Before Canada’s judo team left for the Olympic Games in London, national team coaches could see the intense focus in the eyes of Antoine Valois-Fortier.
On Tuesday, the 22-year-old from Quebec City was the focus of the eyes of the nation as he collected a bronze medal in the men’s under-81-kilogram class.
In a turn top Canadian officials called “shockingly surprising,” Valois-Fortier followed in the footsteps of his coach, Nicolas Gill, who won silver at the 2000 Games in Sydney and bronze in 1992 in Barcelona.
“I wanted it really bad,” Valois-Fortier said. “It’s what I work for every day.”
Although he was on Judo Canada’s radar as a possible future star, Valois-Fortier wasn’t on its list of the top four medal prospects in London. He was targeted as being a hit in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Now, he’s now a gem for Canadian judo, perhaps a catalyst for the growth of the sport – something that hasn’t happened since Gill’s efforts sparked a 25-per-cent growth in memberships in his home province of Quebec.
Judo Canada wasn’t even sure Valois-Fortier would qualify for his first Summer Games.
After a herniated disk in his back halted his career for 13 months in 2009 and 2010, he had to rush to be ready for the two years of Olympic qualifying events leading to London. When he got to England, Valois-Fortier faced the worst of Olympic draws, grappling with several of the world’s best in six matches in one day.
First, Valois-Fortier tackled defending Olympic champion Elnur Mammadli of Azerbaijan (currently ranked No. 3 in the world, with Valois-Fortier at No. 21). The Canadian kept it scoreless, and won a unanimous judges’ decision.
He next defeated British veteran Euan Burton, who had won bronze medals at the 2007 and 2010 world championships, in the Round of 32.
Then, he vanquished Srajan Mrvaljevic of Montenegro, the 2011 world silver medalist.
The intrepid Canadian was finally stopped by former world champ Ivan Nifontov of Russia. The loss sent Valois-Fortier into a repechage against Emmanuel Lucenti of Argentina. After stopping Lucenti, the Canadian toppled American Travis Stevens, who had defeated him four of five previous times, in the bronze-medal round. “It feels amazing,” Valois-Fortier said. “I’ve sacrificed so much and all of the fights today were very hard. It was tough mentally, but the whole team supported me and I managed to pull myself together.”
“Canada is not a power nation in judo,” said Andrzej Sadej, sport director of Judo Canada. “We went there with eight athletes, all of them strong and good in international performance. But any performance in the top eight would be considered a very good performance for a Canadian.”