Sobell Judo Club stalwart makes history as the first disabled European champion

Hanshi Sampson Sampson (left) with Sobell Judo Club's European disabled champion Karl Summerbell.

Hanshi Sampson Sampson (left) with Sobell Judo Club's European disabled champion Karl Summerbell. - Credit: Archant

Bouncing back in the face of adversity is a commonly-used sporting cliché – but scarcely can it have been more accurately applied than to Karl Summerbell.

The 22-year-old from Angel was born with cerebral palsy, diagnosed with epilepsy as a teenager and underwent brain surgery as well as a leg operation.

Yet, despite having full use of only one side of his body, Summerbell – a student at Sobell Judo Club – has just become a black belt and the first ever disabled European champion of the World Judo Federation.

He won all three of his fights in Thessaloniki, Greece, to claim the gold medal at Under-58kg – one of three secured by the Islington club, along with a silver, to confirm their best-ever performance at the tournament.

“Before the European Championships I’d never met another physically disabled judoka,” Summerbell told the Gazette.

You may also want to watch:

“Until we landed in Greece, it wasn’t even guaranteed there would be a disabled category.

“It was a new and very eye-opening experience – the whole environment felt different. My toughest fight was the first one and the most surprising fight was the third one.

Most Read

“I very nearly messed that up – I was held down and just managed to get out of it. I don’t know how many seconds were left before he would have won.

“I knew there were so many more elements to the significance of the competition, but I tried to block all that out because I just wanted to make my mindset as simple as possible.

“It didn’t sink in until the evening when other members of the squad were saying ‘do you realise what you’ve just done? You’ve just become the first-ever World Judo Federation disabled European champion’.

“I don’t know where the European Championships will be held next year but I certainly want to be there if the opportunity arises.

“You can’t win a European gold medal and never compete again – that’s just cowardly!”

Summerbell first began attending the dojo at Sobell Leisure Centre at the age of three, training under the guidance of the club’s founder and chief instructor, Hanshi Sampson Sampson.

But his epilepsy forced him to give up the sport for four years – and, by the time he was able to return to the dojo following two major operations, Summerbell found he had to handle a new challenge.

“After I was diagnosed with epilepsy, it got to the point where it was dangerous for me to practise, as much for other people as for me – I was having over 15 seizures a day,” Summerbell recalled.

“I always told people I’d be back and I could have come back sooner but the leg operation was in the pipeline so I thought there was no point being out for another year. I wanted it to be right when I got back on the mat.

“Coming back as a senior was a lot harder, though – the disability had more of an effect than in childhood, when nobody else is freakishly strong! But the nature of the martial art and my love for it kept me going.

“When I got knocked down, I’d come back in the next day, get back on the mat and go again.

“There isn’t anyone forcing me to go on the mat – it’s my choice and I’d be lying to myself if I made loads of excuses.”

Summerbell, along with the other Sobell students, practises a traditional form of Japanese judo that is supervised by JFA (Judo for All) UK, an organisation founded by Hanshi Sampson five years ago.

Unlike the British Judo Association version of the sport, JFA promotes more grappling and ground work techniques, as well as placing greater emphasis on etiquette and tradition.

There are now around 2,000 JFA students in the country, including 250 with a wide range of abilities at Sobell, where classes are held every Monday and Wednesday from 8pm.

“Karl’s done exceptionally well,” said Sampson. “ It’s very hard to fight against everybody with one hand and he’s had more losses than anyone – but he’s an incredible human being and he’s always positive.

“Everyone’s been inspired by him and, when he won the gold medal, the rest of the squad were nearly in tears because they’ve seen every struggle, every obstacle he’s faced.”

Sobell junior Abderrahim Rahmani battled through a tough pool in the Under-35kg section and overcame an in-form Bulgarian opponent with an enormous throw to secure the gold medal.

Another junior, Bert Vocaldo, made good use of foot sweeps to clinch a place in the Under-38kg final, where he had to settle for a silver medal after losing out to his Greek opponent.

But there was a gold medal for Sam Sampson Jr, gaining revenge on the Bulgarian judoka who had restricted him to a bronze medal in 2015 as he clinched gold in the senior Under-79kg section this time.

For more information about Sobell Judo Club, call 0771 489 7381 or email

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter