A Paralympic gold medallist aims to make history by becoming the first British judo para-athlete to retain their medal in more than 25 years.
Partially-sighted judo star Chris Skelley MBE rose to stardom in 2021 when he won gold at the Tokyo Paralympics, which was delayed by a year and overshadowed by covid restrictions.
The achievement came 10 years after the former mechanic started to lose his sight and was diagnosed with Oculus Albinism, Bell’s Reflex, and Extreme Photophobia – resulting in him having to leave his job.
With one gold medal under his belt, the 29-year-old’s focus is now turning to the 2023 IBSA World Games, where he can earn vital qualification points to secure a spot at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Securing qualification won’t be the only thing on Chris’s mind though when he steps out onto the tatami at University of Birmingham’s Sport & Fitness in what he has dubbed his own “mini Tokyo”, as he looks to make up for lost time by performing in front of those he holds dearest.
Judo gold medallist is looking to secure his place in the Paris Paralympics
“In Tokyo I was upset because my family wasn’t allowed to be there and see me fight, so the World Games in Birmingham are going to be my ‘mini-Tokyo’ if you like,” said Chris, who recently married GB wheelchair tennis Paralympian Louise Hunt, with the couple now living in Swindon.
“I am going to have my wife there along with my mum, sisters, godchildren, best friends and all the other people that have helped me along the way.
“I think it will be nice for them to see me fight and get more qualification points for Paris.”
Although still only 29, the 2023 IBSA World Games – of which RNIB is the lead sponsor - will form part of a build-up to what will be Chris says will be his last Paralympics.
He said: “I’m not getting any younger – I’m going to be 30 this year. In visually-impaired Judo terms that’s not that old, but I want to move on to the next chapter in my life, and I have been honest with my team that this is going to be my last dance at Paris – and I want to achieve something that’s not been done for a quarter of a century.
“I’ve done judo for 25 years and full time for 10 years, and now I am married I want to start a family.”
Part of that desire to start a new chapter stems from the sacrifices that Chris says his family has made to enable him to become the world’s best, which sees him working away full-time at the British Judo National Training Centre in Walsall Monday to Friday.
“What people don’t really see is the tough choices you have to make in order to be focused on the job in hand,” added Chris, who has recently started using a walking cane at night to improve his independence.
“I only get to be with my family at weekends and they have to take that burden on, and that is why I am grateful to the people around me who have said ‘go and chase your dreams’.
“It always brings a tear to my eye when I think about Louise screaming when I won gold, as it is a reminder that she’s had to deal with a lot with the amount of time we have to spend away from each other.
“I’ve been so lucky to do this and meet the people and achieve the stuff I’ve achieved, but at the moment the job is not done, and I’ve been working hard with my strength and conditioning coaches to get me in the best possible shape for the World Games in August.”
Changes to the fighting weight categories, where under-100kg and plus-100 kg have been combined to make plus-90 kg, means that Chris will be coming up against heavier fighters at the IBSA World Games – a challenge which he is relishing.
He added: “I don’t feel any pressure to retain my gold medal, as I now think of myself as the hunter again, and I am hunting people down to be the best.
“Everyone in my category is tough. Everyone is a threat and in judo anything can happen. Someone who usually doesn’t perform can have the best performance of their life on the day – it can be over in a split second – and that’s the danger, and thrill, that judo gives me.
“I know it’s going to be tough at the World Games, but I know if I put the hard work and the preparation in now, then it should be a good day.”
Not only is Chris hoping that the World Games will be a good experience for him, but for the wider blind and partially sighted community in the longer-term, too.
He said: “When I won gold it was great at being able to let people hold the medal and inspire the next generation – and I’m hoping the World Games has the same effect by showing other blind and partially sighted people that they can play any sport they want – and that any sport is adaptable.
“It also shows others how incredible these people are to do what they’re doing.
“In my sport, to go and step on to a mat to fight another person who also can’t see takes a lot of courage, heart and determination.
“When I am fighting someone I can’t see anything – all I can see is their face if I’m up close but I am mainly just trying to feel through my hands.
“The biggest thing for beginners is taking that first step. A lot of people can let disability define them, but it’s important to remember you can do anything if you put your mind to it.”
For more details on ways that blind and partially sighted people can get involved in sport, see British Blind Sport and RNIB’s See Sport Differently campaign.
Find out more about British Judo