By Bradley Turcotte –
Declared legally blind in 2006, Tony Walby assumed he would instruct judo for the remainder of his athletic career.
When a colleague informed him he qualified to be a Paralympian, the former national champion flipped at the chance and will represent Canada in Rio this September.
Tony’s interest in the Japanese discipline began when he was a student at Connaught Public School. Tina Takahashi instructed an after school program and Tony, who turns 43 in August, excelled at the sport. The sixth kyu, or beginner, started training at Melrose Avenue’s Takahashi Martial Arts School daily and “never left.”
A member of the national judo team since 1989 with a few absences along the way, Tony collected several titles including junior and senior national champion before retiring after the 2008 national championship. He holds the distinction of being the only legally blind Canadian competitor to win the “able bodied” title.
Tony’s sight began to wane in his mid-20s, baffling ophthalmologists. He eventually underwent genetic testing, revealing cone dystrophy as his diagnosis in 2009.
“That’s the twist of it all. I didn’t know that Paralympic judo was visually impaired. We always called it blind judo. In my head I wasn’t blind,” says Tony. “Even though I was legally blind, in my head I could still see. I just couldn’t see the level of being able to drive.”
Determined, Tony re-entered competition in 2010. In order to qualify for the 2012 London Paralympics, he required stellar performances at the last two qualifiers. Tony delivered, winning heavyweight gold at the 2010 Pan Am Championships.
After placing seventh in London, Tony retired once again. Yet the pull of the podium drew him back, he says.
Reflecting on his performance in London, Tony decided to slim down and move out of the heavyweight division.
“My first match in London, the fighter from France weighed over 400 pounds,” Tony recalls. “I dead lifted him in the air and slammed him. It took so much energy out of me that in the quarterfinals I lost in the last 15 seconds. I was so exhausted.”
Training partner and Team Canada member, Mathieu Lemay, helped Tony shed 80 pounds and says his progress leading up to Rio is consistent.
“You see a lot more commitment and speed. It trickled down to all the other fighters. Even though he is one of two people going to the Paralympics, everyone at the club has benefited,” Mathieu observes.
Despite all the controversy surrounding the Brazilian games, Tony says he is not worried about security or the Zika virus, which he compares to the overblown “hype” around the 2004 SARS outbreak.
Tony’s paramount concern is which opponents he draws, citing Georgia’s Zviad Gogotchuri as his most tenacious rival.
“This is judo. Anybody can make a mistake. Anybody can go in for a bad throw. Anything can happen. I have 35 years experience. I’m going to go out there and give it everything I’ve got. Leave it all out on the mat. I think I have the ability to get on that podium and that is the goal.”
Tony Walby enters the Paralympic shiaijo September 10.