Grassroots to Glory - Elliot Stewart
Elliot Stewart, British judoka with sight disability, ready for his next medal at the Paralympics
They say you are what you eat, and Elliot Stewart consumed judo from the day he was born.
Dad Dennis didn’t talk about his Olympic bronze medal very much at home, but it had a radiating presence akin to a magic lamp in a Disney film: a mythical object imbued with legends of old, inspiring adventures anew.
It took father-of-three Stewart, now 33, decades to understand why his dad rarely brought up the prize he took home from the 1988 Seoul Games when Elliot was eight months old.
“He did a good job of that,” said Stewart. “He did it in a really respectful way as well.
“At first, I didn’t understand it when I was younger. But now I’ve got my own kids and I’m at this kind of level as well, I definitely get it. I understand why he did that.
“He never, ever pushed us into judo or being Olympians. I think he did that, really, deep down – he wouldn’t have said this – but I reckon he did that because he knows how hard and how many sacrifices you have to make to get to that type of level.
“But even though he kept it on a little bit of a low, obviously he spoke to us about the Games and what he did, because we were all interested and it is a great achievement. But he never forced us into doing anything.
“Even though he kept in that way, his achievements still pushed me to want to become an Olympian.”
The hands-off approach clearly paid off: all three of Dennis’ sons took up the sport on their own accord. Elliot’s brothers Max and Lewis have both represented Great Britain in international competition.
Dennis returned from Korea eager to ensure the future of British judo remained bright and opened up his own club. Besides, he insisted, if his sons happened to fall for his favourite sport, it should be his mats they landed on.
“I started the kids from duck,” said Dennis. “I always said that if I was going to do the clubs, I’d start from scratch and try and bring them through the system.”
Stewart was sold on the sport from the instant he started joining his dad on trips to the club,but was initially forced to settle for an apprenticeship through observation.
“I was too young,” he said. “I remember sneaking onto the mat and crawling on their behind all the lined-up judoka ready to go and practice.
“I used to sneak in and try and bow and do some judo.”
Less subterfuge was needed to get on the court for basketball, where Stewart also excelled, captaining his school team and trialling for clubs at county level.
His Robert Frost moment soon arrived. But unlike the famous poet, when faced with a choice between basketball and judo, Stewart took the road more travelled.
“You know when you step on the mat, it’s you against somebody else,” he explained.
“That feeling, that respect of your opponent, the joy of winning, the hurt of losing, you know that it’s all down to you.
“And I like that pressure. The individual side of it is what drew me to judo.”
In 2008, Stewart’s then-girlfriend, Claire, needed to relocate to Hong Kong for a job. He agreed to follow her and found work as a judo coach. He said he’d do it for six months.
The pair came back to the UK five years later, married with two kids. A third soon followed.
Stewart enrolled in university, where he noticed he was having difficulty seeing the board. He moved closer, but it didn’t help much, so he got some glasses.
“I just thought it was old age,” he remembered. “But then the problem was, I just kept having to change my prescription every two months, then every six weeks, then down to every month.
“My eyes kept deteriorating quite rapidly.”
In January 2017, Stewart was diagnosed with keratoconus, a condition affecting the cornea, requiring an operation to stop his eyesight from deteriorating further.
Driving was critical to Stewart’s job, going from school to school as a judo coach. He had to quit.
“Getting such a quick sight loss, it was heart-breaking. It was tough, very tough,” he admits.
“It was terrible,” agreed Dennis. “It was so rapid, it was almost like he didn’t have time to comprehend it. One minute he’s driving, and the next minute he can’t see at night.”
Few elements of Stewart’s life felt familiar: family was one exception, and judo was another. He’d taken a break from competition, but returning to the mat seemed like one of the few things that could bring back a bit of normalcy.
Stewart made his visually impaired judo debut – his first competition in five years – at the IBSA World Cup in 2017, beating one of the top players in his first fight en route to a bronze-medal bout.
“I shouldn’t have lost my bronze fight,” said Stewart.
“But it was just down to inexperience of being a visually impaired athlete in my first competition.
“It was probably my worst loss out of my whole career I’ve been a para athlete, but it’s the one I learned from the most.
“After that contest, I knew full well that I was mixing with the best in the world, and I had the ability to beat them. If I trained hard enough, I knew I could be at the top.”
Podiums soon followed – world bronze in 2018 and the same colour at the 2019 European championships. Stewart is heading to Tokyo as the fourth ranked -90kg judoka in the world.
“Even though I’m the oldest one on the team, they still call me a newbie,” he said of teammates Chris Skelley, Jack Hodgson and Daniel Powell.
They are among over 1,000 athletes to currently benefit from National Lottery funding, allowing them to train full time and access world class facilities, technology, coaching and support teams.
“They call me a newbie at being visually impaired. They’re always making jokes, saying, I’m not very good at being partially sighted.
“But having them around, teaching me, showing me and making me believe that I can do things that I didn’t think I would be able to do because of my vision is so, so important.
“It’s a massive team behind all of us.”
“It means a lot,” said Dennis, who without hesitation said, watching his son in Tokyo will stir up more nerves than competing for his own Olympic medal. “When you’ve got kids, you just worry for them, and you want them to have the best of everything.
“Under all these circumstances, we’re just totally proud of what he’s done.”
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