Mike Rowbottom: How Dame Kelly Holmes' words of encouragement as a former Army judo champion did the trick for prospective Olympians
Monday, 14 May 2012
The double Olympic gold medallist (pictured below, with Sebastian Coe) is a former Army judo champion, and as she spoke to the prospective Olympians at the British Judo Performance Institute in Dartford, where final preparations were being made for the European Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, she was able to draw upon extra specialist knowledge to reinforce the message she was hoping to put across.
"It was great to see the players train during this crucial preparation phase," Holmes said. "I had a fabulous morning.
"During the players' break from training I had the opportunity to give a motivational talk to the squad. I drew on experience from my career, including competing at three Olympic Games and the home Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002, to pass on advice to assist them to prepare for London 2012.
"I was then happy to answer any of the judokas' questions and speak to some of them more informally. I also enjoyed catching up with some friends who had been part of Team GB with me at previous Games, such as Kate Howey, who I was privileged to see win her silver medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney."
Cox, who also claimed bronze in the Olympic test event at the London ExCeL Centre in December, is preparing to challenge for a medal in the -52 kilogramme category, eight years after making her Olympic debut as a 22-year-old at the Athens Games – a distinction which she followed by dropping out of the sport for almost five years to teach English at a school in Phuket, in Thailand.
"It was really inspirational to listen to Kelly," Cox told insidethegames. "She was talking about what it takes to get to the Games, and about all the problems she had with injuries and how she eventually overcame those."
Cox herself knows what this challenge is all about having recovered from shoulder and elbow injuries last year before winning her first ever Grand Prix medal, in Amsterdam, in November.
"I knew something about what she was saying because I had been to the Games before," Cox added. "But it was particularly good to hear her on the subject of preparing for the last 10 days or so before competition, and how you have to wrap yourself in cotton wool.
"People think it's just a matter of getting out there and doing your stuff at the Olympics, but you really do have to look at the way you prepare all the way to the day of your first competition.
"It varies from person to person, but for me the mental side of competition is huge. It's all about getting a balance of mental and physical strength.
"And Kelly was talking about the focus you have to have when you actually get down to the competition. She was asking each one of us how much we wanted success. It really brought it home to you.
"A lot of people don't really know what's involved in judo so it was really good that Kelly had such an understanding of the sport, She used a lot of judo references when she was talking to us – she was obviously a very capable judo player herself to be Army champion.
"She said how much she had enjoyed judo when she was in the Army – she has a lot of respect for the sport and was talking about the discipline, skill and coordination you need in judo.
"She also told us about her memories of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, when the only other sport she watched apart from athletics was judo. She said she had felt really elated watching Kate Howey earn her silver medal."
Cox's departure from a sport in which she had earned her black belt as a 15-year-old caused something of a stir. It was not the first time she had raised eyebrows in sport, however.
As a 10-year-old living in Rochdale she was captain of her school's rugby league side and was due to play at Wembley in the traditional 'schoolboys' curtain-raiser to the Challenge Cup final – only to find her path blocked by the North West Counties Schools Rugby League board. Because she was not a boy...
Cox wrote a letter of protest to the Women's Sports Foundation, and earned coverage in the national media. After public outrage the ruling was rescinded, and she made Wembley history as the first female to play rugby league there, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.
But if Cox was ready to step away from the sport, the gathering excitement of London 2012 was largely responsible for her return.
"I was drawn back to judo by the prospect of a home Olympics – and there was also a feeling of unfinished business," she said.
"For me, coming back to the sport after such a long time out has been like getting a new lease of life.
"Taking the time out made me realise how much I really loved the sport. I came back with a renewed hunger to do well. I understand the sport more now, and how I can help myself and others in the sport.
"It was satisfying to get a medal at the test event – it was a very good feeling inside to be doing well at the venue where the Olympics will be held. It felt like a very useful experience."
"It was great for the squad to be able to hear from someone like Kelly," a British Judo spokesman told insidethegames. "There was a big spread in terms of experience – some of our judo players have appeared at several Games while there were others like Hayley Willis, for whom it is all new."
Willis, from Dagenham, had to make an early exit from the training day to get back to school in Stratford – where she was due to sit a French exam.
Britain, as host nation, already has a full complement of 14 places in the Olympic judo discipline, but the selectors will still have some difficult choices to make in some weight categories, given that there will only be one representative in each at London 2012.
Cox, however, has made the -52kg category her own. And she intends to make the most of her second Olympic opportunity.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.