Charlottetown, PE  Team Saskatchewan is coming home with two bronze medals in Judo, after Josiah Hallett and Ashton Debruyne found the podium in Prince Edward Island.

Hallett competes in the 81 kg+ division, the biggest weight class, while Debruyne picked up his medal in the 66 kg event. Multiple others on both the male and female sides of the Judo team had solid performances, just narrowly missing the podium.

“Ashton, just an exceptional performance,” said Team Sask Coach Michael Horley. “And before (Josiah’s bronze medal), he had an excellent fight with (John Jr. Messé À Bessong) who was the eventual winner.”

“It was a David vs. Goliath battle … It was a big ask, but Josiah fought with lots of fighting spirit and even though he didn’t win in the end, it was a good battle.”

The repeated success from 2019, where the team earned three bronze medals, has Sask. Judo Coaches Horley and Destiney Gibney appreciative of how far this group has come.

“I’m proud of them for sticking with it,” said Horley. “They deserve this opportunity at the Canada Games as a reward.”

Back on the big stage after the covid-19 pandemic and competing at a high level, Team Sask. is proving they aren’t only a tough out, but a true competitor when it comes to Judo.

“I think we’ve shown that we’re a force to be reckoned with,” said Horley. “We had some excellent performances at the Pacific International about a month prior, so we were hopeful we’d be able to keep building on that positive momentum.”

Even though the trip was a huge success, Horley thinks this team had an even higher ceiling. While the hardware wasn’t there for everyone, the close finishes and tough matches leave a lot to be proud of.

“I don’t coach to build winners,” said Gibney. “I coach to build fighters. If you win at the end of the day, that’s wonderful, and you’ll carry that with you. But you will carry the lessons you learn to get there so much farther in your life.”

But, Gibney agreed that there were some tough pills to swallow this year.

“Judo’s a tough sport. It’s one mistake, and you might have lost a match against someone you’re better than, So there’s a lot of disappointments as well.”

“Just seeing them through those moments as well and trying to help them turn it into a growth experience … It’s really rewarding to try and help them take everything they can out of it.”

Horley has been with Sask. Judo since 2019. He and Gibney have been with many of these young athletes since they were as young as twelve years old. Now, they’ve seen them compete in the Canada Winter Games.

“It’s so great, because it’s such a long-term development sport,” said Gibney. “They’re really talented individuals, natural athletes who do see some results right away. But there’s a lot of athletes who take a really long time to develop because it’s a complicated sport.”

“For me to be able to see them getting this reward, having been patient, having put in the work, trusting that the results will come and now they’re at the Canada Winter Games and they’re placing fifth or getting medals … It’s just awesome,” she said proudly.

Covid-19 made Judo even more difficult than usual for athletes across Canada. It’s challenging for athletes in Saskatchewan due to the distance and small population, but then they had the added challenge of using masks during training sessions or having zoom practices during the pandemic.

“It’s been hard. A lot of athletes left Judo during the pandemic. It was a real grind,” said Horley. “I think it’s a testament to the hard work of the athletes and the parents of athletes who support our provincial program … it’s a testament to the quality of the clubs, the cultures, the parents, the volunteers.”

While the individual competitions have wrapped up and the team had a day off yesterday, they are back in action with the team events, the biggest day (or two) for the Judo athletes.

Team Sask. is a bit undersized and a bit banged up heading into the competition, but Gibney is hopeful the team will perform and grab the hardware they so narrowly missed out on so far.

“I’m hopeful for (today). I hope these kids perform and get the recognition they deserve and worked so hard for.”