Paralympic judo star Chris Skelley says how sport saved him when he lost his sight

It’s been a month since judo star Chris Skelley scooped gold at the Tokyo Paralympics – and he’s still buzzing.

Chris Skelley during the announcement of the Rio 2016 Paralympics Judo squad at the University of Wolverhampton, Walsall. Picture : David Davies/PA Wire.

“I’ve still not come down from the high yet,” says the 28-year-old who lives in Hull. “I think I’ll be on it for a while.”

There’s no doubt a gold medal is always an epic achievement, but for Skelley, the gratitude runs very deep.

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Not only was it his first Paralympic victory, he credits judo for “getting me out of a very dark place” after his vision began to deteriorate aged 17.

Chris Skelley with gold at the Tokyo Paralympics. Picture: British Judo/Alamy/PA.

Skelley had always been sporty, taking up junior rugby and judo from a young age, but the sight loss he experienced due to the genetic condition oculocutaneous albinism, meant he was forced to give up his hopes of becoming a mechanic and life changed rapidly.

“I lost everything around me, the only thing I had left was sport. It was my saviour,” recalls Skelley, who was just five years old when his parents took him to National Lottery funded Haltemprice Judo Club in Hull.

“I went through a very dark period and no one could tell me anything, there was no shining light for answers. Sport brought me out and kept me going.”

Skelley, who now splits his time between Hull and the British Judo headquarters in Walsall, finished fifth at the Olympics in Brazil five years ago. While there was no podium place in Rio, he did return from that Games with the love of his life, wheelchair tennis player Louise Hunt. The couple will marry next year, with Skelley, a self-confessed “awful cryer” it is certain tears will flow.

Jonathan Drane (right) and Chris Skelley compete during the announcement of the Rio 2016 Paralympics Judo squa. Picture David Davies/PA Wire.

“Everyone laughs at me, I’m an awful crier. I cry at anything. I never expected to do this as a job; it’s my hobby, I love it because I love judo. And to stand here and talk to you now as a Paralympic champion, I’m lost for words.”

He has now teamed up with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) on their See Sport Differently campaign in partnership with British Blind Sport, which aims to tackle the sports participation gap amongst blind and partially sighted people.

The wellbeing benefits of sports and exercise are well documented – from that all-important endorphin release helping boost mood, offset stress and even reduce depression and anxiety, to increased confidence and self-esteem, not to mention the sheer joy and fun factor.

Skelley recalls how one of the main reasons his parents encouraged him to take up sports was because “it helped me with socialising, mixing with people and making friends”.

New figures released by RNIB, however, highlight how many blind and partially sighted people are missing out.

They are twice as likely as other people to be completely inactive, with 53 per cent of blind and partially sighted people doing less than 30 minutes of physical activity each week, according to the charity, who surveyed 416 people.

Most respondents (80 per cent) agreed on the importance of keeping active, but 48 per cent said their visual impairment prevented them from doing so, 53 per cent said they didn’t have the right opportunities, and a third (33 per cent) said there were activities they’d like to try but haven’t been able to.

Sight loss is more common than many people think.

As RNIB points out, every six minutes in the UK somebody begins to lose their sight, and around 350,000 people are registered blind or partially sighted. So, that’s a lot of people potentially missing out on sports and exercise.

With funding from Sport England and the National Lottery, the campaign will create and promote local opportunities for inclusive sport, which people can find out about via the online hub (rnib.org.uk/see-sport-differently).

Describing the importance of sport, Skelley says: “It’s so important for someone who has visual impairment or is fully blind, who needs a bit of an escape, a way to release a bit of that pent up anger, that annoyance, or that frustrating day with their eyes – sport gives you that.

“Sport can give you that bubble where you can just enjoy yourself.”

He’s determined to see the tide shift, and “100 per cent” adamant that sport would be a huge part of his own happiness and wellbeing even if he wasn’t a Paralympian.

“I never thought I’d be doing this as a job. A door opened and then I went through it, but I love doing judo,” he says. “It’s is my passion, my escapism. To do it at this level, I feel very lucky, but I’d be doing it anyway. And I think it’s important to define that sports is an escape for people. It’s where you just go and have fun.

“It is tough being blind or visually impaired, I’m going to be honest,” Skelley adds. “But it’s [about] making sure you have the best time possible. Sport can give you that little bit of a cushion to fall back on.”

RNIB have published a short #SeeSportDifferently film on YouTube, featuring a range of blind and visually impaired people enjoying various sports and talking about what it means to them.

The campaign aims to challenge some of the beliefs and barriers that can get in the way of people with sight loss reaping the benefits of physical activity – and Skelley is keen to note this applies to everyone, regardless of how naturally fit and sporty you think you are.

“You don’t have to be super fit. You don’t have to go down the Cross Fit route and be able to do loads of pull-ups, you don’t need to be like Mo Farah, and so what if you haven’t got a six-pack? I haven’t got a six-pack – I love my Greggs too much.

“Don’t be scared to have a go,” Skelley adds. “All sports are adaptable, and some are very easily adaptable for people with visual impairment.

“You’re not going to lose anything; just take that first step – the first step is always the most difficult – and enjoy yourself.”

In terms of what sports clubs and leisure centres can do, he says: “The main thing is to be accessible, so that people with visual impairment or who are fully blind can go in and do the sport.

Also be a warm, welcoming environment and not to feel like they need to have their guard up. When I’m working with a blind or visually impaired person doing judo, I just make sure they have a good time.

“And ask them what they need: can I make anything more safe for you? Just ask the person, because they will be your biggest help in terms of how to make things more accessible. Communicate, and everything will be smooth sailing.”

For more information about the RNIB and the See Sport Differently campaign, visit rnib.org.uk/see-sport-differently