WITH 2020 hindsight vision, Colin Judge reckons he is now “twice the player” he would have been had the Tokyo Paralympics gone ahead as originally planned last summer.
Rewind a further year back and the Dubliner was flying high, hot on the heels of a 2017 European Championship gold, making him not just a likely qualifier for the Games but likely to be among the class 2 wheelchair table-tennis medal contenders.
But a shock “reclassification” in 2019 threw his relatively serene progress into jeopardy as he was place in class 3, a category for athletes deemed to have less physical disability.
For Judge, who was born with only one limb – his left arm – the news was a hammer blow to the best laid plans.
“I definitely didn’t see it coming,” he told the Dublin Gazette. “I was in class 2 at the age of 13 and presumed it was something that would never change.
“Nothing could have prepared for what the doctors told me, moving me up to class 3. It sounds like nothing but I lost my ranking, lost some of my funding and now had to compete against considerably physically stronger athletes.
“I went from European champion, one of the best in the world, all but guaranteed qualification for Tokyo which I had dreamt about for so long. Now, two years later, I still am not assured of a place.”
Since then, it has been a matter of going back to the start, building his ranking up to 15th in the world and the cusp of a Tokyo spot.
Indeed, he was in rude form before the pandemic stepped in, winning gold at the Polish Open and silver at the Egypt Open – as well as second place in the German Bundesliga – before he could rubber-stamp his ticket.
Now, just one automatic qualifier place is still on the table at a June event in Slovenia in – hopefully a strong omen – the same hall he won the European title. If he misses out there, he could be able to avail of a wildcard ticket but Judge does not want to leave anything to chance.
“I am very much aware of that so I am working every day for that one qualifier. I do meet the criteria for a wildcard but I would love to qualify on my own bat. It would be really special to qualify in Slovenia in the same place I won my European Championships!
“With hindsight, the pandemic gave me an extra year to train and prepare [for class 3] and I feel I am twice the player I was last year and more ready than I ever would have been in 2020.”
It would certainly be a long-time coming for the 25-year-old whose first beginnings in the sport spurred by the fact it was the one game he could outdo his brother.
“He’s two years younger but able-bodied and quite strong and tall. When table-tennis was the only one I could beat him at, I felt I could use what I have got to my advantage.
“I couldn’t play far back from the table and wasn’t very strong but I could move fast, had good feeling and could use my head which was a big reason why it was such a good sport for me.
“It obviously wasn’t easy, learning to play with just one limb and there was no role model to look up to. But I really wanted to play a sport; I went to an able-bodied school – St Michael’s College – where all my friends played rugby so I was keen to find my sport and train seriously and reach the next level.”
His skills were formalised to some extent at UCD table-tennis club, competing in the able-bodied Leinster leagues but, due to his physique, he did have to develop an unorthodox style.
It is something that has proven a bane for his coaches and opponents alike.
“Haha, I am probably not the easiest player to work with. I have always thought from a young age I needed to be different. Playing with able-bodied guys in Blackrock when I was younger, if I tried to play like them, I would never had a chance to win.
“It was when I started blocking and chopping, doing weird things they weren’t used to, I started to win. Coaches said my unorthodox approach would never work at the top level but I have more than proved them wrong. I have constantly tried to change and improve it. It’s not perfect but it works for me.
“My uniqueness has definitely been a strength. When people play me first, they don’t really know what is happening and haven’t encountered it before. Training so much in Ireland, I am also kind of hidden and people don’t know me too well which plays into my hands.”
Indeed, that sense of being an outlier was apparent very early on when he started to compete internationally.
In his early teens at his first international event in Paris, opponents joked he was “a tourist” as the only Irish player taking part.
“It was a bit of a joke but there was some needle to it. Obviously Ireland doesn’t have much of a tradition, not many players in the past that have achieved at the top level.
“It definitely motivated me to get to that level so I don ‘t hate them for saying it! I didn’t get to prove them wrong that day in Paris when I made my debut but I have won the European Championships and numerous other competitions around the world so I just hope I can qualify for Tokyo 2020 and show them who the real tourist is now!”
Indeed, when he gets there, Judge hopes his performances can act as an inspiration for future table-tennis players and Paralympians as part of the Paralympics Ireland’s Next Level campaign.
“The public have already donated over €70,000 to the campaign which goes a long way to supporting us on our journey to Tokyo and beyond, becoming the best athletes we can be.
“But it’s not only about us elite athletes. I am lucky to be supported by Paralympics and Table-Tennis Ireland but I would love if those behind me could have the same opportunity that I have.
“I’d love to have team mates in Paris 2024 and LA in 2028 and there are definitely some who could make it big with the same resources.”