By Stuart Lieberman | July 02, 2019, 4:27 p.m. (ET)

Melissa Arndt pictured with her guide dog outside in front of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center Visitor's Center.
After trying out judo for the first time at age 14, 28-year-old Marissa Arndt is now heading to the 2019 IBSA International Qualifier to try and qualify for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

 

Para judoka Marissa Arndt was three places shy of earning a spot on the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team.

 

Since then, she’s broken barriers and has emerged as one of the sport’s scrappiest and best players. In 2017, Arndt made history at the USA Judo National Presidents Cup by becoming the first visually impaired female athlete to medal in an able-bodied judo event and to be on the able-bodied point roster.

 

Arndt, who turned 28 on July 1, is now in the midst of trying to crack the top 10 in the world rankings in order to qualify for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. She’s headed to Fort Wayne, Indiana, this week to compete at the 2019 IBSA Goalball & Judo International Qualifier, the third qualifying tournament that will award world championship-level points toward a spot at the Paralympic Games.

 

Arndt’s journey to the mat has been unconventional, as she did not start participating in sports until she was 14 years old.

 

Raised in a Catholic family in Hartland, Wisconsin, her parents noticed early on some problems with her vision. She was night blind and lacked depth perception. By age 3, she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, and by middle school developed tunnel vision. By the time she graduated high school, she lost all the functional vision she had left, and was only able to perceive light.

 

It wasn’t until middle school that she was introduced to adaptive sports for the first time at a summer camp, having the chance to try judo, goalball, wrestling, swimming and running.

 

“I grew up not knowing I could play sports being visually impaired,” Arndt said. “I was told I couldn’t do it. Not because my parents or teachers were being mean, but just because they weren’t educated on blind sports.”

 

She returned to that same summer camp every year until college, and then once she enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, she joined their judo club and practiced every night after class.

 

“What I liked about judo is it was really rough and tough,” Arndt said. “It was very exciting when I was younger to be thrown in the air. I just thought that was really fun. Now, obviously, I’d much rather throw people than be thrown, but it was a lot of fun.”

 

Arndt began competing in judo soon after that, participating in able-bodied competitions for two years with a club team before learning about Para judo. She qualified for the world championship team in 2014 and, after taking part in the Parapan American Games the following year, was offered a spot to train at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She waited until 2016 to move to Colorado Springs so she could finish her master’s degree from the Deaconess Studies program at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis.

 

“It’s important to have something else outside of your sport,” Arndt said. “I find a lot of strength from my faith. I’ve seen a lot of athletes’ whole identity be in their sport. But for me, even if I were to break a bone or didn’t win something, my identity is in my faith, and I think that’s super important to always remember.”

 

Now, Arndt’s days begin as early as 4:30 a.m., as she’s handling training full-time with her work at a local church in Colorado Springs. She’s at the church four days a week, teaching pre-school, music classes and an adult bible class, and is always lesson planning in between her judo training.

 

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Arndt trains and conditions during the day, and simulates judo matches with other athletes in the evening. It’s advantageous for Para judokas to be at the OPTC because a major part of the sport is learning different fighting styles, and there is a strong group of athletes there with different styles.

 

“For the blind it’s not only helpful to explain what it looks like, but also to show us what it looks like. So the coach here shows the technique on me so I can feel it to understand it,” she said.

 

Arndt, who is engaged to be married in August, said she will likely need to be in the top 10 in the world rankings by next year in order to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

 

That would be quite a feat for someone who didn’t first try judo until age 14.

 

“I started off with something as a hobby that has turned into so much more,” Arndt said. “It’s been amazing to be this empowered through sport. This is something I never thought about for myself, especially growing up being told I couldn’t play sports. But, in fact, I found out I absolutely can.”

 

Stuart Lieberman has covered Paralympic sports for the International Paralympic Committee since 2011, including the 2012, 2014 and 2018 Paralympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.