Simon Jackson is Great Britain's most successful judo player of all time amassing an incredible 3 Paralympic, 3 World and 16 European gold medals throughout his astonishing 20 year career.

An interview with Simon Jackson

Simon talks about judo as a sport for the visually impaired

Judo lends itself to a visual impairment because it’s tactile. You don’t ‘do’ judo until you’ve got hold of each other, so it’s perfect for somebody like me whose got bad eyes. At the beginning we stand about three or feet apart and it’s quite difficult, but as soon as we get hold of each other, that playing field is dead level – and I can beat everybody.

Simon describes winning his first judo gold at Seoul in 1988 when he was just 16

Extract from the above interview where Simon talks about how he got into judo and the support his parents gave him.

And I think it would be helpful for people for you to describe what it is you can see – just because then it labels it.

SJ: Yeah. I’ve got an eyesight disability called retinosis pigmentosa, which means I can see about that far [gestures a few inches in front of his face]. In the dark I can’t see anything, nothing at all in the dark. I can’t read print, I use a mobile phone that talks to me – there’s a well-known company, it’s a fruit, and the phone speaks to me and the laptop they talk to me as well so that’s how I surf the Internet and do my correspondence and stuff like that.

Getting around I can walk around as long as I know where I’m going to be honest with you because I memorise – I’ve got a fantastic memory. I do know my environment really well. I know where every lamp post is around where I need to go. If I go to certain buildings I know where the toilets are, how many steps there are. It’s not something that I have to think about, it’s just something that’s in me.

And I think it’s like when people say you lose a sense, you know, your other senses become heightened, and stuff so my hearing is very good and my memory, my photographic memory for buildings and surroundings is really good.

I can’t really gauge my eyesight on what you can see because I’ve been like this all my life so I can’t actually say “I can’t see colours, I can’t see this, it’s blurred” but it’s not blurred to me. But if I put my eyes in anybody else they would be like “woah – how does he survive?” but to me, I was born like this so it’s just normal everyday life to me.

NY: So the first question I wanted to ask you Simon was what first got you into athletics and judo in the first place?

SJ: Well, I was born visually impaired and I consider myself to have two disabilities – one is my visual impairment and the other one is that I have to be the best at whatever I do.

Now, I went to a mainstream school, all the authorities wanted me to go to a special school but my mother and father didn’t want me to be shipped off to Hereford which is about two and a half hours from here where we are now. So I went to a mainstream school and I was really sporty. My mother and father are sporty – my father played professional rugby for Rochdale and my mother ran for the county and stuff – so I do have a sport gene in me somewhere. So I wanted to find a sport that I could do. Obviously, the ball games are really difficult – you know, cricket, rugby really difficult. I’m a Liverpool fan so maybe I’d get a game at the moment for Liverpool because they’re not that good. But I couldn’t do it at a great level.

My dad just sort of stumbled on an advertisement in the newspaper for a seven-week judo course in Rochdale and they took me along to it and it was full of people who were fully- sighted, who could see, and it was a duck to water really. They had an eight-week course, I learnt with everybody else.

At the end of the course there was a little judo competition – and these were all fully sighted people – and I won it and I thought “that’s it, this is the sport for me”.

Judo lends itself to a visual impairment because it’s tactile – you don’t do judo until you’ve got hold of each other – so it’s perfect for somebody like me who has bad eyes. At the beginning we stand about three or four feet apart and it’s quite difficult but as soon as we get hold of each other that playing field is dead level and I can beat everybody.

NY: Great. So it sounds like your parents were really supportive, I mean, you might want to talk a bit more about that or other sources or people who inspired you.

SJ: So, yeah, I went to the judo class and we had an eight-week course and I won it at the end of that. And my father and my mother really wanted me to do something in sports so they were made up that I could actually do a sport with everybody else. I didn’t want to be… all throughout my life I’ve never wanted to be singled out as a visually impaired person. I am a normal person who’s got bad eyes. So I didn’t want to, sort of, transcend that then into my sports career where I did a specialist sport for somebody with bad eyes. I wanted to do something that all my mates did because all my mates could see cos I went to a sighted school. So I wanted to hang out with them, I didn’t want to go to a special school or a special sports’ club. Like I said, judo was perfect for me.

I carried on and I started to get to a good level. I was competing in like national competitions all over the country and that’s where the real dedication of your parents comes in because, you know, obviously I can’t drive. I’m a fifteen year-old, fourteen, thirteen-year old boy, you can’t drive anyway. So you need the support of your parents and my mum and dad were just unbelievable. I mean, I’m talking, every other weekend we were out on the road, going to Scotland, going to London, going to Plymouth, going to Torquay - all over the country fighting and competing in competitions. And that’s on top of training five days a week.

My dad – we’re in 2012 now, my father passed away a couple of months ago – and my father was my best friend in the whole world because I spent a lot of time with my dad.

He was a salesman – he had his own company and he went out selling all over the country – and this is not an exaggeration, he would drive to Plymouth in a day – that’s three hundred mile – so he would be up at two o’clock, he’d drive to Plymouth, he’d do a sales call, he’d drive home to Rochdale where we are now, he’d pick me up at half past six and take me to judo. And he’d sit and never go out – and watch me do judo five days a week, he never missed. So all of the things that I have won in my career would be impossible without my parents. So, you know, I don’t think I would be where I am now without them. But they took me everywhere and it paid off because at the age of fifteen I was ranked number one in Britain for the under-18s, for the sighted. So I’d actually got, before I started competing within Paralympic sport, I’d actually got to a very, very high level within sighted judo which was great for me because I got a good grounding from the age of seven to the age of fifteen, so I had a good grounding before my international career started.

NY: And, it would be really interesting for you to talk about what the training involved at that age.

SJ: Yeah, um, I run my own judo club now in Rochdale and I’ve got about thirty-two kids come regularly, every week. It’s strange really because I’m a big believer that you’d don’t really need to do more than once or twice a week as a kid, because there are so many other sports that they can do, you don’t want to overload them with one sport. I was a little bit different because it was my sport. It wasn’t like I went to judo on a Monday, football on Tuesday, rugby on a Wednesday – I didn’t do all those other sports because I couldn’t do them so at the age of seven or eight, I was doing judo at least three times a week. By the age of ten I was doing it five or six and I wouldn’t get my kids now at my judo club to do five six times a week. But for me it was a bit different because it was my one and only sport. And my dad and my mum never had to make me go.

I always wanted to go to judo – it didn’t matter, I just wanted to go. I wanted to come home from school, do my homework, put my judo kit on and go to judo.

So like I said between the age of ten and fifteen I was doing at least four, between four and six nights a week judo and I was also going up to a place in Kendal, which was like a designated judo school. I was going there – the weekends I weren’t competing – I was up in Kendal doing rock climbing, canoeing, loads of general fitness and three hours judo a day every Saturday and Sunday. So my dad would drive to Kendal on a Friday night, drop me off, I’d do two days judo then he’d drive to Kendal to pick me up, which is a good two hour drive from here.

So dedication on all three people – myself and my mother and father and training to a reasonably high standard at the age of fifteen.


Download a pdf of Simon's full interview here