Judo: Howell is at pains to throw down challenge

Britain unearths a gem who can pick its Olympic challenge off the floor but first she must recover from serious injury
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The Independent Online

Having to pick yourself up off the floor is an occupational hazard in judo, which the Japanese, who invented the art of throwing someone else's weight around, like to call "the gentle way", though in essence it is anything but.

In Britain, the sport has had more than its share of rough and tumbles, on the mat and off, but it now seems to be getting to grips with itself again after the disappointments of the last two Olympics. Bringing the elite competitors together under one roof in Dartford in a new, £5 million centralised performance institute has coincided with an instant surge in results - a fistful of gold medals in the World Cup and a World Championship silver for veteran heavyweight Karina Bryant.

So there is an upbeat tempo again about a sport which has produced 16 Olympic medals for Britain since it was introduced into the Games in 1964 - though none have been gold.

However, there is hope that a real nugget has been unearthed in time for 2012. She is 19-year-old Gemma |Howell, who is described by the chief of British judo, Densign White, as "one of our best Olympic prospects, if not the best".

What makes Howell special, according to her GB coach, former Olympic silver medallist Kate Howey, is her grit and determination to fight on even when the chips are down. It is a quality that she needs to call on right now, a serious training injury having put her out of competition until next year. But in the best traditions of her sport she knows how to pick herself up.

She badly damaged her knee at a training camp in Poland. "I just felt my knee go and I lay on the floor thinking 'Ouch! That shouldn't have happened'," she says. "At first I didn't think I'd torn it but then they told me that the cruciate ligament had gone, which wasn't very good news.

"It meant I was out of the junior worlds and Europeans and World Cup. When they said to me I'd be out for six to nine months I was gutted but I want to make it back as soon as possible. In judo you get injuries all the time but I'd had nothing like that before. Usually you stick on a bit of tape, forget it and get on with it, but it's better that it's happened now and not six months before 2012. I am still able to work on tactical stuff, which at least keeps my mind on the sport."

Howell took up judo at a local club in Wolverhampton. "At school I |enjoyed the usual hockey, athletics and netball stuff but I found judo was my bag. It is that bit different."

She has been voted the most improved female in British judo for the past three years, winning bronze medals in last years's European and World Junior Championships in her under-57kg category. "It's a sport where you do get hurt - I've had knee injuries before, though not as serious as this. When I won my bronze at the worlds, I could barely stand up when I'd finished but it didn't stop me running off the mat because I was so happy."

Her Yorkshire-born mother Suzanne, a teacher, and Howell's twin brother and 14-year-old sister have all moved into an apartment close to the institute to give Gemma some family support. Sister Philippa has also recently taken up judo and is hoping to train at the institute.

"The whole family environment of judo - the social side, as well as the sport itself - really gives you a buzz," says Gemma. "I couldn't have done it without my family and them following me to Dartford, it's tremendous.

"Being out of action like this is horrible. You really miss judo when you can't do it. It's so frustrating. OK, you can do theory and that, but it's not the same. It's worse for me because I am an active person and hate sitting still.

"I can't wait for 2012. I definitely want to be there. All my friends are asking already if I can get them tickets."

According to White, the British Judo Association chairman, Howell's consistency enhances her potential. "She's had great success at junior level and her consistency in the championships in which she has competed is what is required to win medals in the Games," he says.

"If you look at those who win Olympic medals and their history, consistency is the key quality. Gemma is incredibly dedicated and single-minded. While she has a lot to learn, she is in the right place now to do that, working with the new head coach, Patrick Roux, and Kate Howey in a fantastic new set-up where we have a no-compromise attitude which suits the new breed of young athletes like her who have a different attitude."

Howell says the two people she looks up to most in sport are Howey and Dame Kelly Holmes. "Kate because of what she has done in judo and what she is teaching me. Kate is friends with Kelly and she got me Kelly's autograph last year which I was thrilled about.

"I've also read her autobiography and it's really inspiring. She shows that it's possible to have setbacks and injuries and still come through, and that's what I'm determined to do."

Message from an icon: Kate Howey

"I certainly would not bet against Gemma medalling in 2012, knowing her determination and fighting spirit. She is one of these kids that if you tell her to jump, she'll ask: @How high?' This is very good for a coach, but I have to be very careful what I ask her to do, because she takes everything quite literally sometimes.

Obviously her injury has been a bit of a setback but she is doing all the right things during her recovery. She is well over the operation and is back on the mat every day doing very simple things, but she will not return competitively until next March.

This would have been her last year as a junior, so next year is a transitional one and I think she will definitely be pushing Sarah Clark [World Cup gold medallist and former European champion], who will be her great rival in her weight division. With the rehab, I keep having to tell her to stay steady and not to push herself too far.

I have been with her three years now and she is a delightful girl. It was a real shame when she got hurt because she was having such a good year and making great progress. But the support she has from her family has been really helpful in her recovery. You couldn't ask for anything better, they give her everything they can.

Next year we'll be looking to knock Sarah off her No 1 position, but if it doesn't happen then, it will be the year after. Gemma's great strength is her attitude towards fighting; she never gives up. It's one of those things you are born with: either you are a fighter or you are not.

When it gets tough, she simply won't give in, regardless. You can't teach that, which is why it is her biggest asset and she is such a joy to coach."

Kate Howey MBE is the only British judo player to have competed in four Olympics and win two silver medals, in 1992 and 2000. She is now a national coach