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Colin Judge on reinvention and how table tennis changed his life

Judge

“There’s more than one way of doing something, and you can use what you’ve got to your advantage.”

After narrowly missing out on a place in Rio in 2016, para-table tennis player Colin Judge was on an upward trajectory. He became one of Europe’s leading competitors in the field and won gold at the European Championships in 2017. Having previously juggled his training with college and Actuarial exams, he stepped away from work to focus solely on his next goal – qualifying for Tokyo.

“I had to become better and I knew I wasn’t going to reach my potential working full-time as an Actuary in KPMG, working 50-60 hours a week and trying to study on top of that, it wasn’t very good for my table tennis. It was a tough decision to make, but I’ve no regrets.

Judge

“I feel like I’ve come a really long way and even though I haven’t reached all the goals that I set out for myself, I feel I’m in a much better position now and I have the potential to achieve big things.”

That decision to put his career on hold was hugely influenced by his reclassification in 2019 which forced him to rethink his entire approach.

Paralympics is classified on the severity of your disability. The wheelchair classes go from one to five, one being the most disabled. I was classified into Class 2 at the age of 13 and I presumed that would never change but after I won the European Championships, I was up for a classification review which I thought was just protocol at the time, I didn’t really expect that anything would change. But when I went into the reclassification, the doctors said that they were really sorry that they were going to have to move me up into Class 3. 

“That was really tough to take, that meant I would lose my ranking, lose my funding, I would be competing against athletes that were physically stronger and worst of all, my qualification hopes for Tokyo 2020 were seriously in jeopardy. My ranking went from fourth to 26th.

“It’s been really tough to take and I was really bitter about it at the time.”

Rather than dwell on the disappointment of his situation, the Dubliner chose to look at the silver lining. He was forced to improve every aspect of his game and work harder than ever – a challenge he is fully committed to.

“I went on sabbatical from my job and I’m playing a better level now than I ever would have been before. When I was in Class 2, I was a bit protective of what I had and I was only really interested in winning rather than improving and I think with that attitude, I never would have reached my potential anyway.

“So Class 3 has taught me that I need to be better, I need to reinvent my game and I’ve changed a lot of things so I suppose that’s why the pandemic has worked in my favour. That was thrown at me very late in the Paralympic cycle in 2019 and I didn’t have very much time to prepare. I changed a lot of things very quickly, just desperate to move back up the rankings and that just pushed me down further.

“So I’ve been glad of the extra time, I’ve come on a long way and now I’m just very interested to return to competition and see where I’m at.”

Judge freely admits that playing table tennis changed his life. The 25-year-old was born with three missing limbs but wasn’t fully aware of his disability until he attended St Michael’s College in Dublin. Life in a rugby-focused school when you cannot play must have been incredibly frustrating for the competitive youngster. But table tennis gave him the freedom to play sport without limitations, which in turn, massively boosted his confidence.

“It’s hard to put into words. As a 13-year-old boy, I was really struggling with my disability, I was in an able-bodied school, I had a lot of good friends, but felt I couldn’t really relate to them. I suppose I was quite jealous of what they could do. I wasn’t really aware of my disability in the earlier years but it became really apparent when they were doing rugby and lots of other things that I couldn’t do. 

“Table tennis changed my life. It was the first time that I had a passion and a drive, something that made me realise that for all the things I couldn’t do, there was a hell of a lot that I could do.

“The reason I love table tennis is because it’s a sport (that) I can compete in with no limits. I can compete at quite a high level in able-bodied here in Ireland which is what I’ve always wanted and I never wanted to let my disability to get in the way of what I could achieve and table tennis has really taught me that.

“There’s more than one way of doing something, and you can use what you’ve got to your advantage.”

Judge

The Next Level

Table tennis is not an easy sport to play in Ireland, especially at an elite level. Judge normally trains with a fellow para-table tennis player in Slovakia and competes in the Bundesliga in Germany. However, he is hopeful that, through his success, he can inspire youngsters to pick up the sport. 

“It’s one of my big goals in the future to try and boost the profile in Ireland because when I first started there were probably 15 or 20 wheelchair players and I was the worst out of them and now I’m the only player left which is really sad. There was a great community there and a lot of great wheelchair players and it’s something that I’d like to change in the future.

“I feel if I could win a medal on the big stage, there might be more funding for table tennis and that could be pumped into development because at the moment only the elite level is funded and that makes it very hard for the younger players coming through and that also directly affects me because I don’t have any teammates or sparring partners to compete with. 

“It’s something that is very close to my heart and when I do move on, I really do want to give back and inspire the next generation.”

Paralympics Ireland are also planning for the future through their fundraising appeal, The Next Level, to help inspire and support the next generation of Paralympians. All funds raised will go towards increasing the levels of support that athletes receive. It will be used to help remedy immediate costs, but the campaign also has the long-term focus of raising funds to help Team Ireland compete with the best in the world – not just in Tokyo, but also in Paris 2024, Los Angeles 2028 and beyond.

Since launching their appeal on the Late Late Show last month, the fundraiser has accumulated almost €70,000 and the support shown has been hugely appreciated by those involved.

“I think €70,000 has been raised which is a huge amount of money and I think 1,700 people have donated so that’s extremely generous and it’s really going to stand to us and support us a huge amount. It’s a very unusual year this year, there’s a lot of measures to be put in place and criteria that need to be met which adds to the cost. It’s a lot more expensive than a normal Paralympic year so from that point of view, it’s great that we’ve raised that much money.

“But it’s not just about us, it’s about the future and the development and speaking for table tennis, they need the money a lot more than I do and it would be huge for me if I could have teammates in the future for Paris 2024. There’s a number of great young players who are capable of reaching that level if they are just given that support, but unfortunately financially it’s very difficult for them to afford it at the moment so I would really hope that this money raised could really help them post-Tokyo.”

Meanwhile, Judge is busy preparing for his Tokyo qualifier in June where he will get the chance to test himself against the best in the world. After a year of reinvention, he is determined to make his hard work count as he strives to make his Paralympic dream a reality.

To donate to ‘The Next Level’ fund visit https://paralympics.ie/

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Irish para-table tennis athlete, Colin Judge, pictured in support of Paralympics Ireland’s new fundraising campaign ‘The Next Level’. The campaign aims to raise vital funds for para-athletes in Ireland and help to support Team Ireland’s journey to Tokyo 2021 and beyond. The campaign has raised over €70,000 to date. You can get behind the team now at: https://paralympics.ie 

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Author: Marisa Kennedy

Marisa is a Digital Journalist with Pundit Arena. You can contact her at marisa@punditarena.com or on Twitter