LONDON – Ask any athlete, and they will tell you: there is nothing like stepping out on to the field of play at the Games for the first time. At ExCel, the venue for judo as well as the sports of boccia, fencing, powerlifting, sitting volleyball and table tennis, the crowds swelled on Thursday during the first day of competition where American Ron Hawthorne made his Paralympic Games debut.
Hawthorne (Kansas City, Kan.) has been honing his skills in the sport of Judo at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the past two years. He competed Thursday in the men’s 60kg competition and finished seventh.
Judo in the Paralympic Games is contested by visually impaired athletes and is the only martial art on the Paralympic program. As a young child, Hawthorne suffered a traumatic head injury which caused irreversible damage to his optic nerve. He began competing in judo in college and made the move to the Olympic Training Center in 2010 after winning a number of competitions, including the 2009 USA Judo Visually Impaired National Championships.
“It was my first time here at a Paralympics and we came short of our goal,” Hawthorne said after his final match. “But I've got four years to work on it.”
The day started strong with Hawthorne defeating his first opponent, Ukraine’s Ihor Zasyadkovych, through ippon, which is the highest score a judoka can achieve in a match.
“You have to have a strategy just like in any sport,” said Hawthorne’s coach, Eddie Liddie, at the completion of the first match. “We had to make sure we kept our shoulders square, kept our footwork proper, so in doing that it became a good match for him. I’m real proud of him.”
Strategy and speed can benefit a judoka, and after the first match Hawthorne knew he had to approach the rest of his day with his mind on which throws he would perform next. It helped to have his hometown coach on hand for support.
“I’m used to hearing his voice every day, all the time,” he said of Liddie. “It’s a little bit better when you have somebody you’re comfortable with at this type of level.”
In the quarterfinal round, Hawthorne fell to Xiaodong Li of China, which put him in the repechage for his afternoon match. He then faced Great Britain’s Ben Quilter, who had a very loud and enthusiastic hometown crowd on his side.
"It was hard fighting a guy from the home team," Hawthorne said, adding that the noise level in the arena made an impact. “I had a hard time hearing my coach, so that’s why I tried to stay more towards my side of the mat. When the crowd is loud you can’t hear anything.”
Even though the Games did not end the way Hawthorne had hoped, he is not giving up on his dreams of one day winning a medal for Team USA.
“It was a great experience,” he said of his debut on the biggest stage in his sport. “I know I can handle these guys and I’m just as good as they are. It’ll give me a little bit more fire for the next three, four years to achieve my goal to get on top of the podium for the U.S.”