” he said.
“What people don’t realize about visual impairment is… you actually use a lot more energy trying to focus on things. Usually a lot of people have a lot of headaches and stuff and are quite tired after straining their eyes for so long.
Receiving coverage from some of the world’s mainstream media has been a highlight of Nero because of the potential beneficial impact he could have on other athletes with disabilities and also changing people’s perspectives on ability. disabled athletes.
“The majority of people were very impressed or said, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize there was this sport and this sport for the disabled as well,'” he said.
“I think it helped change people’s minds a bit about what disability also means because sometimes when you mention blindness or visual impairment people usually assume the worst, which obviously means someone. one that is very closed, trailing, very calm. While, of course, this is not the case.
Nero added: “And because people also see in mainstream media and they might have a disabled friend or their son, their daughter; people see it and they’re like, ‘OK, that’s what’s available there too.’
Although the majority of comments he received were positive, Nero admitted that there was a small minority who took to social media with negative comments. He saw some making jokes about the nature of disabled cricket, while some tried to devalue the achievement by saying, “Oh, it’s just disabled cricket.”
But Nero made sure to never let those few dissidents get him down. “It’s like that on social media. Everyone cares about it even if you don’t have a disability. So for me, after a while, I stopped looking at comments and stuff and I just ignored them and said, ‘You know what? This is something that I think is really positive for blind cricket, as well as disabled people in Australia.
Nero’s aspirations for his own personal game are sky-high, even after his record-breaking score. But his ambitions for how much he can help the next generation of disabled cricketers are astronomical.
“I also want to try to give back to the game and support the young players who come on because obviously they are the future of the game. Because I know how much that helped me when I was growing up.