Fairbrother lands on her feet

Philip Nicksan on the British woman looking for glory on the judo mat
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Five years ago, British judo was getting a bit blas about world champions. There was Karen Briggs (who won a remarkable four titles), Diane Bell, Sharon Rendle, and Ann Hughes - women's judo never held its collective head higher.

Now, there is just one - Nicola Fairbrother, the 24-year-old lightweight from Sandhurst, and, not surprisingly, she attracts the bulk of the attention. What's more, she is also a sports journalist in her own right, covering the sport for The Sunday Times, and manages to write about her leading colleagues such as the Olympic silver medallist, Ray Stevens, and herself, which is not an easy thing to do.

In effect, it is a double tightrope - twice the glory or, when there is an unscheduled fall, twice the pain. In a word, pressure.

Well, the British Open in Birmingham last month seemed to turn out to be her worst nightmare. It was supposed to be a warm-up for the European Championships at the same venue this month (11-14 May) - an opportunity to show her supporters what a world champion is all about and to serve notice to her rivals abroad that she is not resting on her laurels.

Her whole career had been characterised by consistency at the big events. After European medals, she took the Olympic silver in Barcelona in 1992, and then the world title in Hamilton, Canada, in 1993. There, remarkably, she threw her highly-skilled Japanese opponent with a throw that she has never really practised - only read in judo books - which demonstrated not only her wide range of techniques, but her spontaneity and courage.

There was no such happy ending to the British Open five weeks ago. There was scarcely a beginning. In the first minute of her first fight (against an unranked French opponent), Fairbrother, who is normally so stable, was thrown by a simple footsweep. Determined to right matters, she rose to her feet - and was thrown again. Though she fought back, she could not produce that perfect throw to secure the match. She was out of the competition.

Despite the public nature of the defeat, it is not something that seems to have marked her. "I was still in an experimental phase,'' she said with a resigned grin. "I was loose and prepared to try things out."

"I can't allow myself to be suffocated by the expectations of others or I won't be able to move," she said. "I know that I haven't been producing my best judo lately because I am trying new techniques - you cannot go into event after event hoping to win with the same throws or ground work. My long-term sights are fixed on Atlanta. But I must take a medal - hopefully the gold - this week, for myself."

This is all part of the resilient but determined nature that has taken Fairbrother to the top. She emerged in the late 1980s from Pinewood Judo Club in Wokingham, one of Britain's leading junior clubs. It was - and still is - run by Don Werner, a coach totally dedicated to his charges. Never part of the British judo hierarchy, Werner travels the world to look after Fairbrother. He was there two years ago in Athens when she won the European title for the second time, sitting amongst the spectactors. Just before she walked on to the mat, you could see her scouring the seats to fix on him - and only then step confidently into the fray.

He was there in Canada when she won the world title, in Gdansk last year when she lost the European title on a technicality. Also, in all these stadiums, was her mother, Lyn, an international gymnastics judge. This dual support has been a major contributory factor to Fairbrother's success.

They saw her through her first major international win - the European junior title in 1987 at 17 - to the European senior bronze she won three years later, and the European title in 1992. This was the era of Roy Inman, the architect of the British women's judo triumphs.

They will be there, in the National Indoor Arena, Birmingham, on Friday, for the preliminary rounds, and then on Sunday for the finals.

But there has been an inevitable change in Fairbrother's personality in the last couple of years. She remains an unlikely-looking champion of a demanding combat sport, being small, blonde, and with the cheeks of a cherub (which, it must be said, hides a fondness for strangles and armlocks). After being in the shadow of so many remarkable figures, she suddenly found herself as the champion that British judo looked towards for a certain medal on all foreign trips.

"It is the price you pay for being world champion," she admitted - but she has prepared for the role. Shortly before Hamilton, she decided she was not tough enough. So, with a couple of friends from the squad, she paid her own way to fight in a competition in Cuba - where the judo is raw and physical. "It was quite a shock, but judo can be like that. Sometimes it can be quick and technical, with skilled throwing; but at other times it is a hard, bruising fight. You have to be prepared for both."

Now 24, Fairbrother remains open and friendly - very different to the intensity of Karen Briggs, for example, who drove herself unremittingly to reach and then stay at the top. This more relaxed attitude allows her to take hiccups like the British Open 1995 in her stride.

In a way, she is the first of a new generation of British world judo champions. She was the first to receive an lite grant, which has given her a financial income commensurate with her status. At the same time, she is clearly heading for a media career when her fighting days are over.

But at the moment, she is more interested in headlines than bylines. Sunday, the day she hopes to be fighting the final for a gold, is her 25th birthday. It is the present she needs to give her fighting career a new momentum and roll it smoothly on to Atlanta.