From plus-sized to black belt: Halifax man says judo “saved his life”

Published on November 1, 2016
Mike Lavoie is pictured at the Nova United Martial Arts dojo.
Metro Halifax/Jeff Harper

HALIFAX - A 45-year-old Halifax man who transformed from a 300-pound smoker into a black-belt judo athlete is raising money to compete on the world stage in the sport he says “saved his life.”

Mike Lavoie says he was a different man when first donned a judo uniform 16 years ago – an overweight, pack-a-day smoker with two parents who died of heart disease.

“I knew I had to do something, or I was probably going to follow in their footsteps,” he says. “I have kids of my own, so I wasn’t interested in going down that road.”

Lavoie says he fell into martial arts after enrolling his eight-year-old son in Judo lessons in the hope the martial art would help the grade-schooler fend off bullies.

After three weeks of training, Lavoie says, the boy threw his father over his back and into the snow while playing in their home backyard.

Both sore and impressed, Lavoie says that’s when it him: “I said, ‘I’ve got to try this.’”

Starting judo training as a “grossly” overweight, 30-year-old man has its pros and cons, according to Lavoie. On the one hand, Lavoie says he usually outsized his opponents, which can be helpful. The downside, he says, was that was that when he was thrown, he hit the ground a lot harder.

Lavoie says he was so out of shape, that every movement was more work for him. According to him, by the end of class he had sweat so much that his sensei would say it looked “like a pipe broke” in the dojo.

While he’s had some bumps and even more bruises along the way, Lavoie says judo “changed everything” for him. Lavoie says he’s 100 pounds leaner than when he began and has packed on 15 pounds of muscle. The part-time handyman says the sport has even helps him outside the dojo.

“It’s given me so much more confidence just in dealing with day-to-day problems,” Lavoie says. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It has saved my life.”

Lavoie is preparing to show off his chops at the world championships for judo “veterans,” the category for athletes above the age of 30, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this November.

Lavoie says there’s little funding for judo competitors in his age bracket, so he’s launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $5,500 for his expenses.

While competing in the highest level for which he is eligible, Lavoie says his sensei at the Nova United Martial Arts studio in Spryfield still regularly puts him on his back.

“Once in awhile I catch him,” Lavoie says, “but that’s why he’s my trainer, because he’s better than me.”

Lavoie says his son has lost interest in judo “since he discovered girls.” But all these years later, Lavoie says he’s ready for a father-son re-match – that is, if he isn’t afraid of his old man.