12 for 2012: No 12 Sally Conway, judo player
Our series on potential medal-winners at the London Games in six years' time ends 2006 with a wee marvel of the mat - and hears how her mentor prepared for the greatest show on earth
Sunday 17 December 2006
The first thing you notice about Sally Conway is that she does not have a Scottish accent, even though the air is thickly redolent with Caledonian brogue as she goes about her work in a tiny church hall in the Edinburgh suburb of Leith. The second is that this delightful slip of a girl does not look capable of throwing her own weight around, let alone anyone else's.
Yet here we have one of the brightest prospects in the land in an activity where virtually no holds are barred, including the stranglehold, which, as Lord Sebastian Coe will testify, can render you unconscious rather quickly. Coe's regular judo sparring partner was the former Tory leader William Hague. Conway has never had anyone quite as illustrious as Coe falling at her feet, but there are some beefy blokes who have hurtled over her shoulder as she practises her favourite seoi-nage throw.
Among them is her Scottish boyfriend, Euan Burton, the British No 1 at 81kg, though he is not the reason she has upped sticks from her home in Bristol to live and train in Leith. They met on the mat later, at the Edinburgh Club.
It so happens that the dojo run by the renowned Billy Cusack is one of the most successful and productive judo academies in Britain, and it was to here that the 19-year-old Conway "defected" some 18 months ago. She explains: "I moved to Edinburgh because the training facilities at Bisham Abbey had closed down. My coach at the time with the England juniors, Loretta Cusack [the wife of Billy] suggested that it would be a good move. She was right; the facilities are great and I love it here."
As young fighting prodigies go, Conway may not have the clout of Amir Khan but she could probably put him on his back quicker than you can say ippon. That's judo-speak for a knockout, which Conway would be if she can become the first Briton to strike Olympic gold in the sport which, somewhat paradoxically, translates from the Japanese as "the gentle way". Not that there seems much gentleness about the way she tugs the collars and hacks away at the legs of her opponents.
When the redoubtable Kate Howey won the middleweight silver medal in Sydney in 2000 it was Britain's 16th Olympic judo medal. But the gold proves elusive in a sport which has had its ups and downs. Yet with Craig Fallon and Conway's clubmate Sarah Clark as reigning world and European champions respectively, British judo is under-standably upbeat about Beijing and beyond. Especially as in Conway it now also has the world junior silver medallist at 78kg.
"I have always been interested in sport since I was a youngster but it was my dad, Mark, who introduced me to judo, a sport he was into himself," she says. "I fell in love with it, starting as a 10-year-old with a local club and moving around a bit until I eventually got into the England junior squad.
"What I like about judo, as well as the physical side, is that there is always something new you can learn. Different grips, different holds and different throws. It teaches you about life, too, because you have to be very determined, and it keeps you interested all the time.
"It has taken me around the world, to places like Russia, Ukraine, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, where I won the world juniors silver. I beat a girl from Lithuania and another from Slovenia to whom I had lost in the Europeans. I was also fighting above my normal weight limit at 78kg. I eventually lost to a Japanese in my toughest-ever fight. It lasted the full 12 minutes but I lost on a waza-ari [a score which can be bettered only by a full ippon]."
Conway trains twice a day in the Leith church hall, where the presence of kids aged from three or four upwards, kitted out in their white judogi, suggests the sport has a bright future now that it is beginning to find its feet again. She shares a small flat with two other members of her club, including her boyfriend. And because she concentrates on the sport full-time she says she could not exist without her Lottery subsistence. She is on the "potential" grade of funding of around £7,000 a year.
"It's not a lot really by the time you have paid your rent and food, but I seem to get by, and I hope that if I make progress the funding will increase," she says. She is currently looking for a part-time job which, she insists, must not interfere with her judo. "I have decided the sport and my training must come first. That is the only way to get more medals and more funding."
A couple of weeks ago she won the British senior championships in Sheffield at her normal fighting weight of 70kg, and next year she says she "hopes to win a few more fights" and qualify for the world senior championships, which would be a stepping stone for the Beijing Olympics. But London 2012 is her ultimate goal.
"It will be good to go to Beijing for the experience, but London is really what I have my eye on," she says. "There is a bit of a judo community up here. We are all very close, like a family really, as we see each other virtually every day. For a little judo club there really is a high standard. We are lucky to have such good coaches as Billy [Cusack] and David Somerville, who I work mostly with. I need to improve my newaza (groundwork), and there are a lot of little things to work on."
Obviously in a contact sport there is always a risk of injury, and as a 14-year-old Conway suffered a broken femur. She has also been knocked out. "I don't think it's a dangerous sport. Tough, yes, but not like women's boxing, which actually I quite enjoy watching. I use a few boxing moves myself when I'm working out."
Her coach Somerville describes her as "a tremendous specimen in terms of her physique, even though she is quite small. The fact that she normally competes at under 70kg and was able to win a world junior medal in a higher weight category against some really good opposition is a strong indicator of her potential for London 2012 or even maybe Beijing.
"She showed maturity from the beginning, which made us sit up and take notice. Before she came here she relied a lot on the physical aspect of the sport, but now she realises her real attributes are her technical skills and her work ethic. She is still very young and she is in a great position now having medalled at two weights, so there are options there for the future."
Conway says she often gets ribbed about being a "Sassenach" in Scotland - especially when she cheers for England when watching football on television. She will still only be 25 at the time of the London Olympics and she thinks that there might even be one more Games in which she might compete after that. "Careerwise I haven't really thought much beyond judo; it's my life. It's all I've ever wanted to do, really."
THE ICON: A MESSAGE FROM KATE HOWEY
I am currently working as an elite performance coach with British Judo, so am in a great position of helping some very talented youngsters to develop. But I have to admit that I sometimes find it difficult, and that I want to be back competing myself!
We have a very strong group who are starting to emerge at the moment - I have no doubt that we will have around four or five players on the medal rostrum in London in 2012, and Sally Conway has a great chance of being one of them.
They say that it's difficult to win a medal at an Olympics if you haven't had junior success behind you, and Sally has certainly had that as a world junior silver medallist this year, so the prospects for her in the future are very strong.
We are working to qualify her for the Beijing Olympics, as it will be crucial to gain experience there. It will be a tough call, as she will have to be in Europe's top five to stand a chance of making it to Beijing, but she is a very determined young lady and she will give it her all.
My advice to Sally would be that sometimes she needs to stand back from the sport a bit, as she never stops or gives herself a chance to chill out. These are times to reflect and refocus on the future, and if she can do that I have every confidence of seeing her in 2012.
Kate Howey MBE competed at four Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal at Barcelona in 1992 and a silver at Sydney in 2000. She was also a world champion and is now an elite performance coach with British Judo
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