Grassroots to Glory - Chris Skelley
Chris Skelley, one of the most popular members of the judo global circuit, is back and ready for Tokyo.
Chris Skelley’s catchphrase is ‘I never expected it.’
His parents, Kathy and Peter, wanted their painfully shy son to try two sports to help him make new friends and keep occupied in the evenings. No one imagined it would lead to a trip to the Tokyo Paralympics.
First came rugby. Skelley played three days a week at the local club, where the coach’s wife happened to mention she knew about a nearby dojo.
When Skelley first stepped onto a tatami mat, aged five, at National Lottery funded Haltemprice Judo Club in East Yorkshire - guess what? He was shocked.
“It was just curiosity - I had never seen a sport like judo, and I just wanted to have a go,” said the 28-year-old.
“I never expected to enjoy it. I think mum and dad were quite worried about me and instead of sitting around with nothing to do, I was always training.
“I never thought I’d fall in love with any sport, but I did with judo and rugby, and it’s been a great buffer for me. It’s been a shining light in my life when things got tougher.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to do this sport full-time, as I do, I’m very lucky and humble to do what I do.”
Skelley is currently one of over 1,000 athletes to currently benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing him to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
Before making the programme, a relentlessly hard worker, he gained an apprenticeship as a mechanic at the age of 17 and plotted a path to a prosperous future.
Then his sight gradually but steadily worsened, an unimaginable agony as ocular albinism, a genetic condition he was born with, wreaked havoc on Skelley’s life.
It put paid to his first passion, rugby, but the judo community reached out and offered a reassuring grip.
“It was a dark period in my life, I had nothing left,” said Skelley.
“The one thing that was left was judo. I had to stop working, I had to give up doing rugby which was what I loved as well. I had to understand and live with something new.
“My mum had to hug me hard because I was just sobbing, I didn’t know what was happening or have any structure in my life. Judo was the only structure I had.
“My parents and the neighbours were having to create jobs for me, ‘Chris can do this, Chris can do that’ to keep me structured and in the work environment.
“I never thought that I would go to a Paralympics,” he said – another dab if you’re playing buzzword bingo – “so it’s been quite a journey.”
Weeklong trips to Dartford, Kent turned into a permanent move to British Judo headquarters in Walsall, a platform for Skelley to excel at national level.
He earned a place on the coveted Paralympic Inspiration programme at London 2012, which allowed aspiring athletes to live in the Olympic Village.
“Experiencing London like that was amazing,” he said.
“It taught me you have to be resilient, there are a lot of tough times an athlete. Seeing it up close, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get where you want to get.”
An equal measure of all three have earned Skelley top spot in the -100kg world rankings, as well as European gold in 2017 and bronze at the 2018 World Championships.
He is one of the most popular members of the global circuit, a picture painted by British Judo head coach Ian Johns.
“Chris is chased around by the media because he’s so likeable,” said Johns, who has seen the fortunes of ParalympicsGB transform over the past two decades thanks to National Lottery funding.
“When he travels, he always searches for the best sighted players to train with and that earns respect on the circuit.
“He is so humble and sport is the best vehicle for him to achieve and excel.”
Though Skelley seems to thrive on a succession of surprises, there is one thing he can predict: his appetite.
The Paralympian is a voracious foodie with a particular taste for pork pies, video-reviewing the country’s offerings on Facebook.
He was even one of five hosts on a special pre-Paralympic edition of Channel 4 hit Come Dine With Me – worth a watch if you want to see if his karaoke skills match his athletic chops.
Skelley promised to do his best to avoid the culinary delights of Japan until after his competition, at which time, he warned, “if you hear about a shortage of food in the village, you know who the responsible people are: the judo team.”
The village veteran felt the full force of the Paralympic cauldron on debut at Rio 2016 when he faced Antonio Tenorio Silva in the quarter-finals, roundly booed by a partisan strong home crowd.
There won’t be any fans to roar him on in Tokyo, but the Yorkshireman will harness the energy he took from being a pantomime villain in Brazil.
“I never expected to get to Rio,” said Skelley
“I have never felt what it was like to be a villain. When my name was said out loud, and after that about eight to nine thousand people booed me. It was just the best feeling.
“When I stepped onto the mat, I couldn’t tell you where I was. It was an incredible moment and I’m so grateful that I got the chance.
“I’d rather be a hero, but it was cool to be the villain for a day.
“I just like to be against the odds.”
No one does more to support our Olympic and Paralympic athletes than National Lottery players, who raise around £36 million each week for good causes including grassroots and elite sport. Discover the positive impact playing the National Lottery has at www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk and get involved by using the hashtags: #TNLAthletes #MakeAmazingHappen