NEAR NORTH SIDE — Cassaries Johnson gives judo credit for improving his health, confidence and overall well-being.
The Walter Payton College Prep senior, who has limited vision and reads Braille, has been learning the martial art for the last three years.
"When I first started judo, I was very hesitant about what I was going to do," said Johnson, 19, of Edgewater. "It was the same thing in life, where I would wait a long time before I would say things.
"But as I worked on those tactics in judo, I work on that in life as well."
Johnson is one of several visually impaired students who compete in the Walter Payton College Prep Judo Club. Many of those judo players will participate in Saturday's Wolf Judo Tournament at the Drucker Center, which will have at least 25 disabled participants, according to the event's namesake, Sensei Brett Wolf.
"Our goal is to make this tournament the top judo event for participants with disabilities in the United States," said Wolf, a Francis Parker School and DePaul University graduate who lives in West Rogers Park. "I feel like we are well on our way to doing just that."
Most disabled judo players have limited or no sight. Payton sophomore Nadia Montanez, of Kelvyn Park, is totally blind and has bolstered her judo skills immensely since beginning the sport four years ago. The only difference in Montanez's and other visually impaired athletes' matches is they start by holding the opposition instead of opening the standard 10 feet away.
"Judo allows me to challenge myself," said Montanez, 15. "It's always about keep trying, keep trying, keep trying."
Montanez's classmate Sara Luna, who has limited vision, said she was a "very lazy kid" before beginning judo in 2010.
"It helped me get in shape, and now I'm even doing track and field," said Luna, 15, of Pilsen. "It feels great to know that someone can think I'll be a champion one day."
Wolf said Luna, who has won several gold and silver medals in various paralympic competitions, has the potential to reach the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Wolf, a fourth-degree black belt, added that all three Payton students are scheduled to enter several major international paralympic judo competitions this July at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"These three athletes have played a huge role in the growth of our paralympic judo programs," Wolf said. "They have dedicated their time and energy to not only improving their judo, but being the best citizens they can be."
Wolf, a full-time judo instructor, visits Payton for about three hours once every other week to teach students, including those who are not visually impaired.
The program is considered an elective "seminar" for Payton students, and it was the entry point into the sport for Johnson, Luna and Montanez.
"I signed up immediately when it became available," Johnson said. "And when I started, I always learned something, either that I did wrong or something that an opponent did right."
In the fall, Johnson will enroll at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he'll major in math with hopes of possibly becoming an accountant.
Judo, he said, has helped train his mind for the future.
"It's very technical and tactical," Johnson said. "It's helped me grow as a person."