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Judo provides light for visually impaired athlete, Elliot Stewart

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Story highlights

Judoka Elliot Stewart was struck by Keratoconus condition

He switched to Britain's visually impaired team

He trains with able-bodied athletes including brother Max

Their father Dennis Stewart won 1988 Olympic bronze

CNN  — 

Three years ago the eyesight of one of Britain’s top judo talents was “perfect.”

Except every three months, Elliot Stewart – the son of 1988 Olympic bronze medalist, Dennis Stewart – had to keep changing the prescription for his glasses.

Then he discovered he’d developed a rare condition called Keratoconus, which strikes around one in 1,000 people and affects the cornea of the eye, impairing the ability to focus properly. His symptoms were mild at first but got progressively worse.

“I just thought it was me getting old,” Elliot, 29, tells CNN’s Judo World at the GB Judo Centre of Excellence in Walsall, near Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

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The diagnosis came not long after Stewart had moved his family back to the UK from Hong Kong, where he had spent six years in semi-retirement establishing himself as a judo coach and forming his own judo club.

He returned to Britain still with the dream of having one last shot at emulating his father and competing at an Olympics.

After Stewart’s sight rapidly deteriorated at the start of 2017 he needed an emergency operation to prevent him losing his vision altogether.

His family, including his dad and his younger brother, Max Stewart, who is also a GB judoka, helped him pay for the procedure.

Although it was a success, the damage to Elliot’s eyes was such that he was no longer able to compete as an able-bodied athlete.

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His Olympic dream was over but, more importantly for a man with three children to support, he was no longer able to drive and had to give up his job teaching judo in schools.

At a low ebb, it was judo that provided a beacon of light, or what Stewart describes as “a silver lining,” when one of the GB coaches suggested he get tested to see if he qualified as a visually impaired (VI) athlete.

The opticians classified him as a B3 competitor, which is the most able-bodied you can be as a VI judoka, with B1 being totally blind.

It meant he could get back into full-time training at the Centre of Excellence alongside the able-bodied athletes and under the guidance of his father who coaches there.

“Judo means everything to me. It has brought me back from somewhere where I had nowhere to turn,” says Elliot who now wants to represent GB in the -90kg weight category at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

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“I’m getting back on my feet, getting back into judo full time again, with my family around me, my dad, Max, being together, it’s all helped me bounce back from a harsh condition.

“Being able to train with the best in the country is the best way for me to train. It’s the best thing for VI judo. Everybody supports everybody. You are one team, not two teams.”

They might be brothers, but when they’re grappling there’s no holding back.

“Me and Max will be training together, he’s abled bodied and I’m VI, it really doesn’t matter. When we are on the mat, we train together and we train hard.”

Max, 24, also competes at -90kg and is aiming to represent GB in Tokyo as an able-bodied judoka. He enjoys training with Elliot and is proud of how their family has responded to what has happened.

“We didn’t let it affect us as bad as it could have. I think we dealt with it really well,” says Max who, like his brother, teaches youngsters at the Stewart Judo Academy in Birmingham when he is not training himself.

“Watching Elliot train now, it’s just like when we used to train together before, it doesn’t feel like there’s any difference at all.

“There’s no complication with things, no special treatment, we just get on with it. There’s nothing different. We just train. We’ve all got the same goals. I usually win though,” laughs Max.

Elliot finished fifth on his VI debut at the European championships in August and two months later went on to claim a bronze medal at the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA) Judo World Cup in Uzbekistan.

Despite his early success, Elliot admits that competing as a visually impaired athlete has taken some getting used to.

He might have lost some of his sense of sight, but he’s now deploying the body’s other four senses to get the better of his opponents.

Elliot trains with his brother Max at GB's Judo Center of Excellence in Walsall.

“You rely on your senses a lot,” Elliot explains. “I have to rely on sound because I can’t see my coach any more on the side of the mat.

“I can’t see the scoreboard so I need to remember what the score is. I need to listen out to what the time is and you feel your opponent a little more.

“You learn to feel what they are going to do and hear what they are going to do.”

Being so new to the sport, Elliot has a lot of work ahead of him if he is to work his way up the world rankings and ultimately make the Paralympics squad for Tokyo in three years’ time.

Elliot and Max's father, Dennis Stewart, won bronze at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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But that is the goal and how fitting it would be, for him and his brother, to represent Great Britain on the world’s biggest stage, 32 years after their father took bronze in Seoul.