After her sensational silver medal in the women's judo yesterday evening, Gemma Gibbons has a fresh challenge on her hands: Learning how to deal with with the new found fame that comes with becoming a household name overnight.
The Greenwich-born 25-year-old – the only medal winner so far to come from an Olympic borough – is one of the first British athletes of London 2012 to have been thrust from relative obscurity into the international limelight following an against the odds victory. Fans have begun to recognise her backstage, sponsors are clamouring to get near her.
“It hasn't sunk in at all, it's just crazy,” she told The Independent as she finished watching fellow British judoka Karina Bryant fight her way to today's semi finals. “I don't think I’ve quite realised what this medal means – not just to me but to British judo and the fans.”
In many ways her life will never be the same again. In the space of just twelve hours her Twitter followers rose from 660 to more than 23,000 and counting. She's barely had time to catch up with her family. Instead she has found herself chaperoned from studio to interview as the world clamours to hear from Britain's latest surprise sporting star.
“After the competition my family and friends all went to Team GB house and I was whisked off to all the TV studios and stuff,” she recalls of the night she won. “When I came back they'd literally been waiting around for five hours and I think I ended up having about five minutes with them. It was nice to have them all there but I haven't had a proper catch up with them. Maybe in the next couple of days when things have died down I'll ten have the chance to meet up with a some friends and family.”
She finally crawled into bed at 1am but still couldn't sleep.
Gibbons left spectators in tears on Thursday night when she looked skywards after knowing she had secured a medal and mouthed “Thank you mum”. Her mother Jeanette was the one who first got her daughter into judo when she was six years old but died of leukaemia eight years ago.
“She did everything she could to help me in everything in life and especially my judo career,” Gibbons explained, clutching her silver medal in her right hand. “It was my little way of saying thank you because I don't get that opportunity.”
Her victory is something both friends and neighbours are rightly proud of. Ellen Faulkner, 29, who lives directly underneath Gibbons' Charlton flat with her two sons, said she watched, hand on mouth in shock, as Gibbons was on the BBC.
“Oh my God, that’s our Gemma, from upstairs!” she recalled thinking. “I can’t believe it. I take my hat off to her because she really struggled after her mum died. She was only 17, but she picked herself up. She never had much money, but she worked hard and was always going off to train, train, train, and now it’s paid off.”
The one person who has been able to congratulate her in person at the athletes village is her boyfriend and fellow judoka star Euan Burton who delivered a heart-rending apology after he was knocked out earlier this week. Burton was particularly hard on himself, saying he felt like he'd let “everyone down”.
“He was just so disappointed, just gutted,” explains his girlfriend, who has no doubts he will be back to win medals for Team GB. “He's medalled at numerous World and European [competitions] before so he's definitely of the level and could have done it. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. But he's over the moon for me.”
Gibbons herself is now planning to move in with Burton and settle in Edinburgh where she will study a PGCE in physical education while continuing to train for future events.
“I've just got to carry on with the training, try to progress more and deliver more performances like I did yesterday,” she says. As so many of the successful Beijing generation of athletes have learned, the weight of the public's expectations will now be on her shoulders like never before. Will she end up representing Britain at Rio in four years time? “That's the next goal,” she says with a smile.
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