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Adaptive Judo Serves Veterans With Disabilities

By Ernest Pund | June 05, 2013, 2:30 p.m. (ET)

USA Judo To Hold Clinic At Basement Dojo On The Rise 

Mark Smith can see it in their faces. Empowerment.

“These guys were the baddest animals on the planet,” said Smith, who leads a judo program in a tiny basement space of the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The men and women in his class were soldiers. They were fighters. Most of them lost their sight in the field, ending that key part of their identity. Others suffered from post-traumatic stress or a brain injury. But in this modest dojo, where they put down and pick up the mats with each workout, they can again feel their strength and ability, an experience that can renew their broader outlook on life.

The pace of success has accelerated recently at Adaptive Judo. Five members of the club were awarded their green belts after passing a rigorous examination at the Shufu Promotional in College Park, Maryland, in April.  And club member Jason LeFever, 90 kg., who also works out at Baltimore Judo, competed in the visually impaired divisions at USA Judo’s Senior National Championships in Virginia Beach, taking a silver medal after braving two matches against Dartanyon Crockett, bronze medal winner at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London last summer. Crockett, who took gold in his division at the Senior Nationals, hails from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO. He is an extraordinary judo fighter, visually impaired or fully sighted.

This coming weekend, the basement dojo will be the venue for a clinic led by USA Judo’s Director of High Performance, Eddie Liddie. “We’re really excited about this program,” Liddie said. “We want to support it, put our weight behind it.”

About four years ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee asked USA Judo to take over the U.S. Paralympic Judo Team and national para programs, which includes fostering developmental programs like Adaptive Judo. Strict paralympic competition includes visually impaired athletes only, but USA Judo and the USOC works for a broader mission to include any would-be judo athletes with a variety of disabilities, especially for the Wounded Warriors program, which caters specifically to veterans with disabilities. 

“Adaptive Judo has demonstrated that they are serious,” Liddie said. “Mark has gotten his athletes out to some significant tournaments and trained them for successful promotion. That’s great for these veterans. That’s what USA Judo wants to see. The club’s got momentum. And, who knows? Maybe we’ll get a serious, international competitor out of this dojo. All the champions start in dojos just like this one.”

Smith, who is certified by USA Judo to coach athletes with disabilities, says he is excited, too. One of the greatest challenges the club faces, ironically, is transportation to workouts in the basement dojo. Lots of veterans live in the Washington, D.C. area. With blindness or another disability, however, travelling even a short distance can be an ordeal.

A modest but invaluable federal grant helps to bridge the transportation gap, paying for rides to the dojo. “Foul weather is definitely rough for people standing out there waiting for public transport,” he said.

Another challenge is the size of the dojo space – it’s small, about a quarter the size of a competition surface. And “there is a big, square post in the middle of the room.” Smith joked, “it’s kind of like fencing in a phone booth.” For the time being, though, this is an obstacle well worth enduring, he said. The reward is on the faces of those veterans at Adaptive Judo.