GB Visually Impaired athletes set to compete in Germany

A five-strong team of Visually Impaired (VI) athletes will be looking to prove themselves among a field of other potential Paralympians fighting for Great Britain at the IBSA German VI Open in Heidelberg on Saturday 1 March 2014.

Christopher Skelley (-100kg), Jono Drane (-73kg), Gavin Towers (-81kg), Natalie Greenhough (-70kg) and Jack Hodgson (+100kg) will all be in action.

Retired Paralympic bronze medallist Ben Quilter won numerous gold medals at this event, making it a competition well-known for attracting champions.

Great Britain’s Paralympic coach Jean-Paul Bell, who is also the head of British Judo’s new Centre of Excellence (CoE) at the University of Wolverhampton in Walsall, says that the one day tournament and two day camp will be a great opportunity to see where the current squad is at right now.

The VI performance now squad trains full-time towards the Paralympic programme in the same dojo as the mainstream athletes aiming for Rio 2016.

The new pathways into VI judo are near completion and starting to be implemented so and overall it is an exciting time for the sport in addressing the needs of partially sighted and blind judo athletes.

“We expect to see reasonable quality at this competition, with around 50 or 60 athletes entering the competition frm around the world. “I expect the team to perform well and it is great experience to perform amongst a field of Paralympians,” he said.

“I am looking forward to this tournament as it will be a good chance to see where our guys and girls are at in terms of their judo.”

VI Coach Denny Roberts, who will be supporting this weekend and who has recently been appointed as Paralympic Athlete Recruitment and Development Officer, added:

“This is our first Paralympic event of the year. We are excited to see how they will perform and we are also keen to look at taking the programme to the next stage.”

These athletes form the core of the VI squad and British judo is looking to recruit the next generation of Paralympians to represent their country at Tokyo 2020 too.

To this end, much work is being done to introduce this sport at grass roots and a talent drive is underway, driven by Denny as the first point of contact.

A talent development day is to be held in Birmingham on Wednesday March 19 at the Gymnastics and Martial Arts Centre (GMAC).

The event is free and is open to anyone who has done judo before and would like to see if they have Paralympic potential.

If you fancy having a go, check out the stories of some of our current VI athletes below and get inspired. 

Meet the VI athletes 

Chris SkelleyChris Skelley

VI Junior Champion Chris Skelley, 20, from Hull has been in training for the upcoming competition at the Centre of Excellence in Walsall where he is based full-time as a member of the VI squad.

Here he and his fellow team-mates enjoy elite athlete status.

During a recent training week they have been focusing on high-impact explosive judo and “gripping” techniques alongside the mainstream squad.

“This will be the first competition of the year for us VI athletes and we are looking forward to it,” he said.

“To be a VI judoka you have to be very fit and powerful and you have to be able to last for two minutes of explosive randori.

“The last two weeks have been very intense. It is slightly tailored for us, for instance instead of doing rope climbs we will practice static holds and we also do randori to quicken our reactions.

“The practice has now paid off and I feel ready for the competiton.”

Chris’ last VI competition was the VI Junior World Championships where he took gold.

At the European VI Championships in Eiger, Hungary he achieved a fifth place finish and beat of Germany’s fifth place Paralympian Oliver Uppman en-route to the semi-final.

He was stopped in the semi-final by a Russian opponent and then almost had victory in the bronze medal contest, throwing his opponent for ippon which was downgraded to waza-ari, before his opponent threw him for ippon.

Beginning in the sport as a sighted player, he has transitioned onto the squad as his vision gradually deteriorated.

Recently he has been focusing on more and more competitions on the VI circuit.

Chris first tried a judo session at his local club, Haltemprice, aged four. Here Jeff Brady and Danny Kinicke quickly recognised he was eligible for the England Talent development programme.

However, at the age of 16 he suddenly started to lose his vision.

He has faced many challenges along the way but the hard work has paid off as he now enjoys elite-status as a full-time member of the VI squad.

The ultimate goal for Chris to qualify and medal in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

“I got into judo because my mum and dad wanted to channel my energy,” said Chris.

“My parents and my coaches at Haltonprice have all been really supportive.

“Over the years they have encouraged me to enter competitions and provided me with all the support and infrastructure that I’ve needed to progress,” he said.

Chris has always suffered heightened sensitivity to light but his vision seriously really began to deteriorate from the age of 16. 

For many years the National Health Service (NHS) were unable to pinpoint the cause. Combined with feelings of dizziness and frequent fainting doctors in the UK at first believed he had epilepsy.

The symptoms worsened and his father’s boss at Carbon Holdings, based in Egypt, offered to pay for a visit to America last September.

Here, Chris was examined by a group of specialist doctors based at Harvard University and through various genetic testing they established Chris has a form of Ocular Albinism, indicating Stargardt disease – a condition affecting one in ten million.

Chris said: “My eyes were so sore that I had to wear a blindfold when I was doing judo to stop the light sensitivity causing me pain.”

His vision loss forced him to give up his beloved Rugby – a sport that he played up until the age of 17 with the Hull Lonians.

“When my eyesight worsened I had to quit Rugby, which I’ve played since age of six.

“But I was able to continue with my judo as I had some fantastic support from my coaches in the shape of Ian Johns, Jamie Johnson, Matt Divall, Denny Roberts, Jean-Paul Bell to mention but a few who encouraged me through the England Talent Development programme.

“I wouldn’t have come so far without their help, and the support and guidance of my coach Jeff Brady at Haltonprice.

“There have been many challenges along the way but I am so happy to finally have an answer to my condition so that I can manage it.

“I have enjoyed great support from everyone along the way as my eyesight has deteriorated.”

Chris also had a job as an apprentice mechanic in Hull before his condition affected his ability to continue with the role.

“I really enjoyed working there and I finished my level three, but when my eyes got so bad that couldn’t see and I was bumping into things, they had to let me go,” he said.

“It was really sad, they were upset as was I, but we have remained really good friends.”

Whenever he gets down about his condition, he thinks about the major role models in his life – his late grandpa and grandfather from both sides of his family, who both represented their country in the Armed Forces.

“I always think about my grandparents when I get down about my condition and think they went through so much and I can also get through anything life throws my way.”

Initially through his judo, Chris wanted to follow their footsteps into the Armed Forces to travel the world.

However, competing in the GB VI programme is the next best thing; since it allows him to experience new places around the globe during competitions, while doing the thing he loves best.

“Before the German Open last year, I had never even been out of the country,” he said.

“Then I went to Colorado in America for the Pan American Open and both these tournaments made up my first travel experiences.

“It was fantastic to share them with my judo family.”

So versatile is the programme that Chris also enters sighted competitions and just last month won gold in the Scottish Open sighted event in Edinburgh.

“I’m on the VI squad but we are training alongside fully sighted players at the CoE and we also take part in mainstream squad training and randori- even competitions,” he said.

Chris Skelley at the Centre of ExcellenceNow he is based at the CoE full time as an elite athlete, he does miss the comforts of home, but visits his mum and dad in Hull as much as his training allows.

“Moving away from home to Walsall was hard as I do miss my mum, dad and sister very much,” he said.

“It is very difficult to move away from where you live and where everything is familiar to go to somewhere you don’t know and get used to your surroundings again. Especially when you have a VI condition, 

“The facilities for VI people are really good at the centre of excellence and we have everything we could ever need or want.

“When I first got there I was walking into a lot of stuff because I wasn’t familiar with my surroundings.

“I do feel honoured to be asked to come here and it feels like we are all one big family.”

His advice to anyone who wants to join is to just do it!

“I got into judo before I lost my sight but it could equally apply to someone who already has a visual impairment and never tried the sport,” he says.

“It is important not to get down. Judo makes me really happy and makes me want to succeed. It is a great environment to be in,” he said.

Through judo Chris has made lifelong friends.

“I have had some fantastic experiences and have made friends for life,” he said.

“I’m now training full time through the VI programme and I have had the chance to rebuild my life,” he said.

“After everything I have been through, for me it feels really special to be part of the VI team.

“My advice for a VI judoka is to not be scared about doing judo, and be proud of who you are,” he added.

“You can do anything you put your mind to. Don’t focus on what you can’t do, take pride in what you can do.

“Push forward, because our limitations are only in our own minds.”

Gavin Towers -balancing VI judo with family life 

Gavin Towers (-81kg), 35, from Cumbria, also made the transition to VI Judo after being diagnosed in 2011 with a degenerative eye condition and became eligible for the VI Judo Squad at the beginning of 2012 when he was diagnosed with a genetic degenerative disorder affecting the eyes called Retinitis Pigmentosa.

Having proven his fitness and trainability he was successful in numerous domestic judo competitions in 2012 and trained with the full Olympic team throughout that year.

Following this he competed in his first VI competition in Germany and went on to take bronze at the VI Pan American Open last summer.

Later that year, at the VI European Open Hungary he finished in seventh place, winning three contests and losing two.

“I am an athlete with a difference, I’m a full-time dad and judoka, the link is not always seamless but it strengthens my resolve.

“With age has come a clarity of drive and purpose, I put this into my training and approach to life.

“Furthermore, 2013/2014 marks the first tangible part of my drive to achieve gold in the Paralympics in Rio 2016.

“I am working towards gold in Rio, my focus is on building a skill and physical base to ensure I am successful in achieving this goal.

“I recognise for this I need a strong team around me. I hope we can realise this ambition together.”

Gavin has trained and competed in sport throughout his life and competed internationally and won regional and national medals in martial arts, duathlon and triathlon.

Now he trains full time basis on the VI squad and hopes that the coming year will enable him to meet the “best face to face in competition.”

In 2013, Gavin also took gold in the Kendal and Ipswich Opens as well as in the Kendal Masters.

Additionally he is also fluent in French and Mandarin Chinese, having graduated from Durham University with a Degree in Chinese and Management in 2000.

Natalie Greenhaugh

Reigning Junior VI World Champion Natalie Greenhaugh of Crawley will be in action.

Natalie, 19, has Cone Rod Dystrophy and a nystagmus and is transitioning onto the VI squad.

She was introduced to judo at age pf 16 by her brother who attended Kin Ryu Judo Club. When the club opened a ladies only session her mum thought it would be good for her to try. And so they joined in together.

Natalie took to judo so well, soon she was attending Kyu grade competitions. Last year, her coach Lisa Harrison entered her into many junior sighted events to enable her to compete against others in her weight category.

It also helped to give her a benchmark to work towards as Lisa fed back Natalie’s progress to the Paralympic team.

Subsequently Natalie was invited to several Paralympic days and spent a week training with the VI squad.

Here she proved herself eligible to join the team at the Junior World Championships in Hungary which she won.

Lisa said. “This was a fantastic experience and winning made it all the better, she is now looking forward to Germany.”

Jack Hodgson

Fellow junior VI judoka Jack Hodgson, 17, from Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, is a Commonwealth gold medallist in judo, transitioning onto the VI squad.

Jack has Ushers Syndrome, meaning he is visually impaired and deaf, known as Deaf/Blind.

However; his disability has not stopped him achieving amazing things, having spent a year on the England programme following winning bronze at the January 2013 British Cadet Championships at -90kg, he achieved a further bronze at the Welsh Senior Open U21 Cardiff D-bands against fully sighted players.

He was unable to defend his title at the December British Championships due to injury,

He went on to represent the VI squad in the European Championships and at the Junior Worlds.

However, he remains focused on representing his country at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Ushers Syndrome is a relatively rare genetic disorder that is a leading case in deaf-blindness.

Alongside his sporting successes, Jack won Young Deaf Sports Person of the Year; presented to him by Mike Gatting, a former England Cricketer.

At the age of 14 he also enjoyed an exclusive one-on-one drumming lesson from David “Skully” Skullivan-Kaplan from Razorlight, who invited the youngster along after seeing a video campaign about being deaf/blind.

Jack, who started Judo at the age of six, said “Ushers Syndrome for me means I am profoundly deaf and have a degenerative eye condition. I currently have only 10 degrees of vision- which as you can imagine is a bit of a challenge when it comes to judo.”

Looking ahead to the competition in Germany, he said: “I am very excited to be competing in Germany at The European Championships – am hoping that the whole squad perform well and am looking forward to us all gelling as a team.

“It is an exciting time for VI judo and I am proud to be a part of it.”

For more information on the VI programme, contact Denny Roberts on 07964 198441 or for the Paralympic potential development day contact Jeremy Adams on 0121 325 3903.

Follow the athletes on twitter and facebook for updates and also we’ll provide a review of the action following the event after the event.