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Jordan Ercit Photo

Jordan Ercit Photo

Totally blind martial artist Ken Roche, at his black sash test Sunday at Kitchener Kicks Martial Arts Centre.

Roche living life to the fullest

Black sash just another chapter in the life of visually impaired 40-year-old

By Jordan Ercit
Kitchener Post staff

Ken Roche could have packed it in when he lost his sight.

He could have quit studying martial arts for good, chosen not to go to school and passed on becoming a registered massage therapist while relying on the Ontario Disabled Support Program.

Roche could have stayed the same scared 16-year-old kid who instead of worrying about how he would pass his driver’s exam, wondered, “What am I going to do when my eyesight evaporates?’”

But he didn’t, and at 40 years of age, Roche has accomplished more than most people without a disability, which includes a stint as the only blind competitive downhill skier in Canada.

“Ken’s a unique individual and it has nothing to do with his situation,” said Kitchener Kicks Martial Arts Centre owner David Hackett, a former program co-ordinator of the Ontario Disabled Alpine Racing Team. “He’s a strong-minded individual.

“I’ve asked him before, ‘Why do you do this Ken?’ And he’ll tell me, ‘Because it’s a challenge.’”

Sunday, Roche scratched another goal off his list, passing his black sash test at Kitchener Kicks, a journey that has taken him 27 years to accomplish and survived multiple starts and stops.

Roche — who trains in karate but was graded using kung fu guidelines — began studying martial arts as a 13-year-old.

At about the same time, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, which causes the retina — the area in the back of the eye that transfers pictures to the brain — to degenerate gradually over time. In Roche’s case, it took 22 years for him to completely lose sight in both eyes.

Roche quit martial arts several times because of his condition, convinced that a visually impaired kid would never be good enough to carry a higher rank. Each time, though, he would find his way back to the gym.

Roche found a permanent home at Kitchener Kicks in 2001, when the late Ron Day was serving as headmaster of the club. However, he left the gym once again in 2008 after it was becoming apparent he was not going to make the Canadian Paralympic team.

Roche was going through a “dark period in my life” and was leaning toward quitting martial arts until Day visited him at work.

His only message was that Roche couldn’t quit, especially after he had faced his fear of going blind on the ski hill.

It was the last time Roche would talk to Day before his death in September 2008. A week after Day’s passing, Roche was back in the gym.

“After he died, I missed the association, I missed the challenges,” Roche said. “I missed the exercise and the positive rewards I was getting out of it.

“And he was right. In life, we can change what we do or how we do it, but we can’t quit until it’s really over. My biggest fear in life was going blind and I faced it where a lot of people really wouldn’t go — on the ski hill.”

Roche is still getting used to the idea of being a black sash and the title that comes along with it, but more than anything, he wants to use his experience to inspire others with physical disabilities.

In addition to his work as an RMT, Roche tries to reach out to others as a motivational speaker and standup comedian. Every Saturday, he’s also one of the instructors for Kitchener Kicks’ Dragon Hearts program for people with disabilities.

Although Roche is admittedly hard on himself, he has enjoyed the challenge of living his life without “a safety net.”

“Every time I try something or hang in there a little bit longer, I think I win,” he said. “I think that I’ve become a better person for it with a better understanding of things.

“Anytime I can share that with other people, it makes me feel good.”

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