Hermantown teen with impaired vision excels in Judo

Wesley Sisson was born with degenerative blindness. At five days old, the doctors told his parents, Mark and Debbie Sisson, that he would never be able to see. “They told us that he wasn’t going to be normal,” Debbie said. “They said that he would never walk, never talk.”

Wesley's vision has worsened with time, but he can still see some shapes and colors. Wesley ended up walking at 10 months and has continued to amaze his parents for 13 years.

On Saturday, Wesley took home a first place medal from a Judo tournament in Grand Rapids, Minn.

Wes w/ Judo Medal

“Wes is one of our best students,” Sohn Wehseler, a sensei (or instructor) at Kuroinukan & Duluth Judo Club, said. “He has advanced through the ranks quicker than any other student has. He always tries 110 percent, he is just phenomenal.”

Wesley is 5 feet 6 inches tall and 130 pounds. He looks like he belongs in high school rather than his current seventh grade status.

His light brown hair is usually covered by a black Air Force hat given to him by his dad. The bill of the ball cap is severely rounded, and he wears it tilted down almost completely covering his eyes. He says too much sun can give him headaches.

Every Sunday for almost 2 years, Wesley sets his hat aside and exchanges his street clothes for a traditional Judo uniform called a gi. He currently holds a blue belt in Judo.

Wesley is the first student to show up outside Kuroinukan & Duluth Judo Club. He goes through a door marked with its address, 16 and a half. The printed letters on the front window are cracked and peeling. They read, “Jujudo & Judo”.

The lobby is dimly lit by a large white sphere hanging in the center. Even though the tournament was yesterday, kids began to gather for their weekly Sunday class.

Judo Class Group - Jamie M

“Don’t hit the wall, the wall hits back,” Wesley joked as he heard some younger kids run across the matted floor. They had launched themselves onto fluffy black bags as their bodies then ricocheted into a section of padded wall.

As 6:00 p.m. drew near, the kids lined up in what appeared to be oldest to youngest. Everyone took a bow. They spread out along the outline of a white square taped on the mat marking the boundaries for a Judo match.

After a warm up the blue belts were called forward to begin the first exercise, a front roll.

The students began at one end of the room facing a wall covered with mirrors.

Wesley held his arms above his head waiting. At Sohn’s instruction, he threw himself forward. His arms landed on the mat as he tucked his head under toward his chest.

The momentum of his body carried over into a roll. His legs came over his head and he landed on his back making a loud, “thud”.

“Use more arms Wes,” Sohn instructed.

Wesley’s next tumble was smooth and more natural.

As the blue belts practiced their front rolls, their bodies, arms, and legs slammed onto the mat. Thud. Thud, thud. It sounded like gun shots coming from a distance.

The last 15 minutes of class is reserved for randori, a Japanese word for free play, and Wesley is partnered with a classmate.

Brooke Davis, 14, has been doing Judo for 4 years. She also participated in Saturday’s tournament bringing home the second place medal.

In class, Wesley and Brooke are the perfect partners.

“We’re pretty evenly matched,” Brooke said . “He’s a strong opponent.”

Brooke has long brown hair that is pulled into pigtails which rest on her shoulders.

“Good job Brooke,” Sohn said as she brought Wesley to the ground in one swift move.

As free play continued, Wesley and Brooke began to work on their holds.

7:45 p.m. rolled around and as class came to an end, Wesley walked to the edge of the mat and took a bow. He went to the locker room and changed back into his street clothes.

He left with his dad and little sister, Macie. Wesley would return to Hermantown Middle School tomorrow after an exciting medal-winning weekend.

When it comes to school, Wesley says he doesn’t feel different from other teens.

“Kids look at you like the odd kid, the different kid,” Wesley said. “I’m okay with it, I can live with it.”

His favorite classes are social studies and choir.

“I’m a historian kind of person,” Wesley said, “I kind of go back and look at all things in history.”

His interest in history and war is one reason why Mark gave his son an Air Force hat for Christmas. Someday Wesley dreams of becoming the first blind Navy Seal, but he also dreams of working with animals and becoming a singer.

“I love the outdoors. Nature is kind of my thing. It’s calming,” Wesley said in an interview at Hermantown High School, where his dad works. “It’s cool. You kinda learn different calls of birds or creatures. You can pick one out as soon as you hear it.”

Wesley’s Mom, Debbie Sisson said she wakes up to Wesley’s bedroom window wide open because he wants to hear the birds in the morning.

One summer at a camp for the blind, Wesley recalled a Judo class where three pigeons flew in through an open window.

“I stood there and communicated with the pigeons,” Wesley said. “Kinda like...

Wesley’s parents aren’t surprised by his ability to connect with sound.

“He always talked all the time,” Mark said about Wesley as a toddler. “It was his way of finding out what was going on around him.”

Wesley is in choir, sings with a band, and is practicing a tune for an upcoming school talent show. His love for music is something that shines at school dances where he says he gets “crazy” out on the dance floor.

His dance moves earned him a nickname: General Jiggles.

People might look at him weird, but he says he doesn’t care.

“It’s a great benefit to not be able to see certain things in this world,” Mark said.

Together they laughed about his dancing nickname.

Wesley, like many other teenage boys, has a girlfriend to go with him to upcoming school dances. They’ve been dating for three months, but they’ve known each other almost a year.

“He went over his cell phone usage $250 dollars when he first got his girlfriend,” Debbie said. “He’s got other issues that are bigger for me to deal with as a mother than his vision.”

Check out this video by LakeVoice reporter Matt Busch:


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