Sarah Clark: The real journey begins when you stand back up

I first stepped on to the judo mat at The Kodokwai Judo Club in South Shields, in the North East of England at the age of nine. From the very first session I was hooked, writes Sarah Clark who retired following the Commonwealth Games.

I became part of a fantastic club and a wonderful group of people. Little did I know that over the next 27 years, judo would dominate my life and take me on a journey that I could’ve only dreamed of. A journey that would take me all around the world, where I would meet new people, make friends, have fun, laugh, cry and form fantastic memories. It has had highs, lows and everything in between.

At the Kodokwai, John Pounder became my coach. John taught me ‘good posture’ and ‘good technique’. I then moved up to the ‘senior’ class where Willard Scott began to guide me. Willard would follow and support me at competitions and over the years became a good friend. Unfortunately Willard passed away earlier this year after battling cancer. He was one of my biggest supporters, right until the end.

Over the next few years my judo developed and improved. Judo became what I did. I loved everything about it. My determination, will to win and the ‘never give up’ attitude was all down to my parents. Both my Mam and Dad invested lots of time and money taking me to events and spent many days and evenings in the judo club or a sports hall. There was long car or coach journeys, B & B’s, competition picnics, tears and laughs, wins and losses and the lessons learned. Judo has taught me about respect, responsibility, humility and hard work.

At 18 I moved to Scotland to train full time instead of going off to university. Scotland became home. My choice. Billy Cusack became my coach and I made the transition to The Edinburgh Club, which is still my club today. For 18 years I have trained as a full time athlete and anything else I did revolved around judo. I had some national success, but not so much to begin with. I then started to make slow, steady improvements. I became Commonwealth Games silver medalist in 2002 then in February 2004; I took silver in the Paris Tournament, beginning my journey to Olympic qualification. Billy has been my coach for 18 years and has been through all of the ups and downs, encouraging me when I was at my lowest and being proud during the good times. I believe that without Billy’s technical, tactical and belief in me as a player, I would not be European Champion, beaten some of the best players in the world, or competed in three Olympic games. My trust as an athlete in his coaching has been unquestionable.

My judo career in terms of international medals began a lot later than most athletes. I have been asked on many occasions why I kept competing so long. My answer is that I love judo. I love getting up in the morning, going to training and training as hard and smart as possible. I have also been lucky enough to be able to keep going. I am not Olympic champion. I have not won the medals I set out to but I worked hard and prepared diligently to be the best I could be. I only ever gave 100%. As I look back over my career, I couldn’t have given anymore. However, as I got older, I realized that the medal does not make a person. As I said in another blog, back in 2012, how you conduct yourself, and how you treat others makes a person. How you live your life defines who you are. During my judo career I believe I was disciplined, respectful and showed integrity and in my new endeavours, I will use everything I have learned to be the best I can.

Towards the end of my career, my body has succumbed to the brutal forces of elite sport. It cannot do what it used to do. Post London 2012; having had double ankle surgery, I took a little time out of training to decide if I could continue to Glasgow 2014. I made the right decision. To step out in front of a home crowd, to compete the way I did, makes me proud. This was the one tournament in my career that I truly believe wasn’t fought for myself. I fought the Commonwealth Games for my family, friends, and supporters and for all of the kids in the judo club. I really mean that. This was for them. I owe so much to so many people; every single training partner, Kodokwai Judo Club, The Edinburgh Club, JudoScotland, British Judo, SportScotland Institute of Sport, TeamGB, UKSport, the many support staff that have dealt with me on a day-to-day basis (most recently the Doctors and physios that kept my body in one piece) and many more.

So now I will step away from competitive judo. It is the beginning of a new era, one that will offer new challenges and new pathways to success. I am part of a fantastic family within the judo club. People who love judo and everything it stands for. I have a vision to be part of growing and building the club into more than simply a judo entity. I’d like to play my part in making it a community where the whole family can spend time. That’s how kids and families become more active. Sport has the potential to change the lives of young people. As I’ve got older, I’ve realized that it’s not all about performance; it’s about kids becoming more healthy and active. It’s about being the best you can be. If I can help one child to dream big and enjoy judo as much as I have, I will have been successful.

Finally, on Friday 25th July, the day I became Commonwealth Champion for Scotland, Billy’s dad, Pat Cusack passed away around 5pm. Billy found out right before the finals but still went on to coach myself to gold, Sally Conway to bronze and Patrick Dawson to a 5th place. A true professional.