Sport was Paralympic champion Chris Skelley’s ‘savior’ when he lost his sight – and he wants others to reap the benefits too

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It’s been a month since judo star Chris Skelley won gold at the Tokyo Paralympics – and he’s still buzzing. “I still haven’t come down from the top,” said the 28-year-old. “I think I’ll be on it for a while.”

There is no doubt that a gold medal is always an epic achievement, but for Skelley the gratitude runs very deep. Not only was it his first Paralympic victory, but he credits judo for “bringing me out of a very dark place” after his vision began to deteriorate at the age of 17.

Skelley has always been a sportsman and started junior rugby and judo at a young age, but the loss of sight he suffered due to the genetic disease of oculocutaneous albinism forced him to give up his hopes of become a mechanic and his life changed quickly.

“I lost everything around me, I only had sport left. He was my savior, ”Skelley recalls. “I went through a very dark time and no one could tell me anything, there was no bright light for the answers. Sport took me out and allowed me to continue.

It has now partnered with the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) on their See Sport Differently campaign in partnership with British Blind Sport, which aims to bridge the sports participation gap among the blind and visually impaired.

Miss the benefits

The wellness benefits of sport and exercise are well documented – from this all-important endorphin release that helps improve mood, offset stress and even reduce depression and anxiety, to increased confidence and self-esteem, not to mention the simple factor of joy and pleasure. Skelley recalls that one of the main reasons his parents encouraged him to play sports was that “it helped me socialize, mingle with people and make friends.”

New figures released by the RNIB, however, highlight the number of blind and visually impaired people who are missing. They are twice as likely as others to be completely inactive, with 53% of blind and visually impaired people getting less than 30 minutes of physical activity each week, according to the charity, which surveyed 416 people.

Most respondents (80%) agreed on the importance of staying active, but 48% said their visual impairment prevented them, 53% said they did not have the right opportunities and a third (33%) said there were activities they would like to try but were unable to.

Vision loss is more common than many people realize. As the RNIB points out, every six minutes in the UK someone begins to lose their sight and around 350,000 people are recorded blind or visually impaired. So, that’s a lot of people who are at risk of 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 discover through the online hub (rnib.org.uk/see-sport-differently).

Sport “allows people to escape”

Describing the importance of sport, Skelley says, “It’s so important to someone who has a visual impairment or is completely blind, who needs a little escape, a way to free up a little. of that pent-up anger, that annoyance or that frustration with their eyes – sport gives it to you.

“Sports can give you that bubble where you can just have fun.”

He’s determined to see the tide change and adamantly “100%” that sport would be a big part of his happiness and well-being even if he wasn’t a Paralympian. “I never thought I would do this as work. A door opened and I walked through it, but I love to do judo, ”he says. “It’s my passion, my escape. To do it at this level, I feel very lucky, but I would do it anyway. And I think it’s important to define that sport is an escape for people. This is where you will just have fun.

“It’s hard to be blind or visually impaired, I’ll be honest,” Skelley adds. “But it’s [about] make sure you have the best time possible. Sport can give you that little cushion to lean on.

The RNIB posted a short film #SeeSportDifferently on YouTube, featuring a range of blind and visually impaired people playing a variety of sports and talking about what it means to them. The campaign aims to challenge some of the beliefs and barriers that may prevent visually impaired people from enjoying the benefits of physical activity – and Skelley is keen to stress that this applies to everyone, no matter how hard you are. think you are naturally fit and athletic. are.

“You don’t have to be in great shape. You don’t have to go the Cross Fit route and be able to do tons of push-ups, you don’t have to be like Mo Farah, what if you don’t have a six pack? I don’t have a six pack – I love my Greggs too much.

“Don’t be afraid to give it a try,” Skelley adds. “All sports are adaptable, and some are very easily adaptable to the visually impaired. You are not going to lose anything; just take that first step – the first step is always the hardest – and have fun.

Regarding what sports clubs and recreation centers can do, he says: “The main thing is to be accessible, so that visually impaired or totally blind people can come in and play sports. Also be a warm and welcoming environment and don’t feel pressured to stand guard. When I work with a blind or visually impaired person who does judo, I just make sure they have a good time.

“And ask them what they need: can I make something safer for you?” Just ask the person, as they will be your biggest help in making things more accessible. Communicate, and everything will run smoothly.

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


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