RAY STEVENS, Britain's silver medallist in the 1992 Olympics, returns to top international competition at the British Open on Saturday for the first time since Barcelona. A little more than 10 years ago, when Stevens was still a teenager, we were opposed in the Scottish Open. I was not unduly worried - I had sparred many times with him at my club and never found him a handful particularly. 'A nifty footsweep, as usual,' I thought, and I looked ahead to the next round. We bowed and came to grips. Ten seconds later, I was on my back and that was that.
Now, of course, I can afford to laugh about it. Ever since Stevens won the silver medal in Barcelona, there has been no shame attached to my defeat. There is even a certain cachet. Even now, I can remember the sensation of being propelled through the air on the end of his uchimata (inner thigh throw). As Stevens is welcomed back after injury to the British Open, it is timely to consider his technical proficiency. For the throw that defeated me a decade ago was highly accomplished, especially for a 19-year-old. It was one of those techniques, so often sought but so rarely achieved, where strength is scarcely employed: timing, position and precision are everything.
Stevens is known as the most technically capable fighter in Britain. He has as wide a range of throws - to the left and right - as anyone and there is probably no one to match his ground work in Europe: he can armlock and strangle with impunity.
My experience demonstrated that the mark of a real champion, or a real performer in any art, is the ability to give his very best at the moment of highest pressure. I was reminded of this when Stevens was recalling recently one of his fights at the Olympics, the quarter-final against the dangerous Cuban, Belarmi Salgado.
'I knew something was very different,' Stevens says. 'I could hear his breathing, I could even hear his heartbeat. Everything seemed magnified. It was just him and me. It all seemed to have slowed down, yet it was lightning quick as well.'
This was a peak experience for Stevens, as he admits. He threw Salgado and went on to the final. 'It isn't always like that,' he acknowledges, but he has come close to it often enough for him to know that it is on the mat, in the big competitions, that he can live to his fullest potential.
If it was not for that, he would have given up a long time ago. Stevens is 30, a relatively senior age in judo, even for a light-heavyweight. His fighting career has been dogged by injuries. In 1992, he won his battle against knee injuries just in time to get to the Olympics, where he won his silver as a total outsider. He returned home to a total reconstruction on his right knee. It has taken him nearly two years to return again to full fitness.
'These comebacks don't get any easier,' he says with a smile. 'Your body gets soft and you forget what it is like taking the knocks that are simply a normal part of judo.'
The real question is whether, at 30, he still wants to win badly enough. 'I want to give it my all. I still feel that I can win the gold medal in Atlanta, and until I no longer feel that, I will continue.'
Despite being an Olympic silver medallist, Ray Stevens is on the dole. Because he was injured for the whole of last year, he missed out on the round of grants, receiving no money at all. As a result his personal life has taken more knocks than he has on the mat.
Yet, despite his injuries and his problems away from the sport, he remains the man most likely to win a medal at the European Championships in Poland in May and, arguably, at the World Championships in Tokyo next year. 'I tend to do better at the big international events and there will be a lot of pressure on me this weekend,' he says.
There are large contingents from France, Germany, Brazil and Australia among some 22 countries, but Stevens is philosophical: 'I can only do my best on the day,' he says. 'One of the good things about the Olympic silver medal is that I no longer have to prove myself.'
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