Judo: Bryant learns to cope with the pressure

Britain's rising female player must rely on skill rather than strength at the World Junior Championships
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The Independent Online
AT 6ft 1in and 95kg Karina Bryant does not need to do judo for self-defence. She started the sport at the age of 11 to make friends when her family moved to a new town.

But now, at 19, she is world junior champion and senior European champion and is, to put it candidly, formidable. Though gentle by temperament, anyone who tried to take liberties would get a very great shock indeed - she is trained by men, practices with men, and has a speed/power/skill ratio that has taken her to the top of her sport in a very short time.

"She is explosive," said Andy Ede, one of her training partners at Camberley Judo Club who is the same weight and height and, in practice, gives no quarter. "You don't often see girls move as fast as that."

This weekend she is in Cali, Colombia, where on Sunday she fights to retain the world junior title which she won in Portugal so emphatically two years ago. And as she has looked so commanding in senior competitions this year - winning the European title in Spain, and throwing Christine Cicot, the French world champion, in the Netherlands - she is tipped to win it again.

But this puts considerable pressure on Bryant, which she has to learn to handle. Sitting on the sofa at her club, she takes a deep breath. "This is a new experience for me," she admitted, and her mind flits back to her first big national competition when, at the age of 14, she fought at Crystal Palace. "I saw all the flags, and all the people, and I remember thinking: "I hope they will be nice to me."

She found out within the first few seconds that judo competition is not being nice to people, but as she was over 6ft at the time, her opponents were probably quaking a lot more than she was, even if they did not show it. Fortunately, Bryant adapts quickly. She won.

Out in Colombia, it will not be so easy. Even though she has faced and beaten many of the top women in the world, she has now become the international target in the women's heavyweight division at both senior and junior (under- 20) level. They will all be studying her - the way she grips around the neck, the way she swivels fast, pulling her opponent on to her hip and throwing them hard. Most of her contests are won by clean hip throws, or footsweeps when she scythes the opposition to the mat.

Her private battle will be to treat the World Championships like any other event. "I enjoy competition, I enjoy the taking part, and the thought of winning a medal," she explains, and will try to do the same in Colombia, despite the unpredictability of it all. For though she may seem to hold all the physical ace cards she is prepared to meet women even bigger than she is.

"The heavyweight category is open - it is just over 78kg. I can, and do, meet women who are taller than me, and weigh 130 kilos and more." Her main rival, the Cuban, whom Bryant threw twice in the Dutch Open earlier this year, matches her for sheer size. "She is very strong, fit and very...," she hesitates, "...persistent." By that Bryant means totally aggressive. If the two meet in the final, it is going to be the kind of combat which would not look out of place in the back streets of Colombia.

This is why it has been the task of Mark Earle, Bryant's coach, to lower the expectations, both of British judo and Bryant herself. "She feels the pressure and so far has coped with it. But up to now, in most of the events she has won, she started as the underdog. No one expected her to win the world title two years ago. And certainly none expected her to win the senior European Championships. Now, she is a marked person."

Bryant lives and trains at her club in an unusual situation. Her parents were foster parents working with long-term and short-term fostering assignments and her background was dominated by family activity.

Her family remains very important to her. But now the club, run by Mark and his wife Bernie, is a kind of surrogate family. There are 18 full- timers who live in dormitory accommodation, including Debbie Allan, the European lightweight silver medallist, and a host of other top players. Bryant shares a room, has posters of bronzed, muscled hulks over her bed, yet lives a disciplined life focused on judo. The day is divided into running, skills training, some weights, and then fighting practice in the evenings.

At the weekend - if she is not fighting in a competition - she goes home. With Allan and others, she also competes for a German club: the money she receives goes not into her pocket but to the Camberley Judo Club.

Her early success has not been won without sacrifice. She has lower back problems (the result of growing so fast) and can only do carefully controlled weight training. "It is difficult because I know that I am not yet strong enough and I need to do more." Skill has to substitute for strength.

She knows that with the World Championships in Birmingham next year people see her as the most likely Briton to scoop the world senior title that the judo fraternity hopes for - even if she is young. And then there is the Sydney Olympics.

Win or lose, the World Junior Championships will be an ideal testing ground.