24 months. 2 major surgeries. 1 Olympic goal — to fight in Tokyo

24 months. 2 major surgeries. 1 Olympic goal — to fight in Tokyo

'Judo is a Japanese invention and it is every judo athlete’s wish to fight in Japan'

By Antoine Valois-Fortier for CBC Sports
March 20, 2019

I fought at the Olympics twice. They were very different experiences.

London, 2012 was my wildest childhood dream coming to reality. I was the underdog with nothing to lose. Nobody had their money on me. I won Olympic bronze at those games. This was a truly life-changing experience, and one of the happiest moments of my life. Four years went by and I was performing very well on the international level. I came into the 2016 Rio Olympics as the No. 2 favorite to win gold. I had been discussed as a prospect for those games ever since I was a junior (under 20 years old). I ended up finishing 7th. This was a devastating moment. I still think about that day sometimes, wondering what might have happened, if this, if that. I try not to do it but sometimes the impulse is stronger than me. Immediately after Rio, I tried to set objectives in judo and other areas of my life, in order to avoid dwelling too much in the past. As time went by, it got better and I was able to move on.

Valois-Fortier's coach Nicolas Gill, right, consoles the Canadian after a loss at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press). Valois-Fortier's coach Nicolas Gill, right, consoles the Canadian after a loss at the 2016 Rio Olympics (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press).

A couple of months after the Rio games, we did some medical tests on a hip that was bothering me. I had a torn labrum and a lot of inflammation and debris in my left hip. I needed surgery. I was nervous, but knew I could come back to full strength in plenty of time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. I had surgery in December of that year. It took me seven months to start competing again. The rehab was long and frustrating but I was diligent. My first tournament did not go so well, but I got back in shape and saw some good results fairly soon after that.

Less than a year after my comeback I started feeling a pinching down my leg. I have had back pain since I was a teenager but this quickly became a more serious problem. Time off and regular treatment did not seem to help. An MRI revealed two herniated disks in my lower back. From that point, we tried a lot of approaches to get me back to fighting, but nothing seemed to work.  The Olympic qualification process had begun and I was confronted with a big decision: Do I go all in, get lower back surgery at 28 years old, and try to catch up to the qualification after that?  Do I try to take some time off and fight through the pain?  Or do I call it a career and stop competing in judo?   This was a difficult decision.  After a lot of deliberation, I realized that I did not want to live with “maybe I should have tried” in the back of my mind.


On July 22nd, 2018, I underwent my second surgery in two years.

I was more nervous about this procedure. This was spinal surgery and the risks were higher. Most of all, the operation sowed seeds of doubt in my mind: “Will I be able to get back to the same level? Should I be moving on? Is my time done as an elite athlete?”  I had to trust the process and trust myself more than ever before, and it was mentally quite challenging. In the end, the surgery went well. I was now starting six months of rehab for the second time in 24 months. One good thing about rehab is it helped me realize how well-supported I am by the people who surround me. My family, girlfriend, friends and support team were with me all along. They made a major positive difference in this challenge.

And so now, here I am, 35 weeks after I had my back surgery. I am feeling healthy for the first time in a while. I am returning to competition. I still have a lot of stress concerning what is ahead, and questions about whether I will be able to come back from all this. But it feels great to be on the starting line knowing I did all the right things with what was thrown at me. I am getting very excited to compete and prove to myself I can make it to 2020.

The Tokyo Olympics will be something very special for my sport. Judo is a Japanese invention and it is every judo athlete’s wish to fight in Japan. Fighting in the Olympics, in Japan is truly a unique opportunity. People don’t believe me when I describe how big Judo is in Japan. I often retell an incident that struck me the first time I went to Tokyo. I was going to a vending machine to get a drink, and saw that the image on the vending machine was a famous judo fighter. Where Canadian marketers have hockey players, the Japanese insert judo stars.

I hope I get to experience the excitement and intensity of fighting at the Tokyo Olympics but there are still many days of training and competing before I get there.  Just like a marathon, I will take this one step at a time. Every day I will move toward my goal. From now until the Olympic flame is lit, the most important thing is to finish this adventure knowing I have done everything right.

(Top large photo by Paul Sancya/The Associated Press; middle large photo by Eric Baradat/Getty Images)

The Antoine Valois-Fortier edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: Dragonball Z ;)

Q: Must-listen Podcast? 
A: Scott livingston: Leave your mark.

Q: Best advice you ever received? 
A: It is what it is, not what it should be, so make the best out of it!

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called? 
A: (Very hard question) Fight dojo... as in fight club but at the dojo (I really struggled to answer this one).

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: What? (really long and slowly).

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: Cooking!

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I am a bit of a geek.

Q: What scares you? 
A: Syringes.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: Georges St-Pierre, Usain Bolt, Kobe Bryant, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: The hatchi movie!

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Become world champion.

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