Sam Ingram, GB Paralympic judoka (right) with coach Euan Burton

Best of both worlds

How a Paralympian trains and competes with fully-sighted team-mates

A select band of extraordinary athletes have bridged the competitive divide between Olympic and Paralympic sport, from "Blade Runner" Oscar Pistorius to British discus thrower Dan Greaves to Irish sprinter Jason Smyth.

They have proved it is realistic for disabled athletes to dream of competing alongside able-bodied rivals, and as sport science develops, allowing a greater understanding of how physical disadvantages can be overcome, barriers will continue to be broken down.

So what happens when disabled and able-bodied athletes come together in a training environment? How do coaches juggle their needs and help them to co-exist, and even create an environment where they can mutually benefit from the crossover?

A unified approach

In some cases, the difference in physical needs makes it unfeasible for the twain to meet, but in judo, in Scotland, a unified approach has borne fruit. Sam Ingram is the embodiment of that synergy.

Ingram, 30, was born with corneal dystrophy, which means he cannot distinguish colours and has no central vision. He is in the final stages of preparation for his second Paralympic Games, in Rio. He won silver at London 2012, and anybody who has visited the JudoScotland National Training Centre at Ratho, near Edinburgh, will understand that silver is viewed as a natural stepping stone to gold rather than a laurel to be rested on.

Winning gold in Rio will be far from easy for Coventry-born Ingram (above), not least because the line-up for his event will include at least one judoka who competed at the highest able-bodied level before crossing over into the Paralympic realm after being diagnosed with deteriorating eyesight or a condition similar to Ingram’s.

So what are the differences in judo for visually-impaired athletes, both at a competitive and a training level? We asked Euan Burton, Ingram’s lead coach and JudoScotland's new National High Performance Coach, to explain how he modifies his approach to suit the athlete.

Establishing a grip

“The key difference is the fact that there is contact immediately,” says Burton, who himself competed at two Olympics for Team GB and carried the flag for Scotland at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“The rules of the sport are pretty much the same except for the start of every exchange. In able-bodied judo they face each other but there is no contact, and you are looking to gain an advantage with the first contact.

“In para-judo, however, the first contact is already established via a standard sleeve and lapel grip, face to face and with arms bent.

“It’s a big difference and how you manipulate that grip is very different to standard judo, and it’s one of the things Sam is very good at. He is also one of the best in the world on the ground, where he is very adept at getting into finishing positions."

As an athlete, Burton (above) was a training partner of Ingram's and in his role at JudoScotland he works closely with Paralympics GB and the sportscotland institute of sport to ensure his charge can fulfill his talent on the biggest stage. So what else is bespoke about his training programme?

“The other slight difference with para-judo is that exchanges can last longer and rest periods can last longer, because the referee has to get them back to the starting position and establish the grip.

“It can take more than a minute to do that, whereas you are talking about 10 seconds to restart an able-bodied judo bout. But exchanges are typically around 30 seconds, unlike able-bodied judo where they are more likely to last 10 to 20 seconds.

“We modify Sam’s training on the basis of these subtle differences. And we spend a lot of time discussing how he can dominate the start of the exchange.”

It's all about Rio

The Commonwealth Games has, for one reason or another, bypassed Ingram to date. He might have been good enough in the able-bodied realm to win a medal at Glasgow 2014 but he was up against high-class competition in Matt Purssey and Patrick Dawson, who earned the two 90kg selection berths for Team Scotland ahead of him.

Now, as many Rio-bound Scots contemplate Gold Coast 2018 on the horizon, judo’s omission from the programme means the Ratho group have to look elsewhere for their next goal.

Ingram has benefited from sportscotland institute of sport support ever since joining the then Edinburgh-based training party in 2008. In our video, he talks of his gratitude to the experts who have helped him on his journey.

Burton goes on to explain how Ingram has managed to thrive in Ratho, where so many heroes of Glasgow 2014 had their talents honed thanks to effective performance partnership work between JudoScotland and the institute.

“If there was ever anything he needed, the sportscotland institute of sport would look to provide it. But Sam is essentially treated the same as our Olympic athletes, and that allows him to have access to a very high standard of training partner,” says Burton.

“He can more than hold his own against the able-bodied guys he trains alongside at Ratho, and he has spent a large part of this four-year cycle competing against able-bodied opponents, before coming back to focus on the subtle differences presented by para-judo.

“He has dedicated himself for an entire decade to the aim of winning Paralympic gold.” 

Main image courtesy of JudoScotland

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