Fighting blind: Paralympians take on judo and disability

AFP , Sunday 11 Sep 2016

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Being in a fight with an invisible attacker may sound like a nightmare. Christella Garcia, a medal-winning, blind Paralympian judoka, says it's "wonderful."

"It makes perfect sense," Garcia told AFP right after defeating Brazil's Deanne Almeida for bronze in the over 70kg category in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.

Garcia, who has been almost completely blind from birth, said that out on the judo mat, where opponents try to outwit, unbalance and throw each other, her disability no longer matters.

"You're gripping and you feel your opponent's body and the way they're moving," Garcia, 37, said. "It about who wants it the most."

Judo in the Paralympics is reserved for the visually impaired -- some with limited eyesight, others like Garcia with virtually none. There are surprisingly few changes to the way the regular sport is played.

Contestants unable to see the boundaries may unwittingly spill outside, so the referee has to guide them back. And unlike in regular judo, where the clock is visible, a loud buzzer goes off at the one minute warning before the bout ends.

Otherwise, the combatants in their white or blue clothes fight as skillfully and fiercely as those with proper vision. It can be easy to forget they are blind at all -- until the incongruously gentle scene of a referee leading a black belt fighter around by the hand.

- 'Intuition' -

Another US bronze medal winner Saturday, Dartanyon Crockett, only took up judo when he left high school.

Learning a sport in which being propelled through the air or choked while lying on the mat are integral parts was not easy for a young man born blind.

"Part of doing judo for the visually impaired is putting yourself in a scary, uncomfortable situation," said Crockett, now 25. "It's about stepping out of your comfort zone."

His coach, Eddie Liddie, said teaching is also a huge challenge in a sport involving scores of techniques, many of them only subtly different from each other.

"I'm so used to demonstrating so that they can see it," he said of his normal coaching procedures. "What I learned to do was to put their bodies into certain positions and then have them doing it by repetition."

But once beyond that steep learning curve, judo can become remarkably natural for the blind.

Probably the most important difference between Paralympic and regular judo is that judokas keep a grip on their opponent at all times, rather than breaking away and re-gripping as they would usually.

This means the two blind athletes literally hold on to each other. And Venezuela's Naomi Soazo, who won gold in Beijing and bronze in Rio, says that connection is the starting point.

"When you hold them you feel their movements. Then it's intuition and feeling about where they're going," she said.

In fact, provided she's gripped on to her opponent, she can match another black belt of her level with perfect eyesight. "There's no difference," she says.

And that self-confidence spreads far beyond the tatami, or judo mat.

Garcia says that mastering judo has helped her win the fight of her own life.

Now "I don't consider being blind a disadvantage," she proudly proclaims. "It's just a characteristic: I'm a girl. I have black hair. I love cup cakes -- and I'm blind."

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