Looking ahead to the European Championships in Rotterdam next month, Kirsten Taylor on her journey so far, unconventional training methods and her Paralympic aspirations.

Kirsten Taylor is in a white suite gripping her opponent in blue on the tatami.

Growing up in school, Kirsten hated PE: “My teacher didn’t understand how bad my vision was, it was frustrating because I always liked sport but my teacher used to think I was just messing about and I was seen as disruptive”.

That teacher may be forgiven for being a little surprised when they potentially see their once disruptive pupil represent Great Britain at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.

Her experience in school never dampened her love for sport. Kirsten tried her hand at swimming, dressage and athletics – though felt she was overprotected as she recalls not being allowed to take part in sprint training: “They didn’t know what to do with me, I was either completely unsupported or if we were meant to be doing sprints they wanted me to just walk.”

After quitting both athletics and swimming, a chance encounter at a Scottish Disability Sport Have a Go Day in 2016 ignited her love for judo.

“I originally went to get a shot on the fancy tandem bikes, but judo was one of the sports they were doing. I found I quite liked it and the coach who was running it urged me to keep doing it so I left with a phone number to join a club.”

Upon arriving at her first session at Tayside Judo, she was hooked: “I turned up on the first night and there was absolutely no weirdness about my visual impairment. Everyone at the club treated it like it was completely normal.

Kirsten commented on how the positive influence from judo coaches differs from the stereotypical hardened Scottish coach you may find in other sports: “Judo coaches almost seem to take a more laid-back approach, everyone I’ve come into contact with in judo has this ability to make me want to make them proud.”

Even though she was a novice to the sport, Kirsten’s competitive edge couldn’t be tamed “I have always been paralympic focused. Every sport I look at I ask myself, ‘Can I do this at a paralympic level?’ I was thinking how long could it take for me to be at a level where I can compete.”

Her unwavering self-belief was soon rewarded with a place in the Paralympic Pathway Programme with Team GB after some time in the Para Potential Programme, an initiative to develop the next generation of paralympic judoka. The idea of taking part in the Paralympic Games would be enough to leave any athlete feeling the pressure, thankfully Kirsten has enough on her plate to not get bogged down with nerves. “I’ve currently got three dogs, I’ve been taking part in dog shows and dog sports for 18 years and we go to Crufts (the Olympics of the dog world that takes place annually in the UK). It’s totally different from judo and allows me to switch off and focus on something else.”

Kirsten’s main focus for now is the European Championships in Rotterdam next month. Desperate to improve upon last year’s fourth-place finish and leave the Netherlands with a gold medal, a new training plan – integrating two very different sports- has been developed.

Starting pole training alongside rejoining an athletics club may not sound like the usual training routine, but the displays in her recent performances speak for themselves. “It’s made a big difference, the sprint training has made me feel much more in control of contests, like I can outlast my opponents and with pole training I’ve improved my flexibility, I’m moving my body better and I used to be heavy on my feet but now I can twist and roll a lot more.”

Her message to anyone thinking of taking up the sport is simple: “Try judo. Find a club, it’s just so good and I’m pretty sure anyone who tries it will stick to it. We’ve had a good few VI’s (visually impaired athletes) come through Tayside Judo, they turn up and don’t leave! ” she says, “It’s just great, I love judo. Everyone should do it, definitely, more schools should do it.”

With the backing of the JudoScotland community and her six dogs, Kirsten goes into the European Championships full of confidence knowing she found her true calling in judo, a sport that embraced her. Her athletic prowess, coinciding with positive coaches who helped hone her craft, has set Kirsten up for an incredibly exciting future in the sport.