The second European Games takes centre stage in Belarus later this week and 12 current and former TASS athletes will be flying the flag for dual career sport. Simon Rushworth caught up with Sally Conway (Billy Cusack), who was a TASS funded athlete in 2005/06, ahead of Minsk 2019.
Nothing beats experience according to Sally. And the 32-year-old veteran of two Olympic Games should know. In fact, it’s an increasingly potent weapon in her armoury as she heads into this month’s European Games in Minsk – the latest staging post on the road to Tokyo 2020. “When I was transitioning from junior to senior judo the biggest challenge I faced was compensating for a lack of experience,” said Conway, who received TASS support as a teenager during her time at Bisham Abbey in the noughties.
“I had the skill but that wasn’t always enough against some of the more experienced opponents I came up against. And these days I use that in my favour! When you’re starting out in the senior ranks you just don’t have the mental capacity to get the wins all of the time. Now, when I face a younger opponent, I use all of my experience to gain an advantage. But I’m always looking over my shoulder at the young athletes coming through!”
If there is little room for sentiment in elite sport then Conway is, nevertheless, keen to encourage the next generation of British judoka. At a time when the domestic talent pool appears reassuringly deep, one of the sport’s most famous faces is excited for the future.
“British judo is in a very healthy position right now,” she added. “There have been a number of girls who’ve come through in the last couple of years. As a nation we are making our mark on the Grand Prix circuit and in World and European Championship events at various age groups. The overall level within the UK has gone up massively. It’s really positive as we look ahead to the World Championships and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.’’
“I see plenty of young talent coming through. There are girls who are consistently winning junior events on the world stage and, most importantly, they’re enjoying it. But it’s one thing being the best in your age category and another translating that success to senior judo. Hopefully that will happen, and I know it can.’’
“My advice to anyone coming through and aspiring to represent their country at senior level is to ensure that you still enjoy judo as much as the day you started. I still do. But I learnt how important that was just before the Rio Olympics – if you really enjoy what you’re doing then you’re more likely to perform at your best. Don’t rush things – you have plenty of time to achieve your goals. Be open to new approaches and experiences and never stop learning.”
Fifteen years down the line and Conway still points to TASS support as key to enabling her to gain the international experience required to compete for Olympic medals, Grand Prix glory and a place on the podium at the European Games. “I remember my dad filling in the form at a time when TASS was still relatively new,” she added. “The financial support I received as a teenager enabled me to travel to training camps and competitions overseas and start to build up the experience I lacked. It helped massively at that stage of my career.”
In 2019 Conway has maintained her position as Britain’s foremost -70kg judoka but the Bristol-born athlete has already set her sights on what would be a famous swansong.
“A few weeks after Minsk there’s a big Grand Prix event in Croatia and then the focus turns to the World Championships in Tokyo in August,” she added. “For the Japanese it’s a dry run for the Olympics and we’ll be using the Nippon Budokan.’’
“It’s where the Olympic tournament will take place and I visited it earlier this year. It gave me goosebumps to think I could be back there in 2020 competing in the home of judo. It would be incredible to be part of the games in Tokyo – if I make it then it’s probably going to be my last Olympics but what a place to sign off in!”