Warriors Without Limits Judo Players Inspire Able-Bodied Competitors
LINCOLN PARK — Matt Ritenour said being shot in the head felt like getting hit with a hammer.
"Kind of surreal. Your senses are all over the place," said Ritenour, 37, who was shot in 2007 while a staff sergeant with the Army fighting in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan.
Ritenour, who grew up in Old Irving Park, was medically discharged in 2010 and underwent years of therapy after fragments of a bullet were removed from his brain and a plate made of ceramic, plastic and titanium replaced a portion of his skull.
Ritenour, who can't work and is on full veteran's disability, spends his week watching his 3-year-old daughter in Bartlett.
The class was founded in 2011 by West Rogers Park resident and Francis Parker School graduate Brett Wolf with the goal of pairing veterans with some of the top able-bodied judo players in the country.
"Matt's an inspiration for everyone in that room," said Wolf, a fourth-degree black belt who was the head coach of the Junior Pan-American judo team in 2010 and 2011. "He probably should be dead, and he's an animal as far as what he's done to survive and have a relatively normal life."
Ritenour, who still has minor paralysis in his right foot and ankle, isn't even Wolf's top disabled student.
That honor goes to West Garfield Park resident Howard Wilson, 48, a former Marine who's legally blind due to glaucoma.
Wilson, who has no vision in his right eye and almost none in his left, finished third last year at the U.S. Paralympic Trials. Wolf's goal is for Wilson to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"That's where my hopes lie," Wilson said. "I'm going to do everything I can to make that possible."
In the meantime, Wilson and Ritenour hold their own against — and many times beat — the other students in the program, some of whom are much younger.
"Although initially I was a bit hesitant to work with wounded veterans because I wasn't sure how they would be able to participate, it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences in my 15 years of judo," said four-time junior national champion Andrew Varga, 18, a Lakeview native and current freshman at Tulane University.
"I would always say to myself, 'If Howard can do everything that we ... can do, then I need to work that much harder," Varga added. "I have Howard to thank for pushing me to be the best I can be every single moment."
Ben Glick, a freshman at University of Chicago Laboratory School, said he's been amazed by the improvement of Ritenour and Wilson since they started coming to the weekly program, which has about 15 participants.
"I just think of them as judo players," said Glick, 14, a Lincoln Park resident. "They're both just really good."
Uptown resident and Francis Parker senior Max Bermont, who consistently practices against Ritenour and Wilson, said judo caters to both their disabilities.
The only difference in Wilson's matches is he starts by holding the opposition instead of opening the standard 10 feet away.
Ritenour said despite not being able to accomplish throwing and tripping maneuvers from his right side, he has more than enough power from the left to compete.
"They have that mindset that nothing is going to stop them," said Scott Goldstein, an assistant instructor who lives in Lincoln Park and is an attorney downtown. "It's awesome what they're doing. That's the easiest way to say it."