Blind Canadian Judokas Gear Up for 2012 Paralympics

Collin Van Ooyen / August 22, 2012 - 8:49pm

Team Canada is hoping to build off of the success of Antoine Valois-Fortier’s surprise judo bronze medal at the London 2012 Olympics with a strong showing from their Paralympic counterparts. Canada boasts three strong competitors in the 2012 field, and as with so many Paralyimpians, they each have an inspiring tale of how they made it to the Games.

Timothy Rees, competing in the 100kg- event, is not only an accomplished athlete, having taken home a bronze medal in the 2011 Guadalajara Parapan American Games (getting nominated as Ontario’s top disabled athlete in the process), but he also boasts a doctorate of philosophy and applied mathematics. He balances his extensive training with post-doctoral research at the University of Victoria and fatherhood. Rees embodies all of the values that make Paralympic athletes such exemplary role models and just flat out interesting people. This guy not only faces the daily challenges of his disability, but excels in all aspects of life despite it.

Even before Tony Walby lost his vision, he was already a resounding success on the Canadian judo scene. Walby competed on the national able-bodied judo team for 16 years. Around age 35, while his judo career seemed to be wrapping up, Walby was declared legally blind due to a degenerative disease that had been breaking down his ability to see since his early 20’s. Instead of resigning himself to an activity-restricted lifestyle, Walby immediately began training in blind judo, and his regimen now has him on the mats seven days a week. Within two years he had landed himself a bronze medal at the 2011 Parapan American Games, and now he’s punched a ticket to the 2012 Paralympics.

Justin Karn, nicknamed “The Badger” in a new Canadian Paralympic ad campaign, has been battling his extremely limited vision for a lifetime. He was born with Aniridia, which is typified by the absence of irises. He took up judo at age 13, and has been competition training for about 12 years now. He was unable to qualify for the 2004 or 2008 Games, but has finally made it to the dance in 2012, and doesn’t plan on being taken lightly. Karn has some momentum behind him heading into London, having taken home a bronze medal at the 2011 Parapan American Games. He’s currently ranked 10th in the world in his weight class, and is renowned for his relentless ground game. The most impressive part of Karn’s training regimen? He routinely spars and competes against sighted opponents.

Judo is open only to visually impaired competitors at the Paralympic Games, and according to Karn, that’s just fine. “Judo is all about balance and touch and feel and being able to determine how your opponent is positioned and where they’re most vulnerable,” says Karn. “Feel doesn’t really require any eyesight.” For many casual fans, it spurs images of the clichéd blind martial arts masters of the big screen, but Tom Thomson, Karn’s coach, doesn’t think it’s such a far-fetched notion that the visually impaired can hang with anyone in judo. “They’re not really using their eyes,” claims Thomson. “They’re feeling the spirit of the fighter coming at them.” If that doesn’t sound like scripted instruction from a big screen martial arts master, I don’t know what does.

It all plays into the mystique that makes blind judo so very compelling; the notion that these athletes are quite literally feeling the flow of the fight, anticipating their opponent’s moves, and trying to counter them in advance. The Paralympics not only provide disabled athletes with a platform to compete, but also a brief window into the tenacious minds of people battling simple daily challenges on top of their world class athletic endeavors.

The 2012 Paralympic Games kick off on August 29th in London, with the judo competition getting under way a day later on the 30th. Karn will be in action in the -60kg division on that first day of competition, while Rees and Walby will hit the mats September 1st in the -100kg and +100kg divisions respectively.