Anthony Cappello, Canadian taekwondo medal contender, in competitive limbo ahead of Tokyo Paralympics
Quebec athlete hoping for wild-card spot after injury curtailed qualifying opportunities
Canada's Anthony Cappello darted away from Alejandro Alvarez of Spain, then inched toward him and danced to and fro, waiting for the right moment to attack in their semifinal match at the 2019 World Para Taekwondo Championships in Antalya, Turkey.
Cappello, from St-Constant, Que., is the best Canadian fighter in his division and ranked No. 3 in the world, a 5-foot-2 bundle of fury who tips the scales at just 54 kilograms and relies on quickness, strategy and intricate kick combinations to make up for his lack of size.
Trailing Alvarez by a single point with about 15 seconds left, he unleashed two devastating kicks to the body, won the match 15-13 and finished with a silver medal. It was the high point of his career, and it should have been a prelude to his Paralympic qualification.
But a few months later, at the Parapan Am Games in Lima, Peru, Cappello took an accidental kick to the head from Geraldo Castro of the Dominican Republic — an illegal move in para taekwondo — and was knocked out of competition with a concussion.
"It was devastating," said Cappello, 30. "But I got the physical and mental break that I needed. It might be a little blessing in disguise."
With the Paralympics just months away, Cappello's status is very much in doubt. Though he's still ranked No. 3 in the world in the K43, under-61 kg division, only the top two K43 athletes automatically qualify for Tokyo.
Athletes can also qualify through a series of other international competitions, and both Cappello and Taekwondo Canada believe he would have made it if permitted to finish the Parapan Am Games, and if he competed well in a subsequent continental qualifier.
Now, Cappello's only chance to qualify for Tokyo is through a wild-card exemption from a bipartite commission that oversees the selection process. A genuine medal contender in a first-time Paralympic sport, Cappello is stuck in a kind of competitive purgatory.
"Everybody in this position has different stories, and goes through a different mental roller-coaster," said Cappello, who was born with arms much shorter than average and two fingers on each hand, with no elbow on his left arm.
Silver, bronze at Parapan Games
"But when I sat down and was able to fully recover mentally, it also gave me a lot of recovery physically," he said. "And [that] really put in perspective that recovery time is insanely important.
"Sometimes we lose track of that."
Cappello's career to this point has been a whirlwind. He received his black belt at age 25 and quickly became a podium threat in international competitions, winning bronze and silver at the Parapan Am Games in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Then came a bronze medal at the 2017 world championships and a steady climb up the world rankings prior to his silver medal at worlds in 2019. Cappello was battling multiple injuries before suffering a concussion in 2019 and hadn't taken time to fully recuperate.
"I'm a guy that tries to fight through any injury," he said. "So this kind of forced me to sit down and think and work on small techniques that I put aside. I was out for a couple of months there, but then it led straight into the pandemic, which gave me more rest. So now I'm ready."
Para taekwondo is a variation of the Korean-born martial art that allows competitors to score points exclusively with kicks to the body.
Its main difference from conventional taekwondo is the ban on blows to the head, stemming from the fact para taekwondo athletes have upper limb amputations or impairments that make it difficult to block high kicks.
Still, it's relatively easy for taller athletes to accidentally connect with the head of a shorter competitor, especially on spinning kicks.
As Cappello sees it, that's what happened to him.
"It was a complete accident," he said of the blow that knocked him out. "He didn't want to hurt me."
A decision on Cappello's wild-card application is expected in June, and in the meantime he's training several days a week in Montreal, working hard to be ready for Tokyo.
"I'm definitely one of the most explosive guys," he said of his chances at a Paralympic medal. "That's all I could say. I like my chances."