A man who dedicated more than 40 years to helping Islanders reach national and personal success died on Tuesday.
John Wilbert was 74.
“We’ve lost a great coach,” former Sport P.E.I. executive director Dave (Hermie) MacNeill said Wednesday.
“He was devoted to teaching judo as much as anybody in the country,” he added. “He was just a good person and the sort of person we need to be coaching our kids.”
Judo P.E.I. president Michael Sheppard’s two children are part of the Rikidokan Club Wilbert started in the 1980s and was still involved with until his death.
“He taught them judo, but he also taught them respect and life lessons,” said Sheppard, noting Wilbert instilled confidence and concentration in his children.
“It was amazing to see the man work,” Sheppard said. “The more cantankerous he was, you knew the better he was feeling.”
A story that often comes up in talking about Wilbert’s dedication were the many times he drove a van of athletes as far away as Ontario to give them an opportunity to compete and improve.
“John not only used the resources that were available to that particular sport, but I can guarantee you that over the years a lot of the resources that were put into that sport were likely John’s own resources,” MacNeill said.
While the Harrington resident never sought the limelight, he has been recognized multiple times for his dedication to judo. He was inducted into the P.E.I. Sports Hall of Fame and Museum Inc. in October 2015 and is in the Canada Games Hall of Honour.
He received his sixth degree black belt this summer, which made him the most senior judoka on P.E.I.
Many of Wilbert’s former athletes were in attendance to see their sensei recognized at last year’s P.E.I. Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“It’s just an incredible feeling. It’s something that I never expected,” Wilbert said at the time. But “without the athletes, I wouldn’t be here.”
Wilbert arrived in Canada from his native Germany in 1959 and came to P.E.I. from Calgary in 1974. At the time, there was a small group of judo clubs in Charlottetown and Summerside.
He began coaching, and success soon followed.
While a talented coach, MacNeill noted, he also worked tirelessly to improve.
Judo has won 15 medals at the Canada Games, the most by any Island sport, and Wilbert has worked with most of the athletes. He coached national team member Steve Edmonds and juniors like Patrick Knox and Veronica Keefe.
“He can be tough, grouchy and short-tempered to those that don’t know him or only see that hard exterior,” Edmonds said in his introduction speech during Wilbert’s induction night. “But that is not the John we know. The John we know absolutely loves the kids he teaches and will do anything to make them improve and be better. He sees the potential in all his athletes and he has the magic formula in helping those kids achieve their dreams.”
Sport P.E.I. executive director Gemma Koughan called Wilbert a professional coach who was not paid for his work.
“He’s been everything for that sport,” Koughan said.
“He could frustrate you and challenge you, but you would never doubt his passion for his sport and for his athletes,” she added. “He loved them.”
While Wilbert is best known for judo, he also served as P.E.I.’s assistant wrestling coach in 2009 when the Games were held in Prince Edward Island.
“He’s been a shining star as far as P.E.I. sports goes and has been nothing less than spectacular for judo specifically,” Sheppard said.