Prior to announcing her retirement, Stefanie Tremblay was last seen competing at the Cancun Grand Prix in 2018. Since then, she has been working on her PhD, studying the brain and risks of dementia. Once she completes her studies, Stefanie seeks to join the public health sector to work in dementia prevention. To add to her already hectic regime, last autumn she took up a training partner role for Tokyo 2020 Paralympic silver medallist, Priscilla Gagne.

Gagne suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that narrows her peripheral vision and brings a complete loss of vision at night. Yet, it has never stopped her participating in any athletic venture. Stefanie was contacted by Marie-Helene Chisholm from Judo Canada’s management team and asked if she would be interested in being the permanent training partner en route to Paris.

“If I am being honest, I needed to think about it, purely because of time. I wanted to make sure I understood the commitment I would be making time-wise as I am working on my PhD. I also wanted to make sure that I could commit myself enough to fully support her journey. At the same time, it was such a cool way to go back to judo. I always loved and still love training. After my retirement I used to still go for a few sessions a week but during the pandemic I lost the habit of going and never built it back up. Now I have a reason to.”

The first question to Priscilla was palpable: why Stefanie? “We picked Stefanie for a few reasons. Firstly, she was a top athlete and she was retired, so I was hoping she would be available and willing. Secondly, I needed someone strong like her to challenge me and to also be able to take all the falls, as well as having a good and positive attitude. She is extremely positive and extremely patient and we have fun, so it was the best match.”

In Canada, the Olympic and Paralympic team train together at the National Training Centre in the Montreal Olympic Park. So, the two of them aren’t strangers to each other, within limits, as despite sharing the same mat for years, Stefanie had plenty to learn about VI judo. “To start with, I did not know much about it. The main difference I found was how I communicate with her, as in describing things better. It is a different way to approach learning judo but I enjoy it.”

Their first trip abroad was to the IBSA Tokyo Grand Prix at the end of last year. Stefanie continues, “It was amazing, I remember during the last year of my career as an elite athlete I kept on telling myself, this is the last time being at different locations, and upon landing in Tokyo I was a bit nostalgic and thought, wow I am back here again. We had a good trip, Priscilla won silver and it was good to see her in action. We work together at training but I have not seen her live in action. These events feel like how ours used to be and I was pleasantly surprised to see how strong the level is.

In front of the Kodokan Institute, Tokyo, Japan

I want to believe I am bringing something good for her. I think what’s most important is that I was able to bring consistency in her training regime because prior to this new set up, Priscilla used to have different training partners all the time.”

Priscilla explained further, “Stefanie brings a lot of good things to my judo. We have been working more on o-uchi-gari and uchi-mata and the combinations of the two, adding on with ko-uchi, something I did not do before. Stefanie has a really good o-uchi-gari after a blocked uchi-mata. She also picks up on things quickly, which is good.

The pair continued their medal feast last weekend with a bronze medal in the J1 -57kg category at the IBSA Grand Prix Heidelberg 2024. “Winning bronze was good, not what I wanted but I am happy with the bronze and very grateful for my support team, coach, training partner, teammates. It is nostalgic for me to be in Germany because it was here I had my first ever international tournament.”

Reverting to Stefanie being a former elite judoka, some might be unaware, but she narrowly missed out on a spot at the Rio 2016 Olympics. This summer, she will accompany Priscilla to the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. This journey can possibly serve as a little redemption. “Of course, it is not the same feeling and it is always going to hurt a little that I came so close and did not make it but at least I get to experience it in a different way and help someone to reach their Paralympic medal.”

This collaboration is a perfect example to show how close Olympic and Paralympic judo environments are becoming. A bridge has been created where more and more people pass. Judo, as we often say, is one big family and it is growing by the minute. The Canadian pair will head to Antalya and Tbilisi for the last two Paralympic qualifying events and with that they will continue to live a dream together.

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