Fairbrother breathes life into final: Philip Nicksan reports on the dedication and sense of purpose underlining a silver-medal winning performance

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The Independent Online
AT THE beginning of this year no one, perhaps bar the 22- year-old Nicola Fairbrother herself, would have expected to find the British lightweight contesting an Olympic final. She was, it seemed, heading for bronze medal position, just as she had managed in the world championships in Barcelona a year go.

But in May she won the European championships in Paris, beating virtually every major opponent, including the reigning world champion, Miriam Blasco. However, on Friday, in front of the King and Queen of Spain, Blasco turned the tables, winning on a marginal score and forcing Fairbrother to take silver - the sixth Olympic silver medal to be won by British judo fighters since judo was first accepted as a full Olympic sport in 1972.

Winning silver medals in judo is a frustrating business - winning a bronze can feel better, at least in the initial stages. As Ray Stevens pointed out when he won his light heavyweight silver on Tuesday: 'You win a fight to get a bronze, but you lose a fight to get a silver.'

Fairbrother was naturally disappointed to miss out on the gold, especially as it was so close. 'I felt I had Blasco in that strangle towards the end,' she said. 'My arms were in place, and I am sure if the referee had let it continue a few more seconds, Blasco would have gone unconscious.'

But that sense of frustration was balanced by another feeling that bodes well for Fairbrother's future career. When asked which fight she felt was her best of the day she did not select the second round, when she threw Cathy Arnaud, twice world champion, on two occasions; or the semi-final against Nicole Flagothier, of Belgium, whom she threw with sumi- gaeshi, the 'corner throw' which is the corner-stone of her judo.

Her best fight, she said without hesitation, was the final. 'I was very nervous in my first fight - more so than I have ever been,' she admitted. 'But in the final, I came alive. Something came alive inside me more than ever before. And although I didn't win as I did in the European championships, I felt I fought Blasco better than I have ever done.'

This ability, to produce the best at the moment of highest tension, is the mark of a true champion. It has to be backed, of course, by steady personal preparation in fitness and technique - the two wings of judo. And Fairbrother's rise has been helped by the intelligent support from Don Werner, her coach at the Pinewood Judo Club, and the guidance of Roy Inman, the British women's team manager at international level.

However, you cannot teach or inculcate that ability to 'come alive' when you are facing a nation's hero on home ground. She has had inklings of this experience before, and it kept her on the competition road.

As a working journalist - she is a part-time sports writer for the Reading Chronicle and the editor of Judo Today - she has lived a busy life, trying to combine work and sport. Most of the top judo competitors, as in all sports, are training full-time.

She has frequently been told that, with her specialist knowledge of a growing sport like judo, she would not find it hard to make a good living and, during the troughs of competition and training, she must have been tempted.

Since winning that Olympic siler, she would not find it difficult to walk into a job on a national newspaper at considerably more than the pounds 4,000 she gets as an elite grant from the Sports Aid Foundation. But after that experience, when she felt more alive than at any other time in her life, the rush and grab of the journalist's life pall by comparison. At least for the moment. For it indicates, to herself and the world, that Fairbrother did not just peak once, at a lucky moment, but will continue to be champion material for some years to come.