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Klee: The Sixth Sense — Story of a U.S. judo champion

By: Paul Klee
September 4, 2014 Updated: September 4, 2014 at 12:20 pm
Caption +
US Paralympian Myles Porter, a silver medalist in Judo, is pictured in the Judo gym at the US Olympic Training Center on Thursday, August 28, 2014. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

On the day Myles Porter asked the president of the United States if he was a wussy, the First Lady agreed that she would like to know, too. On the day Myles hosted a judo demonstration in Times Square, he brought a tiny boy with cerebral palsy onto the stage. Myles gripped the boy's hands into his own, and he flipped himself to the mat as if the boy had the strength of 10 men. The crowd erupted. The boy smiled. Later, Myles cried.

"People could see how happy the kid was," Myles says. "It was beautiful."

On the day his brother showed Myles how to throw a two-seam fastball, his brother had to ice his catching hand. "He's got a cannon for an arm," Mykel Heberling says.

On the day Myles returned to his hometown after several years away, he ran across an old acquaintance. It was a high school football coach, a man who always wore a championship ring from his college days. Almost a decade earlier, the coach told Myles he should quit football.

"He would tell me I couldn't be a running back, that I couldn't see the sweep," Myles says.

Myles approached the table where his coach sat. On this day, Myles also wore a ring. It was a ring he got in 2012. Myles ordered the one with the extra stones.

Yeah, I just got back from Beijing, Myles said. I was there for the Olympic Games.

Myles banged his own ring against the table. The farther the coach walked away, the louder Myles rapped the ring against the table. "Just so he could hear it," Myles says.

I'm standing 10 feet from Myles Porter. He's looking down the hallway at the U.S. Olympic Training Center as he talks to me. He's from Ohio and wearing a T-shirt that screams MICHIGAN FOOTBALL.


It's funny now, his nickname from the sandlot baseball games in Fremont, Ohio: Strikeout King of the Neighborhood.

Myles whiffed a lot. One day his brother painted the baseballs orange. "Just to help him out," Mykel says. On the days Myles connected, the ball traveled far. "If you had a textbook on the perfect baseball swing, he had it. The thing is, he's always been an athlete. It's phenomenal what he's done, but he's a great athlete."

Strikeout King. It's funny now, considering Myles, 28, owns gold, silver and bronze medals in international judo competitions. In a judo tournament at the U.S. Olympic Training Center on Thursday and Friday, Myles is the favorite to win gold at 100 kg.

Not bad for a guy who took up judo because he needed an elective in college. He waited until the final day to sign up. There were other options.

"One was underwater basket-weaving or something. And I can't hold my breath," Myles says between a booming laugh. "Or karate. And I didn't want to be called Daniel-son my whole life."

His approach to judo is different than most. Instead of initiating contact, Myles allows his opponent to grab hold of him. He wants him to get the first grip.

"He reacts and attacks off of that first grip," says his judo coach, Eddie Liddie, a bronze medalist at the 1984 Olympic Games.

His signature move is the Seoinage, a one-armed shoulder throw. It's what Myles used to defeat Brazilian Antonio Silva, his chief rival, in Guadalajara in 2011.

The sound of the match is what Myles remembers most. The rowdy, synchronized chants of the crowd. The instructions from his coach. "Call Me Maybe" blasting through his headphones.

"I know, I know. But that song helps calm me down," Myles says. "It helps me get all my thoughts ready."

As a kid growing up in Ohio, Myles traveled only to Michigan and Kentucky. "My parents could drive me there," he says. Now, Judo has taken him to 30-plus countries, to 35 states, to a meal with Prince Harry. The prince joked with Myles that he couldn't sit at their table.

"Harry goes, 'Sorry, this is only for gold medalists,'" Myles says. "I said, 'Yeah, but I can still throw you.' Missy (Franklin) loved that."

Judo has taken him to the front lawn of the White House. When Barack Obama declined his invitation for a hands-on judo demonstration, the First Lady sided with Myles.

"Michelle Obama said, 'Yeah, are you a wussy? Get on the mat with him!'" Myles recalls.

The president offered a zinger: You can't wrestle me. Do you see those bushes moving?

No, Myles replied.

Good, the president said. My guys are doing their job.


The letters are written in Braille. They are notes from students at a special-needs school in Chicago, from boys and girls with disabilities, from soldiers badly injured in war. Myles glides his fingers across the bumps, his eyes pointing into the distance.

You inspired me, one says. Thank you for the judo demonstration, says another. You gave me the confidence that I can do this.

On the day his family learned Myles Porter was blind, his mother wept.

"Who wants to go to the doctor and hear that their baby is going blind?" Deborah Herberling says.

Myles was 5 months old when they learned he is legally blind, born with a condition called ocular albinism. The blurry object you can see from 100 yards is what Myles can see from 10.

He reads by pushing his iPhone close enough to his face that it casts a shadow over his nose. He's texting a friend to say he's thinking about him. The friend soon will be deployed to Afghanistan. Myles writes, too, like on the day he filled out a form in the office of a guidance counselor. Yes, he scribbled. I would like to join the Army.

"I didn't want my little brother going to war by himself," Myles says. "The Army didn't know I was blind. I just figured I could figure it out once I got there."

His brother told Myles to stay home, that his work is here: You still have USA on your shirt. It might not be in camouflage, but you're still repping your country. You are helping people, just like I am.

Myles sees what he feels. And aren't the things worth seeing those that you feel?

He sees his gold medal from the Paralympic Pan American Games, his silver medal from the U.S. championships, against sighted competition, and his bronze medal from the International Blind Sports Federation World Games. This week in the IBSA world championships at the USOTC, it will be an upset if Myles doesn't see another gold.

In the distance, he sees a dream only he could dream.

"Our optimal goal, since Beijing in 2012, was to make the Paralympics and the Olympics in the same year," he says.

"It's a long shot. It's never been done," says Liddie, the U.S. Paralympic judo coach. "But you can't tell him no. He doesn't hear you."

On the day he entered a judo competition for the first time, Myles had to confirm his disability. The irony, though, is how being blind enabled his greatest ability: To treat the boy with cerebral palsy the same way he treats the president. To invite them all to a judo match. He doesn't see a difference.

"The president, he puts his pants on just like we do," he says. "He just runs the country once he puts them on."

On the day Myles confirmed his disability, he found his ability.

"It's funny. If I wasn't blind, I wouldn't have seen half the things I've seen."

It is true, what they say about losing a sense, that another becomes more acute. In the case of Myles Porter, the clues were always there. His sixth sense came with a twist. It seems he developed an extra heart.


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