By Stuart Miller-Davis
When a 35-year-old Tony Walby announced his retirement from the Canadian judo team after 16 years, his thought was that he’d transition into coaching.
Ottawa’s Walby took up judo in Grade 3 in an afterschool program run by his student teacher, Tina Takahashi, who was Canada’s first women’s Olympic judo coach.
Walby followed Takahashi to her family’s legendary club, the Takahashi Dojo. From there, Walby would go on to win a dozen medals at the national level as a judoka before retiring from able-bodied competition.
Around the same time as his retirement, Walby was declared legally blind. He has cone dystrophy, a deteriorating genetic condition, which caused him to lose his sight.
“At the time, I knew I was losing my sight, but I didn’t know I was going to go blind,” Walby told the Sports Pages in a recent interview.
For about four years, Walby remained involved with judo by coaching, running clinics and settling into a place on the outside of the mat.
It was while running a course with Andrzej Sadej, who at the time was the head coach of Canada’s para judo team, that the possibility of competing again was brought up to Walby.
“(Sadej) saw me using a device that magnifies text on a document, and he asked my how bad my vision actually was,” Walby said. “When I told him, he dragged me back into competing.”
Reflecting on the beginning of his second competitive career — this time on the para side — Walby remembers being impressed by the athletes who surrounded him at the 2011 Parapan American Games. Walby won bronze in the +100-kilogram division at those Games.
“I got to meet all these great athletes who, in my opinion at the time, were much worse off than me because they had a disability. I didn’t see myself as having a disability,” said Walby, who described his vision as being “about 50 per cent” at the time.
“When I saw the strength not only of their character, but their physical abilities and challenges that they’d overcome, I was very impressed.”
When Walby’s sight began to worsen, he said it was the athletes around him who motivated him.
“Really, all I was doing was losing my sight when all of these amazing athletes are dealing with challenges much harder than that every single day, overcoming them, and being amazing athletes and amazing people,” he said.
When Walby’s sight began seriously deteriorating after his first Paralympic Games in London in 2012, he said it was his fellow para-athletes who “saved” him.
“They saved me from going through the pain, the depression that people can go through when they gain a disability. I think that the fact I got to meet all these wonderful people was the reason why I never hit that depression mode.”
Walby retired from competition for the second time after the 2016 Paralympics. In 2018, he was elected chair of the Canadian Paralympic Committee’s (CPC) athletes’ council — another move made out of the inspiration he drew from his fellow para-athletes.
“I came to opinion that I have to advocate for them, which is why I’m involved with CPC so much,” he said. “These are some of the most gifted athletes in the world that very few people know about.”
Walby said more needs to be done for Canada’s Paralympians, to get them the recognition they deserve.
“Everybody knows who our great Canadian athletes are, but our para-athletes are hidden. The CPC is doing some wonderful work to spotlight them,” he said.
The CPC’s plan, according to Walby, is to build on the momentum gained from the Rio de Janeiro and PyeongChang Games with Tokyo 2021 and Beijing 2022 to bring parasport visibility to more younger audiences in Canada.
All the while, Walby said more work needs to be done to improve safer sport for para-athletes — whether that be by preventing neglect, mistreatment or sexual abuse.
“They’re the most vulnerable,” Walby said.