I want to start this article by saying that I have really been enjoying watching the World Championships over the past few days. I have watched all the US matches and as many of the others as I can and keep my job. I have to admit that while I’m still not a fan of all the rule changes over the past few years, overall there has been a lot more action than I’ve seen in a while. The matches have really been exciting and I’m looking forward to the next few days of competition. This brings me to the point of this article.
While the World Championships is a very important event, most people have no idea that one of the athletes, regardless of the outcome, will be making history just by stepping on the mat in Rio! If you have read any of my previous posts, you know I do not subscribe to the idea that Ã¢â‚¬Å“we are all winners just for trying.Ã¢â‚¬Â Though that may be true, I am a competitor and I always went into a tournament planning to win. I did not, of course, always win and was usually able to learn from, if not enjoy the experiences when I lost, but the experiences was still not as great as it would have been had I won. But this Worlds marks the first time a visually impaired judo athletes has ever earned a spot on the sighted US world team. On Saturday, August 31, 2-time Paralympian, Myles Porter who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games will represent the United States in the sighted World Championships in Rio!
This may not seem like a big deal, but it really is! It is so exciting for me to see how far our program has come as far as inclusion into the mainstream judo community. When I started judo, I had no idea it was included in the Paralympic Games. Actually, the year I started, 1988, was the first time judo was included in the Paralympics for men. I didn’t know anything about judo in the Paralympics until I got my USJA magazine in 1992 with a full-page picture of Jason Morris, who had won a silver medal at the Olympics on the cover. Then I noticed a small picture down in the bottom corner of the page of Brett Lewis who had won a silver medal at the Paralympic games. There was an article in the magazine about the Paralympic judo team. It wasn’t long after that I met Larry Lee, the Paralympic team coach, who found me through my high school wrestling coach.
In 1996, the United States won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games. I would guess that most of the judo community or at lest those who have been involved in judo for a while know it was Jimmy Pedro. I would bet there aren’t many people who can name even one of the 4 people who won medals at the 1996 Paralympic Games. I’ll give you a hint, I am one of them. But besides me, can you name any? If you know me well, you may know others that you have heard me talk about, but probably not all. Marlon Lopez won bronze at 65kg, I won bronze at 71kg, Jim Mastro won bronze at 95kg, and Kevin Szott won Silver at +95kg.
Ok, I’ll give you another chance, that was a long time ago. In 2000, the United States didn’t win any medals in the Olympics but was arguably the #1 team in the world at the Paralympic Games. Can you name any of the 4 medalists from the 2000 Paralympic Games? I don’t count. Of all the guys on that team, I am the only one still involved with Paralympic level judo so I have had some publicity from USA Judo when I was named head coach of the 2012 team (and recently when they made me a meme!) I’ll give you a hint, many of the same guys won medals in 2000 that won them in 1996. Marlon Lopez won bronze at 66 kg, Brett Lewis who was injured in 1996 so had to withdraw at the last minute won a silver at 81kg, I won gold at 73 kg, and Kevin Szott won gold at +100 kg.
I won’t continue with each year but hopefully you are starting to see my point. Please do not misunderstand and think that I am in any way talking down about our Olympic program. I am first and foremost a judo guy. I love judo and I am very proud of all our Olympians! I do understand that the Olympic divisions are much deeper than those in the Paralympics. I am not taking anything away from any of our athletes. I am just pointing out that in the past we have not had anywhere near the recognition the Olympians have had despite winning more medals.
I don’t think anyone is really to blame for this, we were part of a different organization and while blind and visually impaired athletes were competing at local tournaments, most people didn’t know much about us. We were part of the United States Association of Blind Athletes (USABA) until 2008. After the 2000 Games, US Paralympics was created so while they were part of the USOC, we were still governed by USABA until 2008. The USABA did a good job with our program but they were just not part of the mainstream judo community. In 2009, it was decided that where possible, Paralympic sports should be governed by the National Governing Bodies (NGB) of their able-bodied equivalents, so judo moved to USA Judo.
I am not going to say that everything is equal, but things have come a very long way as far as exposure and press, and even funding. I don’t care what anyone says about USA Judo, they have done a great job with the Paralympic program. Things were a little rocky at first, but we have a great staff, if I do say so myself, and we have a great working relationship with USA Judo. I am very proud of what we have accomplished over the past 5 years and am very much looking forward to continuing our relationship and further developing our team in preparation for Rio! You may not be able to name any of our three medalists from the 2004 Paralympic Games, or even our single medalist from the 2008 Paralympics, but I’ll be many of you know who our two medalists were from the 2012 Games in London! I’ll help you out, Kevin Szott and I took bronze at 100kg and 73kg respectively, and Lori Pierce, who was one of my students, took silver at 70kg in 2004, which was the first time women were included in the Paralympic judo program. In 2008, Greg Dewall won a bronze medal at +100kg. Do you know the names of the guys who medaled in 2012? I’ll be you do! They are both OTC resident athletes: Myles Porter won silver at 100kg, and Dartanyon Crockett won a bronze at 90kg. You may even have received a post card with them on it when you renewed your USA Judo membership this year.
I think there are a few reasons for the recognition of our program getting better over the years. I don’t think it was because people didn’t believe that a visually impaired athlete could be competitive at the national level with sighted athletes, I don’t think anyone had ever given it any thought at all. Until 1998, no visually impaired athlete, at least none that I know of, had ever been nationally ranked among sighted athletes. One of the first things Larry Lee did when he took over as coach of the Paralympic program back in 1992, was to start having our athletes train with elite sighted athletes. He started having all our training camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Back then it was not uncommon to have 30 or 40 nationally ranked athletes on the mat. He started doing things like having those of us that didn’t have families or full-time jobs move out to the OTC to live and train for 4-6 weeks at a time. I did that in 1996 before I won bronze in Atlanta, and in 1998 before I won the World Championships in Madrid. But even then, no one had really given us a second thought. In 1998, Kevin Szott took a bronze medal at the US Open, which made him the first visually impaired athlete to be ranked on the national point roster among sighted athletes.
After that, Kevin quit his job as a strength coach at Penn State and move to Colorado Springs to be an off-campus resident at the OTC for judo. The following year I got on the national roster and then again in 2000, so I also became an off-campus resident at the OTC. I never got higher than 7th on the roster, but Kevin had gotten as high as #3 in the country and had their been an Olympic trials in 2000, he would have gone. Then in the 2000 Paralympic Games, I made history be becoming the first American judo athlete to win a gold medal in either the Olympic or Paralympic Games. Kevin then won his gold the following day. Maybe some day I’ll write about our race to be the first. Because of that, and for our overall team doing so well, people started taking a little notice of our program, really for the first time.
We got a little more recognition in 2004 and 2008, but again, the issue was that our governing body was not part of the mainstream judo program. When our program was moved to USA Judo after the 2008 games, we were all a little shocked and didn’t know what was going to happen. To there credit, they embraced the program and ran with it and we have gotten more recognition than we have ever had, medals not withstanding. We got more publicity going into the games than we had probably had throughout my entire Paralympic judo career, and we got more press for Myles Porter’s silver and Dartanyon Crockett’s bronze than I ever got for my Gold and 2 bronzes. I’m not bitter about that, not much anyway. I look at it as we were pioneers, paving the way for these young athletes.
I know I said earlier that the problem was not that people didn’t think we could do it, but that is not entirely true. It was not the problem at first but once we started going to bigger tournaments in the US I think that is what people thought. People had the mentality of Ã¢â‚¬Å“aw look honey, those blind guys are competing, and they are doing such a good job!Ã¢â‚¬Â People would say I did a good job weather I won or got slammed through the floor, and I hated it. I never wanted to be recognized for being a blind judo player; I just wanted to be recognized as a judo player. I don’t think that has totally gone away. I often hear people praising visually impaired athletes for bad performances. I’ve talked about that before and may again but not here. We just wanted to be recognized as equals or at least equally recognized, and making the national roster helped. For a long time there was just Kevin and I, then Myles came along and not only made the roster, this year he moved up to #1 on the roster and became the first visually impaired athlete to represent the United States at the sighted Pan American championships and on Saturday he will be the first to represent the US at the sighted World Championships. Myles has lived and trained at the OTC for several years now and has really developed as a judo player. I am really proud to have played a small part in his success. Myles is coached by Ed Liddie at the OTC and I’m sure Ed will coach him in Rio as well, but the last few teams I was on were Myles’ first few, so we spend a lot of time traveling and training together as teammates. To his credit, when I met him he was a green belt living in Ohio and because I had done what he was hoping to do he would call me and ask about tournaments, and training drills all the time, because he wanted to get better.
If I have to be honest, I am a little jealous at how much he has done and how much press and exposure he gets, but as a coach and a Paralympian and someone who has been involved with the Paralympic judo program for 20 years now, I am so proud of him for all he has done and is still doing.
I think it is interesting and is actually a small point of pride with me that Myles is #1 in the United States and on the sighted world team and is doing so well, but we still have not had a Paralympic gold medal since 2000. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted for him to win gold so badly in London, and hope that he and others do so in Rio, but it speaks to how good Paralympic judo really is when the #1 guy in the country took silver!
So on Saturday, I may be at practice but while Myles is on the mat, I will be off the mat watching on my iPad or on the dojo computer. There is no way I will miss Myles making history. I know right now he is thinking about fighting and not about making history, but when it’s all said and done that will mean a lot and something he will never forget and it is something that is so important for other visually impaired athletes and the world to see. We don’t do this to be role models – that is a side effect, although not a bad one.
Before I end I want to wish Myles and the rest of our team the best of luck but I also want to say congratulations to Marti Malloy for a great performance for a silver medal at the Worlds. Also, I am so proud of team overall, everyone is fighting so well. They may not all be making the medal stand but they are winning some really good matches. In their first Worlds Hana Carmichael, Jonathan Fernandez, and Hannah Martin won some really good matches and represented us very well. Hannah Martin made it to the third round and fought for 5 minutes with the former World and current European champion and lost 3 shidos to 2 shidos in a really tough match. We still have room for growth and improvement but it is nice to the US team winning on the world stage. Keep up the good work and again, good luck to Myles, you’ve already made history, now go out there and kick some butt!
As always thanks for reading!
I’ll talk to you soonÃ¢â‚¬Â¦